Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Pop Life: The Derry Girls visit Bakeoff; Matt Wilson's charming "Hug"; "The Queen's Gambit" genius chess moves; Allen and Masekela's "Rejoice"

Like most all of you, I suppose, I've been taking refuge from the pandemic by watching lots of TV, listening to lots of music and reading lots of books. 

So what else is new? If ever there was a disaster made for introverted homebodies, it was Our Year of COVID 2020. Still, I do like to get out to a restaurant and concert occasionally... 

But that will come.

Meanwhile, in the past week or two, some of things I've enjoyed most are watching members of the Derry Girls cast on a holiday edition of "The Great British Baking Show." Two of Netflix's greatest hits combined? How could it not be great? But it was even greater than I'd anticipated. 

Either Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Erin), Nicola Coughlan (Claire), Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (Michelle), Dylan Llewellyn (James) and Siobhán McSweeney (Sister Michael) showed up to bake in character, or their "Derry Girls" roles are written on their real-life selves. All were hilarious trying to keep pace with the challenges thrown down by Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith while failing miserably. It's the most I've laughed in a long time.

Realizing I'm late to the party on this one: But I loved the acclaimed "The Queen's Gambit" on Netflix. I've never understood chess—how it works, why people play it, why there are clubs for it—and still don't. But it didn't matter a bit. I was hooked from the get-go. Ana Taylor-Joy's performance is remarkable and the writing is top-notch. If it were a movie, with all the plot points compressed, I think the result likely would've been predicable feel-good fare: An underdog makes good. But by spreading it out and letting us know Beth Harmon bit by bit, learning to gauge her character and next moves as in a long game of chess, the story is addictive, heartwarming and supremely moving.

Music-wise, things have been upbeat, too. There's lots of Christmas music playing in the house now, of course. But I've also been spinning the Matt Wilson Quartet's charming Hug!—an LP that lives up to its name. The performances are charming, heartfelt and playful, ranging from soulful bop accessibly free, and funny. The title track is super-catchy in a Herb Alpert-ish sorta way, the type of thing that might've been a hit back in the more diverse days of 1960s Top 40 radio. The cover of "King of the Road" is great, too. And I love the lighthearted social commentary of "Space Force March," which interpolates Sun Ra's "Interplanetary Music." Some listeners will wish it came with a trigger warning due to the surprise vocal cameo, though.

Also blessed with an upbeat title is Rejoice, the final album—and first collaboration—by the hugely influential African musicians trumpeter Hugh Masekela and drummer Tony Allen, both of whom passed away this year. The LP is a gem, driven by Allen's insistent, always funky beat and Masekela's Miles-influenced playing over the top. Some of the tunes are augmented by chants and vocals that add, never detract, as on the tribute to Allen's former boss, afro-pop pioneer Fela Kuti, "Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same)." 

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