Saturday, August 27, 2016

Frank Sinatra – In the Wee Small Hours (1955)

The starting point for great album covers. By the musician who first understood the role of an image in contributing to the overall artistic mood of a recording, and designed by the father of album cover art, Alex Steinweiss.

"Sinatra was the first artist to construct an album that sought to unite thematic and musical elements rather than simply collect popular singles. Through sequencing and the cohesion of narratives within the lyrics—and even the iconic impact of the album covers themselves—Sinatra created an entire aural and emotional experience rather than a simple compilation." Robert C. Sickels - 100 Entertainers Who Changed America

There are several essays and scholarly articles that discuss the cover of In the Wee Small Hours, often connecting it with film noir. A few also mention its relation to the work of Edward Hopper. ("It appears as though Sinatra has been transplanted into one of Edward Hopper’s metropolitan settings such as 'Approaching City.'")

The cover was designed by Alex Steinweiss, who served as the sole graphic designer for Columbia Records from the late 1930s through the mid 1940s and basically developed the concept and language of album cover art. Here's an interesting article about him that features some of his other covers. Taschen also has a book devoted to his work.

PS: Credit also to Ava Gardner for making the album possible. Until she kicked Frank's ass and transformed him from a cocky pop star into an emotional wreck, he couldn't have produced this work. Without her, I don't think he would've become a great artist. 

"Ava taught him how to sing a torch song. She taught him the hard way." -- Nelson Riddle. 

In Ava, Sinatra finally met his match.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sonny Rollins - Saxophone Colossus (1956)

I was debating between this cover and another great one: Thelonious Monk / Sonny Rollins (1954), but I had already posted one by Monk. Turns out, both covers were designed by the same person: Tom Hannan. Originally from Michigan, he was a jazz drummer when he was young, but then took up art. He moved to NYC in the early 1950s to study with Hans Hoffman and served as his studio assistant for three years. To earn money, he designed album covers for Prestige, Blue Note and other labels, including several covers for Rollins (Tenor Madness), Miles Davis, Red Garland and others. Later he moved to Vermont and became a dealer in fine American furniture and decorative arts. He died in 2000.

Biographical information on Hannan from "'In the Circle of Hans Hofmann: Works from the Hannan Art Collection' on view at Betty Krulik Fine Art, Ltd" at Art Daily.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What Insomnia Looks Like

Eric Dolphy – Out To Lunch (1964)

RIP Bobby Hutcherson.

"Unlike most Blue Note covers, which tended to be abstract geometrics or portraiture, Out To Lunch actually shares a joke. The clock in the store window announcing ‘will be back’ has seven hands. The Reid Miles photograph is bathed in indigo, creating one of the most iconic cover images ever produced." -- Greg Simmons at All About Jazz.

Monday, August 15, 2016

“Fuchsia Floyd?”
“Salmon Floyd?”
“Roseate Floyd?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Coral Floyd?”
“Sounds like a girl folksinger.”
“Blush Floyd?”
“Flush Floyd?”
“No way.”
“I don’t know, Syd. I give up.”
“Damn it! Band names shouldn’t be so bloody hard!”

David Bowie - Aladdin Sane (1973)

"The famous red and blue lightning bolt which is painted across Bowie’s face was, in fact, inspired by the logo on a rice cooker in the studio kitchen. ‘In the studio we had a sort of mobile make-up table with mirrors on it, and on wheels,’ [Brian] Duffy's studio manager Francis Newman recalls. ‘I remember David sitting in front of that with Pierre Laroche, and they had obviously talked about using this flash. Well, Pierre started to apply this tiny little flash on his face and when Duffy saw it he said, ‘No, not fucking like that, like this.’ He literally drew it right across his face and said to Pierre, 'Now, fill that in.' It was actually Duffy who did the initial shape – I’m not saying he did the actual make-up. It then took Pierre about an hour to apply properly. The red flash is so shiny because it was actually lipstick.’

The decision to get Duffy in to shoot the Aladdin Sane album cover was made by Bowie’s then manager, Tony Defries. ‘I was looking for an iconic cover image and artwork that would help me to persuade RCA that Bowie was sufficiently important to warrant megastar treatment and funding, in order to propel him to exactly that status,’ Tony Defries remembers in the book Duffy/Bowie. ‘Engaging a master, world-class photographer to shoot the product/brand and to design the artwork was the best way to send that message. Brian had the ability to make the mundane image interesting and the interesting image fascinating.’"

From, "Flash of Genius: Photographing Aladdin Sane." Check it out for more information and other pictures from the photo shoot.

The original LP inside cover, when unfolded.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thelonious Monk - Monk's Music (1957)

"The image of Monk sitting in a little red wagon wearing a suit, sunglasses, and a plaid hat is one of the most memorable in all of jazz. The photograph is credited to Paul Weller and the cover design [to Paul] Bacon, but there is reason to believe that Monk was quite involved in the creation of this image. According to Monk, the original cover design included a photograph of himself in a cowl, standing at a pulpit and holding a glass of liquor. Monk objected to the image for reasons that are not altogether clear, and [Orrin] Keepnews, who was producing the session, agreed to change the cover. Monk claimed that the idea for the final image was his, although, of course, the staging, lighting, and other technical aspects of the photograph are no doubt the work of Weller. In any case, Monk clearly took an interest in the album cover and how it represented him. Perhaps it was a clever rejoinder to critics who had by then made a habit of describing him as childlike, the photo displaying the incongruity of a man, with nothing childish about him, sitting in a child’s wagon. Perhaps it was, as Monk himself claimed, simply an image he liked that represented his intensity: he was so involved with his music that when it struck him, he could compose anywhere, even in his son’s wagon."

Solis, Gabriel. Monk's music: Thelonious Monk and jazz history in the making, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2008.

Alice in den Städten (1974)

9/10 - What a joyous experience watching this again for the first time in many years. It’s such a marvelous piece of cinema. Unavailable for a long time on DVD, partly because it was shot in 16 mm and the original negatives were badly damaged, it’s now out on Criterion. The cinematography by Robby Müller, especially in the opening road-trip sequence through the U.S., has to be some of the most stunning in film history. And that’s saying a lot, considering his opening sequence to _Paris, Texas_ would be another candidate. You could stop on almost any frame in the first ten minutes, and it would make a photograph worthy of hanging in a museum. Just absolutely brilliant. I was so sad to read this morning that Müller has been suffering for some time from vascular dementia, a degenerative disease that has left him unable to walk or talk. He was one of the greatest cinematographers in the last part of the 20th century. He and Wenders, particularly in this film, lead directly to Jim Jarmusch (who used Müller extensively in his own films) and Hal Hartley. (who seemed to cop the score by CAN for his own movies.) There’s such an intimacy in the filmmaking, in the acting, the photography, the writing, and it made me sad that Wenders lost that in his work somewhere along the way. In the commentary that comes with the film, he sounds wistful and nostalgic talking about how simple the film was to make, just him and a few people in the crew, following their instincts and shooting whatever they felt like, and how it would be impossible to do now. And Alexandra and I felt nostalgic watching the film, thinking of what life was like in the early 1970s, with Polaroid cameras (the new technology at the time), neon-lit motels, and the carefree nature of the hippie spirit still in the air.
The story wouldn’t work today – cell phones would resolve the situation immediately, and people would be much more guarded and scared. A somewhat lost German photojournalist wandering aimlessly around the U.S. wouldn’t wind up travelling with a nine-year-old girl back to Germany to find her grandmother. Such a simple story, but Rudy Vogler (a delight to see again) and the young Yella Rottländer give excellent performances. If that’s even the right term. They inhabit the film beautifully. Along with many non-actors that Wenders used. This is post-Godard cinema that was vibrant with wonder and poetry. “What should we do now?” It feels so alive because they were basically living out an experience. You sense the joy of a 28-year-old German who loved rock and roll and American culture drifting around the U.S. taking pictures and making up a story. Just wandering. In several of his earlier films, Wenders captured better, perhaps, than any American director a certain magic and mystery of being on the road. Alexandra said parts of the movie reminded her of W.G. Sebald, and I can see that. Although Peter Handke is the more direct influence. But there’s definitely a literary and poetic quality that seems rare in cinema these days. In any case, it’s a lovely movie. It used to be in my 100 Favorite Films but had dropped out because I hadn’t seen it in so long. It will definitely go back on that list when I do one again.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures (1979)

Design by Peter Saville

Scientific American has an interesting story about one woman's obsession with the image and her quest to find the origins of the pulsar data visualization on the cover and the research behind it: Pop Culture Pulsar: Origin Story of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures Album Cover