Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Jazz Uncle

My uncle is a graphic designer, like me. Actually, he's more of a graphic designer than I am, for reasons i might try to explain later. He's designed countless vinyl record and book covers, posters, logos, magazines, and virtually anything that can be designed and printed. He started his carreer designing countless medicine boxes, back in the dawn of the 70s. I think it was for a pharmaceutical company called Faran. Not sure though, cause the memories are very faint - i was very little. But i remember Faran's premises seen from the inside of a car (probably my dad's) on the side of the highway just out of Athens - and I remember him coming to my grandparent's house in Halkida (where my parents sent me to stay there for a year just before i started school) clad in his moustache, perfect shirts and perfume, his mother being in love with him, cooking him dinner and ironing his shirts, and him accepting the goods before he'd leave off to get back on his life on the fast-lane graphic design business, his leaving being to my disappointment.

But there were remnants of him left in granny's house: His paintings (a bleeding heart, drawn Pop 60's style, a Warhol Marilyn replica with a tear running down the cheek), and the totemised pieces of his work (like his annually printed yearly calendar with 70s Milton Glaser style illustrations) or scraps from a magazine or newspaper writing about him. And there was his Jazz radio show, that granny never missed, just after midnight. Actually, uncle and jazz are two concepts so intertwined it's hard to seperate them.

Growing up I so wanted to be part of this: Jazz music, fine italian shirts like the ones John Lurie wore in films or Giardino's heroes in comics, Memphis-like furniture, cool chicks with gray eyes and short-sleeved dresses - like Debra Winger in "Sheltering Sky". During the summers I lived at granny's house in Halkida, she was still listening to the midnight jazz shows, and that has got to be one of the finest, greatest, most atmospheric and a bit funny memoirs of my whole life: A typical greek granny holding a pocket radio next to her ear, listening to Thelonious Monk in the middle of the night. But the track would end, and the voice would announce the next track or talk about the artist presented this time, and that surely was her pride and joy: her son on the radio. And there were no indy stations back then, just 3 or 4 state-run ones and lots of oriental sounds heard over a lot of mystic static on the AM scale.

I started taping the shows when in highschool. After my father died, the uncle probably replaced somehow him in my mind. I think I even spent some days with him just after this sad death, when i was 13, back in 1986. It was escapism, being in his house in Athens among thousand of jazz vinyls and videotapes playing arthouse movies at night on his brand new tv and VCR. Even glimpsing tits and legs in Playboy mag while sitting on the loo (loved the magazine rack in his toilet) was a joy.

I remember how i tried to grab a Milo Manara comics album and how he told me off "not for you yet, kid" and how he sat down on his scetching desk and started work for the layout of popular "Tahidromos" and "Ena" magazines, rearranging neatly lettraset typefaces and bits of coloured paper on a mockup. I remember his visit to London and him bringing back the Style Council's "My Favourite Shop" (i still remember the black and white photos on the cover and Paul Weller's haircut), Alison Moyet's maxi single for "That Ole Devil Called Love" and even Tears for Fears and "Everybody Wants to Rule The World". I remember him being ecstatic about the jazz revival in pop culture happenning in London at the time with films like "Absolute Beginners" and bands like the Blow Monkeys.

Soon after that i remember watching "Absolute Beginners" on cinema and listening to Conte Candoli spitting out frenetic solos in the 50's West Coast Jazz presented on his radio show. And then I remember learning by heart (all almost by heart) the Clifford Brown solo in "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home Too" sung by the cool goddess Helen Merrill. And I remember the moments when one rainy afternoon i first listened on his state-of-the-art hi-fi system the horns sounding almost regilious in Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments".

The list is endless. Stan Getz, Coltrane, the songs of Cole Porter and the beauty of Abbey Lincoln singing about how "Love Walked In" and Barney Wilen's soundtrack to the comic by Paringaux and Loustal "La Note Bleue". I played this thing maybe a trillion times and fell in love with the musicians and their solos. I still remember their names, particularly the pianist, Alain-Jean Marie, and still remember most of their solos by heart. This album was a true initiation to the wonders of Jazz. I had bought it at a curious shop in Berlin in summer 1989, then lent it to a friend, and then he lost it. I was sad, but years later i found the CD in Paris. Then I lost that too, and then I found it again in London, second hand.
I still listen to it with interest and joy. And jazz still fills me with delight. It's a shame this music still stays a secret, hidden under endless layers of boring stereotypes. Sometimes I listen to amazing jazz, live, at Jazz Upstairs here in Athens. Perfect sound system, perfect drinks by the best barman ever, and ocassionaly some lives that knock your socks off. How can one forget Sheila Jordan playing there 3 years ago? Or Benny Lackner, this fresh, amazing pianist from NY.
Jazz is pure joy - a music that sits on a stool wearing summer shoes gazing over people's shoulders at visions of a world full of happiness, colours, intimacy, exciting ideas, dancing and singing: excactly as it should be.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

They make films, not websites

Designer/Artist & friend extraordinaire Filippos has been living in Stockholm, Sweden for the past two years working for Design mega-house Framfab. We have been friends in London and in Athens, we worked on projects together (and still do) and we nearly opened a design studio ensemble with another designer extraordinaire, Chris, but all three of us eventually led seperate ways. We don't get to see Flip that often now, but we often do accept a fair amount of interesting spam by him in our mailboxes. He is the expert on that - sending stuff that's always interesting to look and surf at.

One of his last spam emails contained a link to the website of Traktor, which he told me is a "group of Swedes that make great ads". I visited the link and found myself in their simple, white webpage. The simple typewriter font on the white background and the few words make up for a minimal and nearly poor web experience, but them you notice the site is all pumped-up with subtle and cool Flash rollovers and contains hi-res mpegs of their videos. They feel compelled to tell us, though "hey, we make films, not websites". And next thing they say is "if you fell curious, drop a line here". If you saw their videos, you'd know why they play the aggressive/arrogant act and why they couldn't wear a serious, corporate personna on their splash page when they make videos for Nike where angry chicken chase people all over a city. You see, they must be split between the two themselves: the big world of Nike, full of sweatshops and multi-billions of dollars sitting side by side to the humorous, hillarious world of funny evil chicken.

Clicking on their ad clips and waiting till they load is worth every nanosecond of your time. Watching ads like "Angry Chicken", the one with the dirt-bike riding beaver for Miller Lite or the Men vs Women battle for Mail On Sunday (genius scenes where posh girls unleash their dogs or lads their RC cars to them) makes you feel this familiar mix of envy and enthusiasm you always feel when you see creative work that's way beyond anybody's expectations. For videos, it last happenned to me when i saw Michel Gondry's videoclips in a DVD that Flip gave me about four years ago. Then it was Wes Anderson, then Donnie Darko and after that it was the films of Jacques Tourneur and Six Feet Under. Now it's Traktor.

The six Swedes that live and work in California seem to know how to present unusual scenarios in such a self-assured, nearly arrogant way, they make you believe everything is possible. The technique is imacculate; the casting fantastic; the use of time exemplary; and the ideas so fresh it's like Swedish cool breeze on a Califronia heatwave.

Indeed, watching their ads you can't help thinking there's gotta be some bit of European flair and sarcasm in the air, totally Gondry-style. I just think most American filmmakers would miss this or in the best case scenario come up with something that would be either Jackass or indie-looking. (Ok, there's Spike Jonze out there, I know). But in Traktor's case there seems to be a perfect amalgamation of Jackassness and European sense of the surreal at work - the Evil Beaver video being a perfect example: the scene where the humanized Beaver grabs a dirt bike and attacks the campers is 2 parts boisterous Jackass humour, 1 part unapologetic european surrealism.

Whatever it is, these guys are worth all the big bucks they're obviously getting and all the American big-time arrogance they acquired living and working in fame on the sunny boulevards that overlook the Pacific. The reason why is simple: they make you laugh. They make you laugh genuinely, and in a liberating, "at last something really clever and fresh" way. And then you can't help associating that great feeling with the brand advertised - and you fall for it.

I don't think Mountain Dew is out in the Greek market, but if it was, after watching the "Master" video for about ten times (and never failing to laugh at the last scene), I would go and buy a six-pack. Simply cause the moment i'd see it on the supermarket shelf, i'd think of the video, smile, and for two split seconds, feel this splash of uknown chemistry in my system produce this warm sense of happiness.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

No, not HAROLD Pinter

My visit to the annual International Comics Festival (organised by the veteran comics mag "Babel" for the past 12 years with great success and visiting artists from around the world) would be just pleasing pastime hadn't it been for a spectacular relevation: the exhibited works of a Hungarian illustrator, graphic designer and painter named Ferenc Pinter.

Yes, there were a couple of other artists i found really noteworthy: namely the young Italian Paolo Cossi and Greeks Derveniotis and Kiriazis. But entering the building where Pinter's work was displayed I experienced this rare, mild shock that occurs about once or twice a year and fills you with this special mix of creative envy, fascination, and an innocent belief that the world is a beautiful place where miraculous events take place and people live a colorful, wonderful life. Yes, only exageration and overenthusiastic rhetoric could describe the feelings I experienced looking at his work and the staggering quality of the work itself.

Amazing technique, meticulous attention to detail, breathtaking use of colour and light, intimidating multidisciplinary skills that span the whole art/design spectrum; a beautiful sense of space, a thought-provoking and surprising use of concepts, ocassionaly a mysterious and violent undertone - and a highly original personal style that brings to mind a hundred things and nothing you've ever seen at the same time.

Apparently Pinter is a true master, a heavyweight member of the exclusive Pantheon of the great ones. In my mind's eye I can see him smoking his pipe and joking with other great unknowns like Raymond Savignac, Max Cabanes and Miroslav Sasek not caring a bit about the fact he's about 100 times less known than designers a 100 times less original and talented than him. Why should he, when he knows he sits there in Art Heaven just meters away from the Picassos and the Paul Rands. He doesn't mind if we, Google or Amazon know nearly nothing about him.

From a designer's point of view, I can only bow humbly to Mr Pinter. "Chapeau" as my uncle said as we left the exhibition room. I really hope that history itself will feel the same about him.