The Boss at the (Super) Bowl: Over-Exposed?

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, although looking pretty long in the tooth, put on a reasonably impressive performance during the Super Bowl halftime show.bruce

Nice hearing solid versions  of oldies “10th Avenue Freeze Out,” “Born to Run” and “Glory Days,” along with the supposed-to-be inspirational title track from his new CD, Working on a Dream.

Credit goes to the NFL powers-that-be for choosing to showcase genuine American music royalty, rather than subjecting viewers to, say, 12 minutes of Kanye West or ‘Lil Wayne.

Still, it might be said that Mr. Integrity didn’t exactly stay true to his school of blue-collar rock. New York Times reviewer Jon Caramanica notes in a story published today that the Boss dropped verses from each of the four songs.

The Times, for the most part, liked the performance:

“Springsteen appeared in good cheer throughout, sliding across the stage on his knees (and into a camera) at the end of ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,’ and singing a collegial duet with the guitarist Steven Van Zandt on an ecstatic ‘Glory Days,’ ” Caramanica writes. ” ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ was warm and bluesy, with Springsteen building up energy for ‘Born to Run,’ which concluded with a spectacular burst of fireworks. For the measured ‘Working on a Dream,’ Springsteen was backed, in triangle formation, by Van Zandt and Patti Scialfa (also Springsteen’s wife), all of them flanked by a gospel choir, the set’s most heavy-handed moment.”

He also altered several lyric lines to reflect the show’ s setting. Said Todd Martens, in his item posted on the L.A. Times music blog: “Give Springsteen credit. He was clearly enjoying the stage, although he misfired by changing the lyrics to “Glory Days,” swapping out the dead-beat baseball player references for lame nods to football. But this was a Springsteen clearly caught up in the advertising-driven spectacle of the Super Bowl, and completely unashamed about all of it.”

Stephen Metcalf, writing in Slate, is a little more harsh: “Springsteen has evolved, in the 35 years I’ve adored him, from an acquired taste that almost no one acquired to America’s favorite karaoke act.”

It wasn’t coincidental, as even Springsteen has admitted, that the performance in part was a pitch for lots of new “product” – including CDs and concert tickets – sure to generate hundreds of millions when all is said and done.

The new album was released on the Tuesday before the performance, and advance-sales tickets for the forthcoming E Street tour went on sale, convenently enough, this morning. Also just released, as Jonathan Cohen points out today in his Billboard piece, is a new greatest-hits disc, available only through Wal-Mart.

And the payoff stands to be strikingly immediate for Springsteen, Martens writes: “In the days following his halftime performance last year, Tom Petty saw a 352% increase in digital track sales. The four songs performed today — the set ended with “Glory Days” (you were expecting something else?) — are surely rocketing up the iTunes sales chart as this quick reaction blog is being typed.”

I suppose all this is win-win, in the short term, for Springsteen.

But, as a fair weather fan — yes, I was entirely blown away by the E Street band’s 1985 performance at the Orange Bowl in Miami — I have to wonder a couple of things:

1)How’s all this working out for his artistic credibility?

and, related questions:

2)Isn’t Springsteen moving into the land of the over-exposed? Is he risking a backlash?

I mean, Bruce has been all over the media recently because of:

  • A good deal of critical slobbering, as well as prominent placement and cover stories, tied in with the release last week of his new album. Brian Hiatt, in his Rolling Stone review, praised the CD’s “romantic sweep and swaggering musical ambition.”
  • His countless pro-Obama efforts in the fall, culminating with his headlining of the pre-inauguration concert (with a gospel choir, natch, a device that’s way over-used), aired live Jan. 18 on HBO. His assumption, a risky one, was that all of his fans shared his political views. I’m guessing that some sort of concert DVD is in the works.
  • His Golden Globe, which he picked up on Jan. 12, for a song, “The Wrestler,” contributed to the Darren Aronofsky film of the same name.

When is a lot of Bruce, too much?

I’d say … about now.

Jazz Legends: New Dual Biography of Miles and Coltrane

What defines a musical legend?

Tricky question to answer.

When it comes to jazz, my list of legendary artists, those whose playing, compositions and band leadership had a significant and unique impact on the music would have to include — d’oh! — Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

The musical careers, and lives, of both, are examined in a recently published dual biography, Clawing at the Limits of Cool.

My review of the book was published in today’s St. Petersburg Times. Click here to go directly to the story, or read it below:

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There’s no shortage of books addressing the work of jazz giants Miles Davis and John Coltrane, either individually or as separate chapters in larger histories. Two top-shelf recent examples are Howard Mandel’s Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz and Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, both penned by music journalists and published last year.

Unlike its predecessors, Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever goes for something new: a dual biography. It’s an entirely sensible approach, given the titular musicians’ collaboration on trumpeter Davis’ blockbuster album Kind of Blue, released in 1959, and the impact these players had on each other, as instrumentalists, composers and bandleaders.

Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia University literature professor, and saxophonist and Brooklyn College music professor Salim Washington mostly fulfill expectations, capably weaving together the story lines of these artists’ remarkable lives, offering valuable insight into how and why they connected, and sizing up the seismic results.

The co-authors also turn in generally well-informed musical analysis, some of which is sure to go over the heads of nonmusicians; readers would have been well served if the publisher had opted to include a CD or offer free downloads of a few key tunes — Milestones, Straight, No Chaser, Flamenco Sketches discussed here.

In a recording age marked by digital downloads of instantly disposable hip-hop, tween pop and country hat acts, it’s easy to forget the centrality once held by jazz art and commerce, particularly in the black community. Davis, born the son of a dentist in a Chicago suburb in May 1926 and raised middle class in East St. Louis, Ill., and saxophonist Coltrane, born four months later, son of a tailor in small-town North Carolina, were creative artists who made jazz their professional and spiritual home.

They spent their lives pursuing their art. In doing so, Davis and Coltrane changed the music’s architecture, as Griffin and Washington point out, although critics and other listeners might argue with their first-page suggestion that the two “were the last major innovators in jazz.”

Few serious jazz trumpeters or saxophonists alive can honestly say that they haven’t been influenced by Davis’ use of space in his solos or his muted playing on ballads, or by Coltrane’s note-spraying sheets of sound. Their contrasting personality types — the trumpeter brash, flashy and sometimes arrogant, the saxophonist quiet, unassuming and usually gentle — have also been emulated by subsequent generations of musicians.

The authors touch on a related irony: “However, these qualities are reversed in their playing. When the two men came together in the mid ’50s, Coltrane’s style already displayed a ferocity not evident in his personality, whereas Miles possessed an extraordinarily tender, lyrical approach to his instrument.”

Still, trumping their work as instrumentalists were their achievements as bandleaders, redefining the limits to which groups could take jazz-rooted ensemble work — variously, bebop, hard bop, modal jazz, free jazz and jazz fusion.

Griffin and Washington, of course, focus on the musicians’ work together, in the Miles Davis Quintet and later, from 1958 to 1961, the Miles Davis Sextet. The latter group, which Coltrane joined after quitting heroin cold turkey and playing and studying with pianist-composer Thelonious Monk, was responsible for the groundbreaking Milestones album and, with a different lineup, the vastly influential Kind of Blue.

Davis, and Coltrane on tenor saxophone, proved ideal foils for one another on such now-standard pieces as Freddie Freeloader and All Blues. Alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb added indelibly to an understated but subtly intense album cited as the bestselling jazz recording of all time. It’s an achievement that wouldn’t have been possible if the paths of these two “cultural icons,” as the co-authors call them, had not crossed.

Times correspondent Philip Booth writes about music for Down Beat, Billboard, Jazziz and other publications, and plays bass with Tampa jazz group Trio Vibe. He played with ”Kind of Blue” drummer Jimmy Cobb in a Nat Adderley tribute concert in 2000.

Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever

By Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington

Thomas Dunne Books, 294 pages, $24.95