Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015): He Who Was Spock and Lived Long and Prospered

It is with a heavy heart full of illogical human emotion that I absorb and reflect upon the passing today of Star Trek icon Leonard Nimoy.

True to the philosophy of his half-human, half-Vulcan alter ego Spock, Nimoy lived long and prospered for 83 amazing years.

Although he was an accomplished and versatile actor, writer, director, and producer both on and off Star Trek – in addition to releasing music, poetry, and photography – he will forever be synonymous with Spock, whom he portrayed in the original Star Trek television series (1966-1969), the animated series (1973-1975), two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1991), and eight feature films (1979-1991, 2009, 2013).

I was born four years after the original TV show ended, so I couldn’t enjoy it during its initial broadcast run, and I was too young to be aware of and comprehend the animated series. But starting when I was nine years old and beginning with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in 1982 (I missed Star Trek: The Motion Picture in theaters in 1979), my family had a blast going to the cinema to watch the new adventures of the original cast on the big screen every two or three years. Even though these actors’ exploits had begun seven years before I arrived on the scene, their continuing treks sustained me from grammar school through college.

A real highlight and thrill for me happened when, in 1997, I had the privilege and honor of interviewing Nimoy by telephone. At the time, he and John de Lancie (Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation and other Star Trek shows) were staging radio plays in the spirit of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre (famous for the infamous, mass hysteria-inducing War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). The office I conducted the interview from was right next to the movie theater where my family saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, featuring Nimoy and his original costars, 15 years earlier.

While the new Kirk and Spock Star Trek movies are the best Star Trek movies since the original Kirk and Spock movies and continue a great tradition and legacy, they can never recapture or replace the magic of the original cast, a magic that briefly resurfaced when Nimoy returned to his classic role of Spock twice more in the latest feature films.

Nimoy was so much more than Spock and Star Trek, but we all love and will miss him because of Spock and Star Trek. To paraphrase one of Nimoy’s popular sayings as Spock from the earlier movies, he has been and always shall be our friend. And to quote Dr. McCoy from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “He’s really not dead as long as we remember him.”

May Leonard Nimoy’s katra live long and prosper, as Nimoy himself certainly did in this life.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, February 22, 2015

CD Review – By a Wire, by Jennifer DeFrayne

The masterful composing and performing by pianist Jennifer DeFrayne on this exquisite album is all the more impressive considering that this is her recording debut.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that her producers are Grammy Award-winning guitarist and Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman and popular recording artist and pianist Fiona Joy Hawkins, who herself is fresh off the success of the Grammy win of an album she contributed to, Winds of Samsara by Ricky Kej and Wouter Kellerman, and who released DeFrayne's album on her Little Hartley Music label.

But it is DeFrayne's talent that got Ackerman's and Hawkins' attention in the first place, and deservedly so. Her intricate compositions are lyrical and melodic, and her playing exudes a passion that obviously comes from the heart and is infused with soul.

DeFrayne has a great lineup of musicians backing her up as well: Charlie Bisharat on violin, Eugene Friesen on cello, Hawkins on bass piano, Jeff Haynes on percussion, Jeff Oster on flugel horn, Jill Haley on English horn, Noah Wilding on vocals, Rebecca Daniel on violin, Tony Levin on bass, Tom Eaton on percussion, voice, bass guitar, and electric guitar, and Ackerman on Hopi drum and acoustic guitar.

This promising debut should ensure Jennifer DeFrayne a bright and sucessful recording career.

--Raj Manoharan


Sunday, February 15, 2015

CD Review – Sketches from an Island, by Mark Barrott

The first release by Mark Barrott under his own name is, as the title suggests, a breezy musical affair inspired by the isle of Ibiza, which has been the artist's residence for several years.

Just like the aviary and flora and fauna of its cover, the album has a tropical feel overall, even as it reflects several musical influences from different corners of the globe.

The music has an infectious back beat thanks to rhythmic percussion and dynamic bass lines, the latter of which Barrot was renowned for in his DJ heyday in the United Kingdom. Add to that new age/rock synthesizer washes, hipster classical guitar, and electric fusion guitar, and you have a recipe for an eclectic mix of ambient and world music flavors.

This is an auspicious debut that bodes well for future editions from this interesting musician.

--Raj Manoharan


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Music (Fan) Review – Around the Sun, by Michael Nesmith (MP3 download at www.videoranch.com)

While this isn’t Michael Nesmith’s latest recording (that would be the live CD of his 2013 Movies of the Mind tour), this is his most recent original studio material.

The set consists of six songs – four vocal tracks and two instrumentals – many of which sound like further explorations of the whimsical muse behind his 2006 album Rays and all of which I would describe as new age folk pop.

Just like Rays, the songs are heavy on synthesizers, which I assume are played by Nesmith, as they are on that previous album.

But several tunes also feature plenty of acoustic and especially electric guitar, along with bass and drums and percussion. I don’t know who Nesmith’s rhythm section consists of, and I don’t know if Nesmith plays any or all of the guitars. I can say this, though: Nesmith can easily play the acoustic and electric guitar rhythms that provide the core of many of these songs, and the electric guitar leads are similar to Nesmith’s electric guitar playing on the Rays track “Zip Ribbon” and The Monkees' 1996 album Justus, which proves that Nesmith can hold his own as a lead and rhythm guitarist.

Of the six songs, I highly recommend “Only Understanding Love” and “I Know What I Know.” These are the best of the bunch – they are the most organic and feature some of Nesmith’s most heartfelt lyrics and vocals. I would dare even say that they’re better than all of the songs on Tropical Campfires and Rays. In fact, I’m surprised Nesmith didn’t include them on his Movies of the Mind tour. They would have been welcome additions.

These two songs are somewhat similar in style and vibe to the music of George Harrison. Although Nesmith was supposed to be the John Lennon of The Monkees – “the Smart One” – I’ve always felt that Nesmith is more similar to Harrison in terms of musical tone. Nesmith and Harrison were the official and real guitarists of their respective groups, and, not surprisingly, their individual music is predominantly guitar-based. Their singing and songwriting also share elements of folk and transcendentalism.

If Nesmith continues to record in the future, I hope he makes more songs like “Only Understanding Love” and “I Know What I Know.” This is a good musical direction for him.

(Note: The MP3 sample for “Helen’s Eternal Birthday” doesn’t seem to be in the actual download of the song, or in any of the Around the Sun downloads. I wanted to hear more of what was in that clip. Nevertheless, the songs are still enjoyable.)

--Raj Manoharan


Sunday, February 8, 2015

CD Review – Inner Circle, by Peter Calandra

Peter Calandra's latest album is an engaging collection of thirteen original compositions that encompass a dynamic mix of jazz, new age, and fusion.

The electric/acoustic keyboardist is joined on this outing by Joy Askew on vocals, Tom Barney on acoustic bass, Ralph Farris on viola and violin, Kathy Halvorson on oboe, Kathleen Nester on flute and piccolo, Peter Prosser on cello, and Stomu Takeishi on fretless electric bass.

Every track on this disc is captivating, thanks not only to Calandra's inventiveness as a composer but also his skill as a performer and his professionalism as a bandleader. He and his studio mates enjoy a musical rapport that is evident in the infectiousness of the tunes.

Flawless from beginning to end, this CD delivers the goods.

--Raj Manoharan


Saturday, February 7, 2015

CD (Fan) Review – Miami Vice: The Complete Collection, by Jan Hammer

While Miami Vice is one of my favorite TV shows of all time (I had the good fortune to interview Lieutenant Castillo himself, Edward James Olmos, in the late 1990s), it is not my absolute favorite (that would be the 1960s Star Trek series), and there are other shows that I enjoy far more and that are closer to my heart in terms of nostalgia and sentimental value.

That being said, I truly believe that the Miami Vice music score is the best television score of all time. And by score, I don’t mean the two or three soundtracks that came out in the 1980s and mostly featured hit pop songs of the era that played on the show.

I’m talking about the purely instrumental score composed and performed by Jan Hammer and that is the sole focus of this two-disc release.

Cynics would say that the synthesizer music is cheesy and dated. I dare say such cynics are wrong. Sure, the 1980s were the heyday of synthesizer music, much of which was schmaltzy back then. But for his Miami Vice music, the synthesizer was simply an instrument which Hammer used as a tool to craft iconic sounds and memorable, epic themes. The synthesizer is the medium, and Hammer’s bold and chilling compositions are his message.

I’ve listened to some of Hammer’s later records, and as good as they are in and of themselves, his Miami Vice work is so unique and special it’s in a class of its own. I think this is not only because the music perfectly underscores the images it was originally designed to accompany, but also because it tells a compelling story all its own.

It is precisely in this way that the Miami Vice music of Jan Hammer transcends its time and place and remains visionary to this day.

--Raj Manoharan


Sunday, February 1, 2015

TV – Watch People Interviewed by Me on Me TV

Several people that I interviewed during my entertainment writing and celebrity interviewing heyday can be seen regularly on Me TV.

The 6 p.m. weeknight beat is patrolled by Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox as California Highway Patrol motorcycle cops Ponch and Jon on ChiPs.

At 9 p.m. on Saturdays, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy explore space while trying to keep the intergalactic peace as Kirk and Spock on Star Trek.

On Sundays at 6 p.m., you can see James MacArthur (Helen Hayes' son) as Detective Danny “Danno” Williams getting patched through to McGarrett (Jack Lord) on Hawaii Five-O.

At 7 p.m. on Sundays, Robert Conrad leads his unique band of brothers in air combat during World War II in Black Sheep Squadron.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Estrada and Wilcox in 1998 for the occasion of their CHiPs '99 TV reunion movie. Estrada kept calling me “pardner,” and Wilcox, a computer business mogul at the time, invited me to his ranch in California, an invitation I regrettably never had the opportunity to take him up on.

I interviewed Nimoy in 1997 for his participation in a series of radio plays inspired by Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre and spearheaded by John de Lancie (Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation).

I interviewed Shatner because he was hosting The Sci-Fi Channel's remastered reruns of the show in 1998. It was thrilling to hear Captain Kirk/T.J. Hooker himself tell me he needed my help in getting the word out about his activities at the time. When I told him he was really going where no man had gone before with his Name in Space project, in which you could have your and your lover's names orbit Earth alongside his name in a space capsule, he exclaimed, “Isn't that wild?!”

I interviewed MacArthur in 1997 because The Family Channel was airing remastered versions of the show. When I interviewed MacArthur, he was in his home office in Palm Desert, California, looking at posters of his films, such as Swiss Family Robinson. MacArthur told me that in return for promoting the remastered shows, rather than money, he wanted The Family Channel to give him all the remastered episodes on videotape so he could show them to his children and grandchildren. This was just before the advent of DVDs. So MacArthur wasn't just one of the stars of the show, he was also a fan!

It was great to hear MacArthur not only reminisce about his career (including working with his mother Helen Hayes, who guest-starred as Danno's aunt in Hawaii Five-O), but also recollect the late, great Jack Lord. MacArthur himself passed away in 2010, just as he was finalizing plans to guest star in the new Hawaii Five-0 TV series. MacArthur was living in Florida at the time.

I interviewed Wild, Wild West star Conrad in 1995 when he was promoting his latest series, High Sierra Search and Rescue. Conrad, who turned 60 that year, told me that he was “six-oh and on the go.” What was really cool is that he said the very same thing a few days later on Live with Regis and Kathy Lee.

Watch people interviewed by me on Me TV.

--Raj Manoharan