When a jazz band (or really any band) is named after a person, it’s always fun to try to guess who that person is in the band. The first song “Coriander” starts out with some trumpet notes and a kind of intro melody that’s played by both the sax and the trumpet. And then about a minute and a half in, the keyboards take over, with a great cool 70s jazz/funk sound (the keys sound is my favorite part of this band). And then of course behind all of this is the constancy of the drummer and the upright bass. So, which one is Ulery?
I never would have guessed that he’s he bassist. For his job in this band is basically to hold everything together. The horns are doing their own thing, the drummer is doing all kinds of cool syncopated jazz beats. And the keys are just soloing like mad. I don’t know if it’s because the bass isn’t very loud in the mix (it’s really isn’t), but his presence is almost not really there. At the 4 minute mark of “Coriander,” the whole band drops away and the keys pick up a cool riff and then the horns chime in and eventually the bass comes back in. I think he’s just not loud enough because watching him, it sure looks like he’s doing a lot more than what I hear. And yet he’s never flashy. As I say, he’s the ground, not the star.
When he speaks he’s rather quiet as well. He says he loves NPR and gives a shout-out to his local Chicago station WBEZ.
Then they launch into the second song “My Favorite Stranger” in which the keyboardist has now switched to accordion (a pretty pearly white and red affair). I really like when the bass clarinet takes over the melody for a bit. The accordion acts like drone with the trumpet taking most of the leads (although I love when the bass clarinet gets to run those same leads as well).
And for some background on Ulery:
The Chicago bassist Matt Ulery writes beautiful music in an unpretentious way. It’s intricate stuff, with interlocking parts and segmented structures. It often borrows from Eastern European scales, orchestral tone colors, folky textures. (On his backpack, he sports a SXSW patch from when he toured with a rock band called In Tall Buildings.) But it doesn’t sound like calculus class, as in some other ambitious works of modern jazz. It never seems to stray too far away from pretty melody over undulating rhythms, and that deceptive simplicity sets it apart.
Last year Ulery put out a grand two-disc set of music you might call “chamber jazz.” By A Little Light had strings, orchestral horns and singers — the whole nine yards. But he has also long done lavish on a smaller scale with a band called Loom. A rejiggered quintet lineup (note: Matt Ulery, bass; Marquis Hill, trumpet; Geof Bradfield, bass clarinet; Rob Clearfield, keyboards/accordion; Jon Dietemyer, drums) produced this year’s Wake An Echo, which the band brought to our office during a brief summer tour.
[READ: December 14, 2014] Tetris
I really enjoyed Box Brown’s take on Andre the Giant. I really wasn’t sure what a book about Tetris could contain. I mean, I love the game, but what’s there to say about it? Well, it turns out, quite a lot–250 pages worth, in fact.
Beyond the game itself, Brown talks a bit about the history of video game development, including a bit of the history of Nintendo. But then he gets into what happened when people started to get addicted to those little falling blocks. Who knew that Tetris had such a convoluted history?
The book starts off (in Brown’s wonderfully simple drawing style) with a picture of Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris and his friend Vladimir Pokhilo. Alexey says he has been thinking about the pentomino puzzle.
Then cut to Japan, where an entrepreneur named Fusajiro Yamauchi developed a new take on a traditional game called Hanafuda. Yamauchi was an artist and he created beautiful hand designed cards for this game. They were a huge hit and so he founded a company to handle the cards and he named it Nintendo which commonly translates as “Work hard, but in the end it’s in heaven’s hands.”
Then we meet Gunpei Yokoi a toy inventor who worked for Nintendo–the way he was “discovered” is really cool. He created the Ultra Hand, and electronic love tester and, after learning about lasers, created laser gun ranges (all of which were huge hits). Soon enough, Gunpei thought that a video game device that you could use as a watch was great idea.
Then we meet Shigeru Miyamoto, the person who came up with the idea for Donkey Kong (which means stubborn gorilla).
By 1985 the home video game market exploded.
Back in Russia, Alexey was thinking about humanity’s need for games and pentominoes. Pentaminoes was essentially Tetris but all of the pieces had five blocks instead of Tetris’ four. And they were wooden puzzles pieces that you tried to fit together. So he modified it and imagined them falling into place. He had no graphics then, so he made it with all text characters (the blocks were a series of open and closed brackets. And after much tweaking he came up with the beta version Tetris which stood for “tetra” plus, um, “tennis.”
In 1985 Russia was communist so all businesses belonged to the government. Alexey’s Tetris was a hit and he shared it with his friends. If he had tried to sell it he could have been arrested. The game was passed around Russia and eventually made it to Hungary where it began to spread.
And this is where it gets confusing. The next few chapters are all about legalities. Brown does a pretty good job of keeping it all clear, but it’s such a mire of names and lawsuits that it gets a little exhausting.
Robert Stein of Andromeda Software. He was the first to try to get the game for the US. He reached out to Alexey and via poor communication saw them hash out a deal that wasn’t really hashed out.
Robert Maxwell and Jim Mackonochie of Mirrorsoft and Gilman Louie of Spectrum Holobyte Stein promised that these two would be a part of his acquisition. Spectrum Holobyte took out a full-page ad for the game even though they technically didn’t own it yet.
At the same time Mirrorsoft sold the rights to Atari in America and Sega in Japan, even though they technically didn’t own it yet.
There was also Henk Rogers of Bulletproof software. He tried to get in on the game too and he wound up with the Japanese rights which he planned to sell to Nintendo. Atari ended up with the rights to everything else.
Then in Russia, ELORG, a state-run overseer of electronics took over the Tetris negotiations from Alexey (while Gilman Louie flew Alexey and Vladimir to Vegas to enjoy the US for a short time).
ELORG was unaware of all of the above deals.
Around this time Gunpei (remember him?) created the Gameboy….
So ELORG had to decide who got the rights to what
Kevin Maxwell (Mirrorsoft)
Who would get what rights? And how would they be doled out? And what of Alexey?
There is a surprisingly sad moment in the story about Vladimir, the friend of Alexey (which is sort of glossed over, yet enough details are left in to possibly freak out a younger reader).
But aside from that reality, this is a great and interesting story for anyone who loves video games, Tetris or Nintendo.
And it’s all true.
Box Brown’s illustrations are once again wonderful–his style is weirdly simple and yet really effective and he does an excellent job of distinguishing between all of the players.
It’s another great First Second release and their final book of 2016. #10yearsof01.