Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Music of Pat Metheny: Sueño con México (Orchestrion Edition)



Time to delve into another gem from the masterful Pat Metheny. This is from one of his solo albums (New Chautauqua) released in 1979, and as the story goes, the song was something he wrote up quite hurriedly as he became aware that he was one song short for the record. The original recording is an outstanding piece of work, wrapped around this beautiful weaving of music against a baseline arpeggio that is hypnotizing to say the least.

However, I will not be focusing on the original recording. In 2010, Metheny exposed the world to his idiosyncratic labour of love: Orchestrion. Sure, this was yet another of his solo albums, but one with a twist: he had the backing of a whole slew of musical instruments, specifically designed for the endeavour, that he was able to activate at will. He used this to good effect, and came up with 5 original compositions to showcase this project. However, after going on tour, he would dabble in some improv work using the orchestrion instruments, and he even gave some of his old tunes a fresh spin. This is of course what led to his spin-off album, The Orchestrion Project, which dropped in 2012. This album, inspired by his Orchestrion tour, was an expansion of his original orchestrion work featuring aforementioned new improv material and a few of his old hits.

And this is where we pick up things with his new rendition of Sueño con México. This rendition breathes a whole new life to the original (similar to what happened with The Way Up); the palette has been expanded greatly for this song. We end up going from the whimsy of a piece designed last minute in a Stuttgart hotel, to an even more tightly hemmed piece of music; whereas the original composition is a more nuanced quiet piece, this time around it's more full blown and expressive. The arpeggios underlying the song are more vibrant, and the extra percussion from cymbals, piano, bass, etc., used sparingly in bursts, amplifies the emotiveness of the piece.

Within this soundscape, Metheny still stands front and centre with his guitar and this time around he has a true semblance of a solo (which the original recording never really had). The solo has two distinct parts: at first he plays all his flourishes accompanied chiefly by the underlying arpeggio, and adds splashes of the orchestrion to accent his work; the second part is more subdued with just a bit more yearning conveyed by his guitar. Perhaps his finest moment comes in a roughly 1 minute stretch starting from the 6:40 mark; and within that stretch, 7:19 to 7:44 consists of some of the finest notes I've heard committed to music. So much elation, it just sounds like a stairway to Heaven. 

I enjoyed the original Sueño con México, but I adore the reinvented edition of the song, and I can truly call it one of my favourites. I love that he can still reinvent his classics anew, and use them to inspire a new generation. Thank God for such blessings. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Things That Medical School Won't Teach You (6) - Don't be afraid to diagnose death



It has been one of those trying weeks at the office. Lately it just feels like I'm stuck in a rut and the job isn't fulfilling. Even worse is the loss of patients; seems likes it's more traumatizing in these past few days. Despite working at a hospital, it's still easy to take it for granted that these vulnerable souls could just up and expire on you at a moment's notice. Makes you think twice about that expression "Sleep is the cousin of Death!"

With all the death we encounter, you'd think that there would be some special training to help us steel our nerves and encourage us despite the amount of loss we witness; training that would keep our minds at peace, so that we could be able to impart some form of closure and finality to the grieving relatives that we interact with on a regular basis. The answer to this is, of course, a big resounding NO!

I honestly can't recall any of my med school classes that evenly remotely mentioned the concept of death (beyond the usual sterile "cessation of all bodily functions" package). In fact, it's only been earlier this year in a Counselling CME (Continuous Medical Education) seminar when this issue was really broached for the first time. However, as in all things medically-related, we just have to make do with on-the-job training, usually carried out on your own. So next time you get a doctor with a questionable bedside manner delivering bad news to you, it might not entirely be his/her fault. Blame the profession.

I'm reminded of one experience that occurred during my internship while I was in the middle of my surgical rotation. On that particular day, I was manning my casualty post when an ambulance pulled up to the adjacent parking area. Convinced that an ambulance pulling up most likely signified either an Obstetric/Gynecology (Obs/Gyne) or Surgical emergency, I silently prayed that this was one for the Obs/Gyne team. (...and of course when I was in my Obs/Gyne rotation, I prayed the opposite prayer).
In a departure from the norm, the ambulance just sat there parked without anything apparently meaningful happening. I took a walk down to the Nurse-in-Charge's office so I could get some idea of what was going down. Turns out that the EMTs/Paramedics had ferried a victim (elderly adult male) of a road traffic accident that occurred in an adjacent county to our facility. This irked us to no end for a couple of reasons:

  1. There is a protocol in place to follow when referring/bringing patients to our facility, which usually involves communicating with the Nurse-in-charge so that proper preparations can be made. Many people tended to ignore this common courtesy.
  2. More often than not, some counties are particularly notorious for off-loading their workload by referring patients that they could satisfactorily deal with within their own county facilities.
  3. With the advent of devolution, multiple county heads had acquired ambulances at a rate incongruent to the money they had invested in medical facilities. What this meant was that (as mentioned above), it was easier to handle an emergency situation by just dumping a patient at another hospital's doorstep.
So what we had was an actual stalemate. The ambulance had ferried an accident victim who was in urgent need of an ICU, but all our ICU beds were occupied (which they would have found out if they had bothered to inquire first); they were, of course, unwilling to transport the patient to another hospital or return him back from whence he came; our Nurse-in-Charge was sticking to her guns, and as per protocol, was not going to take responsibility for the patient.

I figure the ambulance had been parked for 30 minutes while this whole scenario played out. Finally, I made the decision to examine the patient within the ambulance to find out exactly what we were dealing with. So I step into the ambulance and the patient is eerily quiet; all I get from him is seriously laboured breathing. He's neither responsive to my voice or painful stimuli of any sort, and his eyes are closed shut; once pried open, his pupils are slightly dilated and not responding to a light stimulus. On the plus side, he did have a steady pulse. Thus, on the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS), this patient registers an all-time low of "3".


Now any medic knows that this patient's breathing is going to be the next thing to go; devoid of an ICU with ventilatory support when that happens, death will most definitely ensue.
I relayed my findings to the Nurse-in-Charge, and we shared an ominous silence between us. The patient had no relatives/guardians that could organize for him to be taken to another facility, so he was stuck either way. Seeing as we really had no good choices, we opted to keep him in our casualty area, providing supplemental oxygen and as much supportive management as we could muster under the circumstances.

He lasted a good 2 days in that state (longer than I had actually anticipated), but in the end he passed away.

Despite all my experiences with death, even I fail to see how I would prepare a lesson to adequately prepare fledgling colleagues for what awaits them in the field. Every death encountered is as diverse as every life lived. You will watch some lives snuffed out within the few minutes you encounter them, and yet with others it will be a "slow burn" where you will get to experience the patient's life and those of their relatives for a prolonged period. And in itself, this notion of time is certainly a fluid concept: you could live a lifetime in the few minutes that you spend trying to resuscitate a newborn child, or, as in my experience with Edna, the 5 hours you spend with a practical stranger.

In my experience, I have found that you shouldn't be afraid to diagnose death! I'm not talking about that morbid movie-type experience where a doctor says something along the lines of you having 6 months to live (nothing is ever really that clear-cut); rather, you need to develop an acumen for seeing it coming. After being around death for such a long time, you and your colleagues develop a knack for predicting it (especially the nurses); in my Paediatrics rotation, I discovered that mothers are very good at sensing minute changes in their children's state, so when a mother asks you to check up on her child, kindly do it.

Any well trained health worker knows that recognizing the GCS will steer you right (except maybe in the tricky case of career alcoholics!). Thus, as a matter of fact, impending death is easy to predict in most cases, but occasionally it just sneaks up on you; I've had cases where we've fought out the worst of the patients' battles, and just as it appeared they were on the road to recovery, the war ended. So, in essence, the work of medical staff truly is that arm-wrestling match immortalized in my intro illustration. And in the end, we always lose!(...it is appointed for all men to die once, and after that comes judgment...).

Morbid as that may sound, death is not always the grim experience we all imagine; if handled correctly, it can provide closure to those left behind, a culmination of a life well lived. Pair that with the belief that people have of the afterlife, and you end up understanding that death is not the "be all and end all" of everything; it's just a phase.

I remember that during my first few months in China, I struck up a friendship with a young practising doctor from Mauritius named Javed. In the course of mentoring me, he gave me one quote that's stuck with me till today:
We treat, but God provides the healing!
There's only so much that you can be expected to achieve by the instruments and measures of your time/era, and death is always an inevitability, so be humble in your practice. A 'God Complex' is a liability to any true health worker worth their salt; do not give people false hope, but neither should you aim to dash their hopes underfoot; always do your best for your patients, and rely on all members of your team to get you through all eventualities. None of us is perfect, but as I've mentioned before, working with this segment of society is a privilege (despite its taxing nature); therein lies a blessing and a daily perfecting grace.

God Bless

      

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Musical Journey from Dilla to Bacharach

J Dilla by Jed Cablao (Deviant Art)

I happened to be on Soundcloud the other day just randomly checking for music, and I came across one of DJ Jazzy Jeff's sets. I'm more familiar with his work as an actor on "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air", but the originator of the Transformer scratch is an actual practising DJ. The set he was playing was a tribute to J Dilla; I believe "Dilla" or "Dillalude" was my original search parameter. The Dillalude was actually my introduction to musician Robert Glasper - accomplished pianist and J Dilla fanboy - who does an interesting interpretation of Common's "TheLonious" (another track produced by J. Dilla). I'm always searching for new interpretations of the Dillalude, in which Glasper manages to sneak in multiple of Dilla's productions.

Anyway, back to DJ Jazzy Jeff's "Dilla Tribute" set. It was touted as containing both his well known, lesser known and even unreleased tracks. Around the quarter mark, DJ Jazzy Jeff starts playing an obviously older track that had a haunting Oboe intro that segued into this rapid keyboard rhythm accompanied by light rapid fire drums. This gave way to the graceful female singer who sings a difficult quick tempo part; shortly after, the rest of the band joins in the singing of the chorus, adding great shades of harmony to the whole effort. And then, it happens: Jeff starts to fade out the track, and appears to be modulating the track as another male voice starts to drop the intro to a rap song. Then the heavy bassline drops and the rap song continues buoyed by the looped modulated chorus motif from the previous band.

With a bit of an assist from the Shazam app, I was able to swiftly pin down both tracks. "Knowing when to Leave" (from The Burt Bacharach Medley) by the Carpenters and "Yum Yum" by Slum Village. Great work by Dilla on the sampling job, but the final product seemed a bit raw because the bass guitar he added to the mix seems a tad overpowering. Also, the vocals seem a bit washed out (probably a recording issue). The Carpenters on the other hand are a whole other story. Karen's vocals are unmatched, and coincidentally she also plays the drums on the track. Richard is light, swift and enchanting on the keys. However, while Dilla samples their track, the Carpenters are actually covering someone else's music. Yep, Burt Bacharach & Hal David to be exact. When they originally made this track, they had frequent collaborator Dionne Warwick doing the singing.

From reading up on some of the comments about the Carpenters' video on Youtube, I found out that President Obama had a night of music at the White House which honoured Burt Bacharach (& Hal David posthumously) with the 2012 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Conveniently, the whole performance was on Youtube and was a star-studded affair in which various musicians (Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall, Arturo Sandoval, Sheryl Crow, Mike Meyers? et al) took turns in singing Bacharach/David hits. You have to witness how much virtuosity one person can plug into playing the harmonica when you get to experience Stevie Wonder's extended solo on "Alfie". However, my highlight from the whole event was Sheléa and Arturo Sandoval on "Anyone Who Had a Heart"

I'm surprised I'd never heard of this ballad before because it has done quite the rounds. Originally performed by frequent Bacharach/David alum Dionne Warwick, it has been covered by many an artist, with each artist making the song their own. No proof of this is more evident than in Luther Vandross' rendition of the ballad. To her credit, Sheléa also make this song her own. Her vocals stamp their authority on her beautiful piano playing; starting out as a mere whisper, her singing reaches a crescendo that has her sounding part Whitney Houston, part Tamia. She conveys the full range of emotion from pining to hurt to desperation, and she'll leave you engrossed. A sprinkling of Mr. Sandoval's horn brings the full melancholy into this song. The Bacharach/David team certainly deserved to be feted for just this gem alone.

It certainly proved to be quite the musical marathon in one short evening. It has definitely opened up a wide range of artists and genres for me to explore. Thankfully though, between Youtube and the rest of the net, I think I'll be up to the task.

As you embark on your musical journeys, may God speed you well.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

ELECTION DAY


Considering how much ambivalaence I've encountered among my fellow Kenyans when I ask them about voting, I'm still pretty psyched. This happens to the first time I've actually been able to vote out of the 4 times that I've been eligible. Don't count it as a dereliction of civic duty on my part; I've just never been around for the previous elections. So I definitely didn't want to miss my chance. I even got my voter's card way before the deadline hit (a surprise for a typical procrastinator like myself). Wasn't too happy at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission's (IEBC) decision to ask people to report back to their voting stations for verification (as if I didn't provide all the necessary details first time around), but they saved face by making the verification an SMS/Online affair. Thanks to this, I even knew beforehand which line I would be in during the voting exercise: No. 11 at the PCEA Enchorro Emuny Primary School in Ngong!

So all I had to do was bide my time and prepare for the day at hand. So today I was up by 4.30 am, done with preparations and out of the house by 5.45 am. Fearing for the worst with regards to my car, I made arrangements to park it within a family friend's compound, which was a convenient 3 minute walk from the voting station. As I drove, it was quite the sight to behold: cars parked along the roadside in droves, and an amorphous massing of people at the school gate. The IEBC had assured people that it would really be an easy process whereby we would just walk in and we'd be shown into which lines we were supposed to queue, so I thought the process would be easy. I was wrong!

So, I walked into the school compound, under the cover of darkness, and just run into total pandemonium. Lines of people as far as the eye can see, and very little indication as to where I was supposed to go. Started to look for an official, but they were few and far-in-between. I had saved a PDF of my voter details, so I had it on my phone screen for easy reference. By the time I did find an official, he just pointed me off to some far off corner and went on his merry way. So, Plan B: walk up to people in lines and find out what specific line they were in. For reference, the IEBC chose the first letter of the first name appearing in your ID as the signifier for the line that you would queue in.

Casting my gaze further afield, I could just barely make out some numbers on classroom doors; so, I just had to look for the door labelled 11. Trust you me, this had already taken all of 15 minutes. But, it wasn't the end. Lines 11 - 13 were actually located on the upper level of the school building, with, up until that point, no obvious observable staircase leading to the polling stations. After asking around, finally settled into one line that I believed was a combination 11/12/13 line; I was relieved of this notion when one Administration Police Officer (AP) walked by, and told us that Line 11 was actually separate from 12/13, which saw me move ahead.

Once I was sure I was in the right line (knock on wood), I was sure that the only thing I'd have to endure was an appreciable wait....but there was more than that. First off, the upper level of that school building was the things that'd make an Emergency Preparedness Coordinator cringe: only one stairwell packed to the brim by the two lines of individuals ascending; a few stragglers milling through the middle, some genuinely geriatric, invalid or with child, and others lost or trying to skip the queue; and to cap it off, this was also the only exit for people who had cast their votes.

The permutations for all the things that could have gone disastrously wrong within that scenario are baffling. Having just completed some Life Support Training courses, I tried to imagine how that understaffed voting station would have dealt with someone suffering a fainting spell, heart attack, etc. My biggest gripe is with the building design specifically. Even on an ordinary school day, if a fire breaks out or a panic arises because of an "explosion", students will basically be trampled in a stampede through that one narrow stairwell. Sometimes we only ever survive because of God's grace because we fail to plan for the simplest eventualities; and as one of my Surgical Consultants (Dr. Oigara) always used to say,

Failing to plan is planning to fail      

Of course when you've been in a line for a prolonged period of time, the shady Kenyan characters start to crop up. I'm talking blatant line-cutters, ladies using the ruse of carrying the same child so that they can basically rock up to the line ahead of everyone else; and then they're those irritating characters in the back of the line who act like those ahead of them are slowing down the line, as if we ever had any possibility of influencing the events ahead of us. (these are probably the same impatient individuals who cause a fuss during traffic jams).

So it basically took me 3 hours and 50 minutes to complete this simple task. Mind you, many people tell me that conditions were better this time around. If I'm led to believe that the IEBC has actually learned from its mistakes and performed better this time around, then it would be something of a quantum leap to expect them to have a trouble free election anytime soon. I recognize that they have had some unique challenges this time around (being reconstituted afresh, having their IT Manager murdered, constant court challenges), but some logistical issues are not hard to solve.

First off, they've got to view the voters as mere monkeys, Sheep, or Children, if you please. We are basically showing up to an alien environment, and we are definitely bound to be confused. Their main function is to:

  1. get us in line
  2. get us into the voting booth to cast our votes
  3. get us out so we can go on our merry way without making a nuisance of ourselves
And for Heaven's sake, they need to have a dry-run before the election day so that they can test the system out. Hoping for things to fall into place without any practice when 1000+ sheeple rock up to the spot is impossible. Barring any technical difficulties from their biometric system, they could probably shave off at least one hour from everyone's wait time.

Anyway, the day's done and nothing unbecoming has happened. I'm hoping to just be able to sit things out at home, and hope all things turn out peacefully. At the end of the day, come what may, peace and a normal semblance of life is what we crave for. We can sort out the other political stuff later.

God Bless. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ngong: Is devolution helping?



If you know me well enough by now, you'd know that I am not a fan of devolution as it has taken place in Kenya over the last few years. The idea behind it was noble: development spread over the country, even to those hinterland areas that had been marginalized for the longest time. At its heart, the notion that you could provide a myriad of services to the people within their localities, such that they wouldn't be required to pass through Nairobi seemed like a win-win situation.

However, as with most things Kenyan, the concept is beautiful, but the implementation is a disaster. Too much political finagling has since saddled us with a heavy debt burden; we have too many counties, most of which exist to settle political points. Each of these units has too much political representation taking home massive salaries and delivering nothing in return. And finally, the counties merely devolved a problem that was faced by the central government: weak institutions and poor accountability for the manner in which money is spent. This has exacerbated the "leaky cauldron" syndrome, and thus the country as a whole is just hemorrhaging money that was meant to spur development.

Lest I be labelled as a person who's all about theories, I give you now the example of Ngong Town. Situated approximately 20 kilometres from the city centre, Ngong is one of those areas that seemed poised to take off as a part of "Greater Nairobi". Basically, as space and prices become more prohibitive in Nairobi, Ngong could very easily have morphed into an ideal suburb.

I've basically called Ngong my home since late 1989 when my parents moved us out here (despite much protestation). A staple of the town was its big market located right at its centre; on the periphery of the market was a Bus/Matatu stage/terminus where people could catch a bus onwards to Nairobi via Ngong Road or via Kiserian. I've been informed lately that the spot may actually all have been a terminus, and was encroached on by the market sellers (I still remain unconvinced).

Anyway, not much has gone on in terms of development at the market place for a long time; it remained the same village type installation with little in terms of improvement. When the devolution bug hit us, at least initially, nothing changed either. However, circa early this year, I noted that the market area had been cleared out. Unfortunately for most drivers, who already have a problem driving through that portion of Ngong Rd. surrounding the market, the market stalls ended up being uprooted and deposited on either side of the road's "pavement" area.




It was bad enough driving through before; now, it's a situation akin to driving through Kawangware. The obstacles are plenty: pedestrians, animals, motorcycles and matatus. You are literally moments away from knocking someone down or running into one accident or another; to add insult to injury, this is one of those areas where a rowdy crowd can mushroom at a moment's notice - especially the motorcycle fraternity - and you could be in for a very hefty "shakedown".

This is really a development failure. Granted, I hear people mention that there are plans to relocate the market, or perhaps even build a storeyed building where it will be housed; however, I feel like the market should have been the first priority in this case. As I drive past that parking lot, I see that some matatus have started using the parking areas; but, on the other hand, I still deal with the marked nuisance of the matatus that refuse to use the parking area and willing obstruct traffic along the road as they collect their customers. Apparently without the watchful eye of the law to steer them straight, it's just business as usual.

From a cost-benefit analysis, we would have received much bigger gains from upgrading the market first. Lord knows in this day and age of Cholera, we should prioritize measures that'll safeguard our food safety. I have hoped for the longest time that Kenya would adopt an organized "Farmers Market" model similar to what's done in the US and Europe. We need to prioritize this very basic concept, and try to add more value to this portion of the agricultural supply-demand chain. The matatu industry is a rogue that can only be tamed by concerted political effort (..but then, this is an election year, so no one in their right mind will be trying to needlessly unsettle this particularly big portion of the electorate). So, why spend money so frivolously?

I don't have photographic evidence here, but lately I've come across a board erected at the parking lot which proudly states that this is a World Bank-funded project. Seriously! How can free-thinking independent Kenyans not be ashamed at needing the World Bank to sponsor the construction of a mere parking lot? How can anyone excuse running up a debt (yes, this is indeed debt) for such a simple project? No doubt the project was inflated so that pockets ended up lined in the process, but seriously, this is why we can't have good things.   

Kenya looked at Devolution as a salve for the issue of  skewed development in the country; however, without applying any sort of Discipline to all these efforts, nothing meaningful will really be achieved. I'd dare say that Discipline pegged to our previous non-devolved administration would have brought the change we desire at a much faster rate (and it would have been cheaper too).

Unfortunately, short of a miracle, it seems we're doomed to ride this devolution train until we either get it right, or it bankrupts us enough to have to make a major change. Come what may, even for this realist, it pays to have faith at least once in a while. So my eyes are open, and in my heart I retain some hope that sober minds will eventually prevail and that we will mature as a country and as a people. We just have to.

God Bless

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Spider-Man Homecoming: Spoiler-Free Review



Seems like new movies are creeping up on me a mile a minute these days. Been meaning to watch a whole bunch, but I've just ended up being caught up in a lot of stuff. Just this past Thursday, while walking through Nakumatt Junction, I got wind of the fact that Spider-man: Homecoming was playing in the theaters; with my past luck with missing out on Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol.2, I figured I might as well quit procrastinating and just get over with watching the latest spidey installment.

Truth be told, I would really have loved to watch it at the Nairobi IMAX, but the IMAX has been disappointing me lately. They have perfected the art of unprofessionalism, harkening back more to their days as 20th Century Cinema than actual IMAX. So, until further notice, I will be giving them the widest of berths. I chose to go with the tried and trusted Century Cinemax at the Junction, beating out the characteristic Sunday afternoon Ngong Road traffic, and arriving with some time to spare.

Gotta say that the new Marvel Studios logo intro is astounding. Paired with that famous animated spidey theme set to great brass, you can't help but become nostalgic.

People have sworn that this is the spidey characterization that they've been waiting to see because apparently Tom Holland gives off that true vibe of spidey as a kid with high school struggles getting in the way of the superhero biz. It's not exactly something that I've fancied. In our first introduction to Spidey, we have him geeking out "taped-footage" style about his involvement in the events of Civil War. His frenetic energy came off as a bit irritating, more akin to TV's Ultimate Spider-man (a disgrace to previous animated forays) as opposed to more serious spidey affairs. I am glad to say that things were toned down, and that nervous fanboy energy dissipated very quickly.

I'm also glad that Tony Stark was used very sparingly in this movie. With all his appearances in the trailers, I had the gloomy impression that this movie might have played out like Iron Man 3.5 (in other words, atrocious!) But, as I've mentioned, he is only sprinkled in when he's really needed. They have of course gone with the Ultimate Spiderman type scenario where Spidey is being looked at as a possible fit for this iteration of the Avengers; and all this occurs under the tutelage of Tony Stark (and a much irritated Happy Hogan). Therefore, under the cover of a Stark Enterprises internship, spidey's basically looking for a chance to impress Tony and fast track his way into the Avengers; turns out that he's mostly ignored, and the friendly neighbourhood Spidey gig starts to bore him.

This is where the Vulture and his crew come in. The first 5 minutes of the movie is actually a quick intro to this crew (Adrian Toomes et. al). In another beautiful tying up of the MCU continuity, as occurred in Captain America: Civil War, we are introduced to the working stiffs whose job it is to clear up after the Avengers saved us from the initial otherworldly attack. In a stroke of bad luck, Damage Control (a Tony Stark/Federal Government outfit) pulls the kind of juris-my-diction move that basically takes the food off their table. Therefore, while sitting on a stash of uncatalogued alien-tech, and the skills to retrofit it for some nefarious applications, the crew basically puts together an operation that brings in the money on the black market, and puts the tech in the hands of lowly thugs. This thus becomes Spidey's make-or-break mission to prove that he's a worthy superhero whether he gets the backing or not.

I'm glad to say that you will walk into this movie very surprised; despite all the TV spots that were churned out, a lot of the story is still wrapped up tight such that you'd have to watch the movie to get any true sort of exposition. The movie actually did a lot with its 2 hr 13 min runtime: I was pleasantly surprised at how elaborately we get to follow Peter's progression, mix in a love interest, the Avengers' angle, and twists and turns with the villain. The superhero set pieces are also quite well done. Two standouts, without really giving anything away, are the Washington Monument rescue and the Ship Rescue. Seeing him attempt to hold that ship together echoed Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man 2 train scene; but, it also reminded me of Superman's airplane rescue from Superman Returns. I think those moments really grounded this Spider-Man, because even at these points that he's facing major insurmountable odd (stemming from his own weaknesses) he's still braving the odds to save the bystanders.  

Tom Holland is a great Spidey and a Peter Parker to boot. This is not the down-on-his-luck Spidey that we got from Tobey MaGuire, and neither is it the socially awkward ultra-jokesy Andrew Garfield iteration. We don't get a single mention about Uncle Ben this time around; rather, we only get to see Peter's interaction with his very young  (eye candy) Aunt May. Peter's life is mostly school and geeky shenanigans with his friend, Ned (who very early on learns Peter's secret). He is still amateurish as Spidey; his improved spider suit is a gift from Tony Stark, but it comes with a very elaborate leash which basically has him on "training wheels." This movie is interesting for examining one issue that is unique to our web-slinging hero and wasn't addressed in past versions: basically, how does he get around when you place him in an environment devoid of tall buildings to swing from? It is really hilarious to see how the dynamics turn out.

Marvel gets a bad wrap for having very weak villains. Apart from Loki (and maybe the Red Skull), most of their villains haven't exactly been memorable or insurmountable. Michael Keaton's "Vulture" is definitely a stellar addition. His motives are clear, and even when he's menacing he still retains a kind of likeability. Sure, he is a bad guy, and he does some unforgivable things, but unlike a Joker out for chaos, he's the kind of bad guy who is doing just enough that he gets to achieve his goal and avoids the heavy hit; essentially, staying under the radar. Marvel has finally gotten a villain right.
I have to mention that this movie has multiple villains, but they are really secondary characters; this safely keeps the attention on the Vulture, and prevents any Spider-man 3/Amazing Spider-man 2 missteps. I would absolutely be hyped for a Sinister 6 scenario if they can pay attention to these dynamics.

Ned (Jacob Batalon) was actually a good addition, providing the true support to Spidey's heroing. It could easily have been a cringe worthy gimmick that wrecked Homecoming, but it gives Peter a soundboard for some of his bad decisions, and a genius sidekick to help an amateur out. Jennifer Connelly as Karen, the AI in Spidey's suit, was yet another master stroke. Wonder if it's a coincidence that she's playing a role very similar to her husband's (Paul Bettany aka Jarvis aka Vision). She pokes as much fun at our hero's missteps as a sarcastic Jarvis did with Iron Man; was good to have that back-and-forth in this movie, especially as we get the exposition on how "extra" Tony went when upgrading the suit.

Zendaya's "Michelle" is just a counter-culture kid who is used to poke deadpan fun in various scenarios; but it seems her character was mostly hyped up, because Peter's love interest, Liz (Laura Harrier) has a more prominent role this time around. It remains to be seen what the MCU will do with Michelle's character in upcoming installments in light of the nickname she mentions towards the end of the movie.

I enjoyed the movie, and it flowed seamlessly from start to finish...with one exception. This movie comes after Civil War in the MCU canon, but there seems to be a slight discrepancy with regards to the Avengers' base of operations. This would lead me into spoiler territory, so it might be better for you to explore it yourself when you watch the movie. On another note, if you can watch this at a decent IMAX, I'd recommend that you see it there; if not, you might be better off watching it in 2-D. I really hope James Cameron's glassless 3D takes off, because I have never enjoyed the cumbersome experience of donning a pair of glasses just to watch a movie (totally intrusive).

All in all, I give this movie my highest seal of approval; give it a try and you won't regret it.

God Bless.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Music of Acoustic Alchemy: Red Dust & Spanish Lace

The music of Acoustic Alchemy takes me back to my Messiah College days. I discovered the group sometime in 2003 thanks to Launchcast, a great Yahoo! internet music service that is currently defunct. I run across the service during those late summer nights when I'd get off work and just spend my time online until the sun came up; it basically kept me going till I could eat breakfast, and then get some sleep.

Since my music preferences were mostly set for "Jazz" and "Easy Listening", Acoustic Alchemy eventually popped up one day...and I was hooked. I remember checking out their website, and they had this player which played the full tracks from (as far as I can remember it) two of their last albums: The Beautiful Game and Aart. Aart was my first purchase from them, and, consequently, the album I used to introduce my brothers to the group. It's notable for having one of my favourite Acoustic Alchemy songs - "Passion Play" - and in 2012, during my twin brother's wedding, the groomsmen marched in to the church to the tune of "The Velvet Swing".

Anyway, I continued to follow the group, and later that year they released "Radio Contact", which I also ended up purchasing, in addition to some of their back catalog. As luck would have it, they ended up coming to perform a concert in Pennsylvania (Reading, PA to be exact).  The concert venue was slightly more than an hour away from Messiah, but, luckily, my then-girlfriend (Heather) drove us down and we got to experience Acoustic Alchemy in all their glory. Back then they still had bassist Frank Felix in their lineup; and Eddie M. was the man on sax-duty that night (a role that had been filled by Jeff Kashiwa for the making of Aart). Otherwise, the core was the same: Greg Carmichael (strings), Miles Gilderdale (strings), Fred White (Keys) and Greg Grainger (drums).
Any of their concerts is basically a time for comedy. Anytime you have Miles ad-libbing on the mic, something funny is bound to happen. This concert bookmarks 2004 for me because I remember Miles and Frank poking fun at the whole Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake debacle during the Superbowl Halftime show.

The tracklist consisted of a diverse bunch of tracks, some from Aart, The Beautiful Game, and of course, Radio Contact. However, towards the end, Greg went into an extended flamenco guitar solo that had me hypnotized. The tune felt somewhat familiar, but I wasn't sure I had actually encountered it. He put on a wonderful show in that solo, with so many emotions explored in the fast/slow ebb and flow of his notes, taking you on along for the ride; and just when I thought he was done, he starts playing double-time, and then they ended up segueing from the guitar solo into a more rapid flamenco infused piece by the whole band; I use the word "infused" because it is flamenco-nuanced. Actually, one of the guitars (Greg's Nylon) starts out in flamenco, but eventually he ends up switching to his more traditional playing style, with the band providing some flamenco riffs here and there. This is actually one of those long-form songs (not typical of their style), which starts out one way and then totally morphs into something unexpectedly new.

I remember that at the end of the concert they asked us if we had any requests that they'd want us to play. It was a free-for-all, and people pretty much shouted their favourites. Wish I could have been more emphatic in asking for "Passion Play", but instead they went with a wonderful version of "Flamoco Loco" that included a solo by drummer Greg Grainger which delved into an interpolation of Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" before finally climaxing as Flamoco Loco. (In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have asked for a song that needed a vocalist to hum along; but from a few videos on Youtube, I now see that they've decided to forgo the vocalist and still make an attempt to play it live).

In what must have seemed an injustice to me at that time, by the end of the concert they neglected to announce what the name of the flamenco song that they'd performed was; didn't even leave a hint in terms of which album it was from (and by this point in their careers, they were 13 albums deep). So I was left to track down things the old-fashioned way: listening to the CD track sampler on Amazon.com. Eventually, I found it: the title track from their very first album, Red Dust and Spanish Lace. Listening to the track, even now, brings back that subtle memory of that wintry night in Reading, PA, and the effervescent joy of knowing that beyond the enchanting solo (which is half of the song's length) lies a veritable feast in terms of good music.

The whole album is a masterpiece (and I'll get down to some of the standout tracks in due time), but it is its final track which is a true showstopper.

God Bless