Thursday, April 29, 2010

Letta Mbulu

South African singer Letta Mbulu possesses one of the finest voices the world of song has ever known. Like all great singers, her voice emanates a beautiful sound that radiates and resonates from deep within, brimming with a joy of life and more often than not inspiring the spirit of hope and happiness. It’s musical like too few voices ever are. It attains grace through pure passion. And it’s one of the most pleasurable sounds ever heard.

The beautiful Letta Mbulu (pronounced "let-ah" "em-boo-loo") was born on August 23, 1942, in the area of South Africa that would become known as Soweto, a sprawling group of townships 20 kilometers outside Johannesburg built to house the city’s black workers.

Still in her teens, Letta began touring outside of Africa with the musical "King Kong," which ran for a year in England following a highly successful two-year run in South Africa. When the tour ended, she returned to South Africa but soon the policies of Apartheid were to force her to leave her native land for the U.S.A.
She arrived in the United States in 1965 and quickly befriended such fellow South African exiles in New York City as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa - all alumni of the "King Kong" musical. Performances at New York's famed Village Gate club began to attract attention to her talents, particularly from jazz legend Cannonball Adderley, who invited her to tour with him (which she did throughout the remainder of the decade).

Letta Mbulu also displayed an early gift for writing joyful, memorable songs. These were showcased by no less an authority than Miriam Makeba on the great singer's albums The Magnificent Miriam Makeba (the great "Akana Nkomo"), All About Miriam ("U Shaka," and the hit-worthy "Jol'inkomo") and the tremendous album Makeba ("U-Mngoma," "Magwala Ndini").

Letta first made herself heard on records as part of Letta and the Safaris, a group featuring husband Caiphus Semenya and the South African husband and wife team of Jonas and Mamsie Gwangwa. A single, “Walkin’ Around” b/w “For God and Country” was issued in 1966 by Columbia Records (home at the time to Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkle), but lack of publicity failed to garner much attention to the clever little R&B swinger.

Letta and Caiphus soon relocated to the West Coast, joining Hugh Masekela, who became a fixture of the California concert and recording scene. Letta Mbulu shortly thereafter recorded Masekela’s “What’s Wrong With Groovin’” as a solo artist for a small label which captured much attention in the 90s as an acid jazz classic when the British Jazzman label picked it up for release. While in L.A., producer David Axelrod fell under Letta's spell and had her signed to Capitol Records - home at the time to both the Beatles and the Beach Boys and where Axelrod himself was scoring big hits for Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley.

Axelrod produced Letta's debut album, Letta Mbulu Sings (Capitol/1967), an immediately attractive collection of Township-style pop mixed with American R&B. It was a hugely enjoyable style that Ms. Mbulu and her collaborator/husband Caiphus Semenya could nearly patent as their own.

Even though a single was released (the magnificent "Ardeze" b/w "Pula Yetla"), radio stations wouldn't play the record out of fear that no one would understand the words (the Bossa Nova and the British were as multi-cultural as American radio was willing to get back then). As a result, hardly anyone ever heard the record and, worse, sales were slight.

Axelrod convinced Capitol to give Letta another chance. The following year he produced the singer's majestic Free Soul, as near perfect a collection of afro-pop as has ever been waxed, this time dropping Letta's surname, but in odd contrast, featuring the beautiful young Letta on the cover swathed in colorful afro-centric clothing. Letta’s two Capitol albums were compiled onto one CD by the British Stateside label in 2005.

Meanwhile, Letta toured often (fronting a piano trio led by fellow South African exile Cecil Barnard) and recorded frequently as part of musical aggregates put together by Hugh Masekela - most spectacularly as part of the anonymous collective known as Africa ‘68, where she took the lead on “Uyaz’ Gabisa,” “Noyana,” “Aredze” (which she’d performed earlier on Letta Mbulu Sings) and “Kedumetse.”

When Masekela and business partner/producer Stewart Levine first formed their Chisa Records label, Letta Mbulu was one of the first artists they signed. They issued a 45-only record of “Little Star” b/w a much more invigorating version of the Masekela/Mbulu song “I Haven’t Slept” than Hugh issued on his own. In 1970, Chisa issued the first of two Mbulu albums bearing only her first name (the second is from 1978 on A&M).

Letta is a magnificent sample of African-American soul, bearing the UK dancefloor classic "Mahlalela" (written by husband Caiphus Semenya), Mbulu's great "Use Mncane" (an amazing song that beautifully showcases Mbulu's gorgeous vocal capacities), "I Need Your Love" (which could've easily been a hit), Masekela's fine "Macongo" and a Mbulu perennial in husband Semenya's anthemic "Jigijela." Some of these are featured on the 2005 CD Hugh Masekela Presents The Chisa Years 1965-1975 (Rare And Unreleased).

Unfortunately, the Chisa label lost its independence in 1971 and was unable to issue another album Letta Mbulu had recorded that year – although two of the songs, including the great Motown-ish sounding “I’ll Never Be The Same” turned up on ultra-rare European copies of the Letta Mbulu Gold (Motown, 1977) album. Mbulu continued to tour, often with Harry Belafonte (she can be heard on her own for several pieces on the great singer's album Belafonte...Live!). In 1973, the singer accepted a part in the Sidney Poitier's film A Warm December (as a singer!) and issued the album Naturally for Cannonball Aderley's label, Fantasy Records – which has just been issued for the first time on CD by the great British label, BGP. Indeed, Adderley and Mbulu were finally paired for the first time on record for several of the album's songs. It's here that the L.A. stamp on Mbulu's still-true take on African township pop starts to reveal itself. Songs like "Kube" (covered recently by South African singer Lebo M), "Noma Themba," "Hareje" and "Zimkile" reflect how comfortable - maybe a little slick - Mbulu could be at the crossroads of African and American music.

Mbulu raised the bar even higher when Herb Alpert (through Hugh Masekela) signed the singer to the trumpeter's high-profile A&M Records label. The first of two albums, There’s Music In The Air is a another Afro-soul masterpiece that should have made Letta Mbulu a household name. Each song is a wonderful, intoxicating concoction that yields such endless aural delights as Joan Armatrading's "Let's Go Dancing" (featuring Lee Ritenour and Richard Tee), Caiphus Semenya's "Mara A Pula," "Rainy Day Music" and "There's Music In The Air."

Composer and inveterate hit-maker (on his way to making Michael Jackson the king of pop) Quincy Jones then recruited Letta Mbulu to become the voice of Roots. Contributing to the historic 1977 soundtrack, Mbulu is best remembered for interpreting husband Caiphus Semenya's moving "Oluwa" aka “Many Rains Ago,” which was actually written several years before for another project.

The 1978 album Letta (A&M) yielded several wondrous performances, including "Buza," "Baile Baneso," "Hareje" and "Mamani," but sadly no big hits. Another album recorded for A&M ended up coming out in 1980 on several different label(s) throughout the world as Sound of a Rainbow and yielding a sizeable disco hit in "Kiliminjaro." However, there was no album in the United States and, in fact, no album under Letta Mbulu's name has been issued in the United States since 1978's Letta.

But Letta Mbulu continued a busy - and diverse - career here in the states. In 1980 Letta Mbulu participated in an Africa Week concert in Montreal that yielded the magical An Evening of African Music With Letta Mbulu, issued in Canada in 1983.

In 1981, she narrated the documentary film You Have Struck A Rock about African women's campaigns of non-violent disobedience. In 1983, she worked on husband Caiphus Semenya's first recording under his own name, Listen to the Wind, which yielded a huge dance hit in the lovely "Angelina."

In 1984, Letta Mbulu sang on Quincy Jones's soundtrack to The Color Purple. In 1987, she was heard (if ever too briefly) as the other woman on Michael Jackson's "Liberian Girl" from the album Bad. Later, Mbulu appeared in such musical plays as husband Caiphus Semenya's Buwa (which was a presentation of the group, South African Artists United (SAAU), of which Mbulu was a co-founder) and Mbongeni Ngema's Shiela’s Day.

Letta Mbulu and Caiphus Semenya finally returned to South Africa in 1991, after 26 years in exile. The singer also finally returned to records in 1992 with the remarkable Not Yet Uhuru, her first album recorded on South African soil. It was arranged and produced by Mbulu's multi-talented husband, Caiphus Semenya, who also composed most of the material. Check out Letta challenging any contender on "Not Yet Uhuru," Semenya's brilliantly arranged "Home Brew" (showcasing Letta Mbulu rapping) and "Kushukiti."

In 2001, Letta Mbulu was honored by the South African Music Awards for lifetime achievement. She has continued to sing on husband Caiphus Semenya's many projects that continue to earn the couple a legendary and royal status in South Africa. But while Letta Mbulu continues to perform actively in South Africa, she has only sporadically recorded as a soloist (2007’s Culani Nami is her most recent album and it’s only available in South Africa) and does not have the name or presence she deserves outside of South Africa or certain European underground circuits.

I had hoped to issue a compilation of Letta Mbulu's American work, circa 1968 to 1978, recently. But the set I proposed and worked on was cancelled for various reasons. It’s truly a shame. At this rate, the great artist and hugely talented entertainer might be relegated to cult status, known and respected only in her home country (which I’m sure is fine for her, but she deserves even more).

Certainly none of her music is currently in print in the United States (though her SA compilation Greatest Hits is available on iTunes if you’re willing to hear Ms. Mbulu's sonorously sensual voice in compressed formats). Letta Mbulu deserves far more. She deserves the elaborate treatment and endless compilations that all great artists are often afforded. Hopefully her art will be recognized sometime during her lifetime. Her artistry deserves the recognition and the compensation that great – and true – art deserves.

To find out more about Letta Mbulu and her wondrous music, check out my Letta Mbulu web site.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Horse Meat Disco

Can you ever be too late to a good party? No. Horse Meat Disco is proof.

Issued by the always reliable compilers at the Strut label, this two-disc dance party features a wealth of great dance music laid down between 1976 and 1984 and compiled on a CD that was issued a quarter of a century later (August 2009). Says Time Out, “If you ever wished you could hang out at seminal 1970s New York gay clubs, you’ll love Horse Meat Disco. A Mecca for disparante underground bohemians.” What’s here does not turn up on the usual disco compilations, which makes it interesting enough. But even better, what’s here is good, nee exceptionally good, disco – hardly any of it known outside of the great dance undergrounds of the early 80s or cult London clubs like HMD.

Disc one represents a great 78-minute (!) groove mixed beautifully by HMD DJs James Hillard, Jim Stanton, Severino and Luke Howard. Disc two compiles most of the originals that make up the first disc’s ecstatically intoxicating mix.

Instead of commenting on the music, it’s enough to point out the vast quantity and quality of great stuff that is sampled here: Karen Young’s “Detour (Party Mix)” (1982), Eddie Drennon’s “Disco Jam” (1978), Empire Projecting Penny’s “Freakman” (1981), Smokey Robinson’s “And I Don’t Love You (Larry Levan Instrumental Mix)” (1984), K.I.D’s “Hupendi Muziki Wangu?! (You Don’t Like My Music)” (1981), The Two Tons “I Depend On You” (1980), Gino Soccio’s “It’s Alright” (1982), Sheryl Lee Ralph’s “In The Evening” (1984), Gregg Diamond’s “Danger” (1979), Plaza’s “(Got My) Dancing Shoes” (1979), TJM’s “Put Yourself In My Place” (1979 – first of three tracks not on the unmixed disc), Richard Hewson Orchestra’s “Love Bit” (1977), Laura Greene’s “Manhattan” (1979 – the second of three tracks not on the unmixed disc), Fern Kinney’s “Love Me Tonight” (1981 – the third of three tracks not on the unmixed disc) and former CTI one-timer Tamiko Jones’ “Let It Flow” ( 1976).

There’s a lot of instrumental magic here. Even the vocal pieces have plenty of decent soul-worthy groove to recommend them, unlike so many novelty disco hits (“Ring My Bell” or “I Love The Nightlife”) or solid soul music crafted as disco (“I Will Survive” or “No One Wins The Prize”) of the day. Another nice thing is that the producers have compiled songs from a great array of labels. It’s not about who owns what – or how easy it would be to throw another set together with “disco” in the title. So the theme is more groove-centric than style-centric or sales-centric. Nearly all of this was new to me and sounds like first-tier disco music that I wish I had known about in the day.

It’s a shame the cover art couldn’t reproduce the actual HMD logo, a cop on the look Atlantic Records used back in the day for the sleeves of its 12-inch records (even though Gino Soccio’s “It’s Alright” appears here by courtesy of Atlantic Records) – or even the horse triangle on the CD’s back sleeve. But the raunchy horse that’s part of the HMD logo is there for anyone doubting the origin of this mix.

Kudos to David Peschek for his wonderful liner notes and his beautifully poetic words about disco: “At its heart, disco is about two things: joy, and escape.” He goes on to write enthusiastically about disco and the history of Horse Meat Disco, this disc no doubt inspiring some of his particularly well-chosen words.

There are plenty of legitimate and illegitimate mixes out there to sample. Horse Meat Disco is one well worth sampling.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Motown Sounds “Space Dance”

This 1978 album is one of the few cult disco “cash-in” albums the mighty Motown issued in the late 1970s. The revered Magic Disco Machine’s Disc-o-Tech (1975) is another and probably one of the first. Space Dance, the only album ever issued by the ridiculously named “Motown Sounds” is another.

By this time, Motown wasn’t the powerhouse it once was. Now overshadowed by any number of soulful acts from Philadelphia International’s “The Sound of Philadelphia” or the New York or Miami disco scenes, Motown was pretty superfluous by 1978. Though they were hardly without their hits (Marvin Gaye, The Commodores, Thelma Houston) and their recording acts all bowed in different ways to the overriding pressure of disco, Motown was no longer the force to be reckoned with as when the then-Detroit based label considered itself “Hitsville U.S.A.” all those years ago.

This particular studio aggregate was assembled for a rather effective dance-worthy collection, written, arranged and produced by Michael L. Smith, who wrote songs like “Little Girl” for The Isley Brothers and worked with Isaac Hayes before starting a group with his brothers called The Smith Connection in 1973. The prodigiously talented, baby-faced Michael Smith eventually started doing session work for Motown Records, gaining a hit for The Jackson 5 (“All I Do Is Think of You”) and working on former J5 member Jermaine Jackson’s somewhat successful 1976 debut solo album. This led to more studio work including albums for Thelma Houston, Switch and projects like this one. In 1981, Michael L. Smith formed the group Lovesmith, which recorded for Motown Records, and he ended up launching a solo career as “Michael Lovesmith,” where he recorded three albums for Motown between 1983 and 1985. He would go on to write hits for Barry White, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Bobby Brown as well as providing backgrounds for artists as diverse as John Denver and Luther Vandross.

The list of participating musicians on Space Dance reads like a who’s who of 70s West Coast talent (Motown had since relocated from Detroit to LA several years before) and includes keyboardists Michael L. Smith, Sonny Burke and John Barnes; guitarists Greg Poree, Jay Graydon, David T. Walker, the legendary Lee Ritenour and Roland Bautista (ex-Earth, Wind & Fire); bassists Jermaine Jackson, Henry Davis and Scott Edwards; drummers Dave Garibaldi (ex-Tower of Power), Ollie E. Brown (ex-The Temptations) and James Gadson; and percussionists Julius Wechter (ex-Baja Marimba Band, Herb Alpert) and Oliver Brown. The little-known legend “Mean” Bill Green (heard on a variety of albums including Cannonball Adderley’s Domination, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Oliver Nelson’s Sound Pieces, Black, Brown & Beautiful & Skull Session, Funk Inc’s Priced to Sell, Quincy Jones’ Roots, Miles Davis’ Dingo, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and many, many others) nicely handles the bountiful number of sax solos heard here – but doesn’t receive the prominence in the credits that he deserves here.

The musicians alone are enough to invite an appetite for Space Dance. But the music is worth it too. This is evident in the album’s very best track, the ultrabad, supercool “Bad Mouthin’” – a fine piece of disco funk magic and one badass sample quite a few producers have copped. Wechter provides the hypnotically rhythmic vibe while Smith highlights with a magisterial string and horn arrangement. The horns nearly suggest “TSOP” but the strings individualize this six-minute extravaganza into an altogether different realm. This instrumental is surely one of disco’s finest moments.

The album opener, “Groove Time,” comes in a distant second as a good little groover that lives up to its self-promoting name. The background vocalists chart the meaty Heatwave-meets-TSOP bootie shaker acceptably while Smith’s orchestral work, suggesting a cross between the Love Unlimited Orchestra and Salsoul Orchestra, is simply magnificent to investigate, behold and get down to. The solos here are clearly the work of the great but too briefly heard Lee Ritenour on guitar (worth the price of admission), Julius Wechter on vibes and Bill Green, who takes a scintillating solo on sax.

“Space Dance” is the kind of novelty clearly meant to compete with Meco’s “Star Wars” hit, with lyrics highlighting the era’s space-related double entendres. It’s worth noting that the string and horn arrangement on this song – its best asset – is courtesy of William Goldstein, the musical brains behind Motown’s Magic Disco Machine and composer of many TV and film scores including Wes Craven’s Shocker (which explains why “Space Dance” sometimes suggests a better-than-average TV theme of the period).

Bill Green gets his own feature on the middling yet melodic “Easy To Love” that boasts a nice break worth hearing – and makes a case for Green to be heard in a wider context as a significant improviser. Things get a bit too generic on “You Don’t Like To Party (Like I Do),” where Smith crafts something like Studio 54 background music with another Wechter solo. And “Rich Love, Poor Love” is a decent enough near-instrumental disco suggesting any number of Curtis Mayfield hit points (namely “Move On Up”) and providing enough musical talent plying the right beats per minute.

While its not available on CD, Space Dance is the sort of record that is best appreciated on vinyl. Pick the needle up and drop it on your favorite groove. Scratch the parts that should be repeated. Pick it up and start the dance again. Find the vinyl. This one’s a winner.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 7

Agatha Christie’s Poirot – An Introduction
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 1
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 2
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 3
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 4
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 5
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 6

1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (first broadcast January 2, 2000): In the quiet village of Kings Abbot, the widow Dorothy Ferrars suddenly commits suicide. Her death causes much speculation and gossip in the small village. The following evening, a rich industrialist, Roger Ackroyd, invites the village doctor, James Sheppard, to his home, Fernly Park, for dinner. Ackroyd confides to the doctor that he and the late Mrs. Ferrars were very much in love and shortly before her death she confessed that she had murdered her husband the year before and that someone was blackmailing her as a result. Ackroyd then receives a letter from the deceased woman and he dismisses the doctor to read the letter alone. Dr. Sheppard returns home and soon gets a phone call from Ackroyd’s butler, Parker, indicating that his master has been murdered. The doctor rushes back to Fernly Park only to find that Parker made no such phone call but Roger Ackroyd has indeed been murdered! The letter is gone and it seems as though Ackroyd’s errant – and suspiciously missing – stepson, Ralph Paton, is the culprit. As it turns out, Dr. Sheppard’s neighbor is none other than Hercule Poirot. Retiring to Kings Abbot to grow vegetable marrows, Poirot endeavors to aid the investigation into the mysterious death of his friend, Roger Ackroyd.

First published in 1926, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is considered by many to be Agatha Christie’s masterpiece. While it is certainly a finely crafted story that has an innovative surprise ending (a superb example of the author tweaking and toying with the detective-fiction form), it may not be the bestChristie novel but it is surely one of the best of the Poirot stories. Christie’s cast of characters here resonates with believability and realism. There are many strong personalities that spring to life from the page, from the many varied descriptions of Ralph Paton’s handsomeness to the gossipy wisdom of Caroline Sheppard (who Christie credits as a precursor to her Miss Marple character, whose first appearance in novels was in The Murder at the Vicarage four years later).

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd served as the basis for Michael Morton’s 1928 play Alibi starring Charles Laughton as Poirot. The play was turned into a 1931 film of the same name with Austin Trevor as Poirot and inspired Christie to write her own play, Black Coffee (1930 – with Francis L. Sullivan as Poirot), which was also turned into a 1931 film with Trevor again playing Poirot (Charles Osborne wrote a novelization of Black Coffee in 1998). The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was also adapted by Orson Welles for an hour-long November 12, 1939, Campbell Playhouse radio play featuring Welles performing both (!) the Belgian detective and the English doctor to near, but manic, perfection.

Scripted by series regular Clive Exton in his second to last Poirot script and directed by series regular Andrew Grieve in the last of his nine Poirot outings, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a glorious presentation that appeared some four years after the previous Poirot film, Dumb Witness. Exton cleverly changes the novel’s first-person narrative to a journal read in voiceover by Poirot himself. This allows the dramatist to pull out some of Agatha Christie’s finest prose, much of it her very own words. The film brings the author’s words vividly to life in beautifully constructed sentences, reminding those who dismiss genre writing as trivial consumption that Agatha Christie is one of literature’s greatest writers. Exton, too, provides some of his most beautiful writing to the film – particularly in the interjections Poirot makes regarding himself.

Exton comes up with a very nice script by doing away with the novel’s Major Blunt, Miss Russell, Charles Kent, “the mysterious stranger,” and Poirot’s non-existent nephew (invented, like Poirot’s brother in Curtain, to help the detective achieve his aim) to no serious detriment and reduces the book’s various inspectors (Raglan, Hayes) to just one, Inspector Davis, while the book’s chief constable, Colonel Melrose, is replaced by the inevitable Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson). Exton recasts Roger Ackroyd as much more of a realistic industrialist than the novel narrator’s initially bizarre speculation that the loathsome man produces “wagon wheels,” which would hardly explain his great wealth. More questionably, though, Exton replaces Dr. Sheppard as Poirot’s Dr. Watson, or Hastings-like associate, with Inspector Japp – who is only briefly referenced in the novel – forcing the doctor to become just one of the suspects Poirot must consider. The film also nicely ups the ante of action by killing off the Fernly Park butler, Parker, because he may have been able to figure out what happened to Ackroyd and gives Ackroyd’s killer a more colorful sort of suicide at the end than he gets in the book.

It is easy to see how the gossipy village-life scenario provided Agatha Christie with a template for the Miss Marple stories. But even in retirement, Hercule Poirot is a fish out of water here. There is no room in Poirot’s “order and method” for so much of the gossip that is bandied about in the book. Exton was wise to minimize it for the film, particularly in an effort not to compete with Joan Hickson’s already well-known and magnificent performances as Miss Marple. Unfortunately, this substantially reduces the importance of Caroline Sheppard in the film and there’s no doubt that Selina Cadell would have done justice to the character as Miss Christie wrote her. Such as it may be it, there is certainly something odd about watching Suchet’s Poirot in mid-career of the film series retired to Kings Abbot. Indeed, he’s back to Whitehaven Mansions for the next film, Lord Edgware Dies. But even Agatha Christie had the “retired” detective investigating murder and mayhem for another half century after the murder of Roger Ackroyd!

Andrew Grieve’s direction here is workmanlike and mostly unremarkable, but as “the matter of time” is so important to the mystery, he captures many fine and subtle shots of clocks showing the time for the careful observer – even though Poirot’s carriage clock appears to be two different clocks (a goof?). It should be noted that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the first of the Poirot films edited by A&E TV for American DVD release. The edits are brief and unimportant to the plot and no doubt made to allow for commercials during television broadcasts. But the fact that the original cut of the film couldn’t have been restored for the DVD release is particularly irksome for Poirot completists (A&E TV has also repeatedly released even more drastically edited DVDs of Monty Python’s Flying Circus).

Oliver Ford Davies (Dr. Sheppard) also appeared as Col. Reece in the 2003 TV film Sparkling Cyanide, which also featured Roger Frost (Parker), and has since become known as Sio Bibble from the Star Wars films. Selina Cadell (Caroline Sheppard) also appeared memorably as Mary Dove in the 1985 Miss Marple film A Pocket Full of Rye.

2. Lord Edgware Dies (first broadcast February 19, 2000): During a performance by the American impressionist Carlotta Adams, the beautiful and well-known actress Jane Wilkinson, also known as Lady Edgware, asks for Poirot’s assistance in helping to convince her husband for a divorce so she can marry the Duke of Merton. The marriage was never a success but Lord Edgware has previously refused to divorce his wife to maintain his good name. Poirot consents to meet Lord Edgware only to discover that he has indeed agreed to the divorce and notified his wife of the fact some time before. Confounded, Poirot informs Lady Edgware of this fact. Then, Lord Edgware is murdered. Lady Edgware is immediately suspected and witnesses even place her at the scene of the crime. But it could not have been Lady Edgware who committed the crime because she was at a dinner party and the other 12 guests can vouch for her presence there at the time of the murder. It then occurs to Poirot that Carlotta Adams could have impersonated Jane Wilkins and gone to his home to murder Lord Edgware. When Poirot begins to wonder what Carlotta Adams’ motive for the murder might have been, he suddenly realizes he needs to find the actress before it’s too late. His fear is indeed confirmed when he discovers Carlotta Adams dead from an overdose of Veronal. A small gold box of the sleeping powder is found near the dead woman, suggesting she had been an addict for some time and accidentally overdosed. When Carlotta’s sister, Lucy, steps forward with a letter from her dead sister confirming that a ruse was committed, Poirot realizes that he is looking for a murderer.

First published in 1933 as Lord Edgware Dies in the UK and the same year as 13 at Dinner in the US, the novel (which one character suggests in the ironic thirteenth chapter, of all things, that “Lord Edgware Dies” would make a good title for a book!) was first filmed in a 1934 adaptation under the British title, directed by Henry Edwards and starring Austin Trevor as Poirot in his third of three film performances as the detective, following Alibi and Black Coffee. The story was filmed again in 1985 for television and directed by TV veteran Lou Antonio in a contemporary setting with Peter Ustinov in his third of six performances as Poirot (and the first of four contemporary updates of the detective stories made for television), Faye Dunaway (who also appeared as Rachel Argyle in the film adaptation of Ordeal By Innocence made the same year) as both Jane Wilkinson and Carlotta Adams and, notably, David Suchet as Inspector Japp. In her biography, Agatha Christie based the story on her impression of the American dramatist Ruth Draper (1884-1956), who was a masterful impressionist. Draper was the inspiration for the story’s American stage actress, Carlotta Adams, who imitates Jane Wilkinson on stage in the book, but whose film embodiment – portrayed rather too broadly and poorly by the obviously British Fiona Allen – imitates Teddy Roosevelt (who, like Poirot, is in the audience!), Hitler and the great Poirot himself.

This film reteams scripter Anthony Horowitz with director Brian Farnham for the first time since the eloquent Dead Man’s Mirror (1993). Since then, Horowitz had created the Crime Traveller series and was part of the creative team that launched the fine, Agatha Christie-like Midsomer Murders. Horowitz sticks closely to Agatha Christie’s soapy novel (actors and writers mingling rather shabbily with the upper classes), cutting out only the snobby Duchess of Merton, who strongly opposes her son’s marriage to Jane Wilkinson, changing Jenny Driver to Penny Driver, here a hat maker with a reason of her own to wish Jane Wilkinson out of the way, and adding Miss Lemon to the reunion of Poirot with Japp and Hastings. The story is nicely woven into the film series by returning Captain Hastings from Argentina, where he married his beloved Bella, whom he’d met in 1996’s Murder on the Links, following a bad investment (and without Bella) and providing a number of suggestions that Poirot has returned to his former profession following his “retirement” as portrayed in the previous Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Horowitz, who probably sensed the story’s otherworldly oddities of the rich and famous (and which, in the wake of O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake and Phil Spector, don’t seem so peculiar any more), grounds the film with many recognizable cultural signposts, such as Jane Wilkinson’s spot-on “performance” as Lady Macbeth in the Shakespeare play, the highly overrated playwright Donald Ross dismissing Noel Coward as a passing fancy and Carlotta Adams’ impersonations of relatively accurate historical figures. The dramatist also changes the time of Lord Edgware’s consent letter to his wife (that is allegedly never received) from six months before in the novel to a more sensible one month before in the film. While Horowitz sticks close to Agatha Christie’s story, much of the animated dialogue is very much his own and he provides some especially nice lines to the series’ regulars. For example, Hastings, responding to Japp’s belief that Jane Wilkinson has Poirot wrapped around her little finger, says “I wouldn’t say that. I’ve never thought of women as the manipulative sex. It’s certainly not been my experience.” Japp, who, after Donald Ross’ murder, hilariously says “This chap was just a writer. A nobody. How would he know anything about anything?” And for Miss Lemon, reproaching a suspect who wonders if Poirot has the answers to his five questions, responds more sharply than usual, “Of course Mister Poirot has the answers. That’s why you’re here!”

Brian Farnham’s direction is serviceable, but the plot doesn’t allow for much grandiloquence. The cast, however, is a superb mix of British character actors who play their parts to perfection, with the possible exception of Fiona Allen, who really only pulls off looking remarkably like Helen Grace’s Jane Wilkinson in evening dress. Most oddly, though, in the climactic scene at dinner it really seems very much like Helen Grace is at the table, not Fiona Allen, who is supposed to be at the table. It’s hard to believe the producers made this mistake and indeed they would probably want to convince us that the deception was that convincing. But it’s not. It’s easy to see Helen Grace really is in two places at one time (which may be some sort of visual reference to the real-life Elizabeth Canning case Agatha Christie has Japp find similarities with in the book’s seventh chapter). While the book notes the “marked resemblance” of the actor Bryan Martin to Lord Edgware’s unnamed, handsome “Greek God” of a butler, the film cleverly employs brothers Dominic Guard as Byron Martin and Christopher Guard as Alton, the butler (who gets killed in the film following a chase he’s never part of in the book in order to provide the drama with a little action, probably to placate American audiences) to further illustrate the point of just who it might be that was seen leaving Lord Edgware’s house around the time of the murder. The great John Castle (Lord Edgware) also appeared in the 1992 Miss Marple film The Mirror Crack’d while Fenella Woolgar (Ellis, Jane Wilkinson’s maid) also appeared as Miss Whitaker in the 2010 Poirot film Hallowe’en Party.

Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 8
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 9
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 10
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 11
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 12

"Perfect" by The The

Rediscovery: From the 1983 American release of Matt Johnson's album Soul Mining. The version of "Perfect" here is an alternative version of the song that apparently displeased the great and talented Mr. Johnson to no end. I don't know why. The drums, the accordian, the marimbas, the trumpet, Matt Johnson's magical voice. Everything. This has always been and will always be one of my very favorite songs.


It's a chilly English winter and solitude
is never easy to maintain except when it rains
So I hang an empty smile beneath my empty eyes
and go out for a walk
The wet morning sun reflects off the paving stones
while a little dog barks its head off
In the distance

Oh, what a perfect day
To think about myself
My feet are firmly screwed to the floor
What is there to fear from such a regular world?

Passing by a cemetery I think of all the little hopes and
dreams that lie lifeless and unfulfilled beneath the soil
I see an old man fingering his perishing flesh
He tells himself he was a good man and did good things
Amused and confused by life's little ironies
He swallows his bottle of distilled damnation

People trot around with unseeing eyes
They're looking for something - it doesn't exist
The world we once knew is being eaten up by rust
No one has time for the past but still in God they trust
The future is now but it's all going wrong
Bodies good for nothing, but it's to nothing they belong
People say their prayers and some work hard
If you give them all your money, they'll give you their hearts
This town ain't getting like a ghost town.
It's getting like hell....

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Doctor Exx Band “Superman And Other Disco Hits”

Sometimes the funniest things surprise you. Take this album for instance. Issued in 1979 at the height of discoploitation on the ultra low-budget Pickwick label with some of the worst, cheesiest cover art imaginable, this one was a sure bet to find its way into many garbage bins – before anybody ever heard it. I dug my copy out of the sadly neglected disco section of a used record store recently – and it was indeed quite a find.

I’m almost embarrassed to say that anything with a title like Superman And Other Disco Hits is a good record. But it is.

Nothing whatsoever is known about the unreal Doctor Exx Band other than the fact that the ridiculously-named aggregate probably consisted of various studio musicians contracted (for probably very little money) to perform some disco hits of the day. Pickwick was famous for that sort of thing. Probably none of the studio musicians who made this recording even know they’re on the record!

The only musical credit on the album comes from the record’s back side, indicating that it was “Recorded under direction of D.L. Miller.” One of the record industry’s most notorious “behind the curtain” men, Miller (1923-85) – also known as David Miller , Dick Miller and Leo Muller – was the man who practically invented bargain-basement records, often imitating or exploiting far more successful fare, and foisted millions of mostly pointless 101 Strings records on the world. An illuminating bit on D.L. Miller can be read at the always reliable Space Age Pop Music resource.

Given the engineers on board – Dave Hunt (The Flying Lizards, Michael Nyman, Diamanda Galas, Gavin Bryars) and Kenny Denton (Anthony Newley, The Strawbs) – it’s a fair bet the album was recorded in London, where musicians weren’t locked into unions as they are in the U.S. (which means any work is good work for a struggling musician), between late 1978 and 1979.

Taking as its theme the then-recent batch of hit-making themes written by John Williams for screen “blockbusters” (John Williams was attached to just about every one of the screen’s first blockbuster films), highlighted by the new and slightly derivative “Superman” theme - which was issued on both 45-rpm and 12-inch singles - and the inevitably Meco-esque “Star Wars” and the exceedingly well-handled “Close Encounters,” this album’s real interest and great fun lies in everything else.

The album’s centerpiece is probably the funked out arrangement of “2001” (they didn’t even bother with the tongue twisting title of the Richard Strauss original, “Also Sprach Zarathustra”). The funky bassist sets the tone and delves into the funk straight from the get go. It’s pretty basic disco funk 101. But it’s wonderful nonetheless. An unknown Fender Rhodes delivers the lead line and a top-flight solo while a guitarist is drafted into to replicate the wha-wha solo John Tropea delivered on Deodato’s 1973 original hit version of the now pop classic.

The so-called “Mountain Funk” is nothing less than a disco-fied version of Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from the Peer Gynt suite. The lead is taken by a Moog player, highlighted by a terrific rhythm, some nice strings and particularly imaginative keyboard work. The guitarist and the drummer on this track are particularly intoxicating. The stupidly titled “Lois Gets On Down,” a reference back to Superman, actually recycles another Peer Gynt piece, “Anitra’s Dance.” Again, the rhythm, with nicely appointed string and horn charts, is just terrific. And there’s another great sax solo here.

The hyperkinetic “Panic on Planet ‘K’” – which again boasts some clever string and horn arrangements as well as a nice synthesizer solo – and the very familiar sounding “Metropolitan Heat” (probably another classical or movie theme adaptation) get equally nice workouts on this all-instrumental set (no useless background vocals either!), while “Metropolitan Heat” in particular has a number of musical performances that are worth noting, notably the Don Menza-like sax solo. It’s a shame none of the great musical contributors are noted here.

The surprise here is that any Pickwick album is worth hearing. But this one is a real treat. Superman And Other Disco Hits is a surprisingly satisfying find if you like good instrumental disco music and you can find this particularly obscure album anywhere.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hear, O Israel – A Prayer Ceremony In Jazz

“In September of 1965,” according to Rabbi David Davis in the notes to this obscure and little-known record, “I asked Jonathan Klein to write music that would be fitting for the theme of our conclavette, ‘Sects And Symbols Within Judaism.’ The result of this request was the creation of [this] jazz concert. Jonathan, the son of Rabbi Joseph Klein of Worcester, Mass., was a seventeen-year old when he composed this concert.”

The Worcester performance apparently attracted huge crowds for each of its Friday services and the great response compelled Jonathan Klein to reassemble the combo to travel the country with this music. The concert was performed at Brandeis University and Wheaton College, and in Boston, Malden, Marblehead and New Bedford, Mass; Baltimore, Md; New York City and Brooklyn.

Somehow, in 1968, someone was able to gather some of the greatest jazz names of the day to record the music for LP release on the NFTY (New England Federation of Temple Youth) label. Klein’s piece was written for piano, bass, drums, trumpet, soprano, alto and baritone sax, French horn, flute, flugelhorn, and two voices. This unbelievable recording boasts such jazz heavyweights as Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Grady Tate, Thad Jones, Jerome Richardson and the composer, Jonathan Klein. The voices are provided by Antonia Lavanne, soprano, and Phyllis Bryn-Julson, contralto, and Rabbi David Davis reads the brief Scripture passages on “Torah Service-Adoration” and “Final Amen.”

The result is this amazing 40-minute performance that ranks among one of the finest pieces of mysterious 1960s jazz lore imaginable. This superb recording is one of the “jazz meets religion” albums that inexplicably prevailed during the sixties, like Paul Horn’s Grammy award-winning Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts (RCA, 1965), Duke Ellington’s A Concert of Sacred Music (RCA, 1966) and even John Coltrane’s historic A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964).

This extremely obscure album, which probably had a very small press run distributed to few – if any – commercial outlets, came to Jonny Trunk’s attention when he was going through a “jazz meets religion” phase in 1999. Apparently the record made very little impression. Several years later when he borrowed the record again, “it struck me that it was far more special than I had first realized.”

Trunk went about obtaining the rights to issue the music (which was easy), finding a clean copy of the record to transfer to CD (which was not as easy since master tapes were unobtainable and so few of the records were ever made that any in pristine condition were unlikely to surface) and coming up with new cover art to present it to a larger audience than it had ever known before.

The result is this spectacular CD, issued on the British Jonny label in 2008. This beautiful music, which Jonny Trunk calls “The Secret Herbie Hancock Album,” is spiritual jazz in the best and most pure sense. It also has a great mid sixties New York jazz vibe that can be put down to Herbie Hancock’s distinctive and remarkably appealing presence.

Hancock has told his discographer, Naoki Suzuki, that he has no recollection of this recording session. But if it’s not Herbie Hancock here, then it’s someone who sounds extraordinarily similar to Herbie Hancock circa 1968. The exceptional pianist is surrounded by distinctive Hancock associates such as Thad Jones (featured on 1968’s Speak Like A Child), Jerome Richardson (a frequent session partner and featured player on 1969’s The Prisoner), Ron Carter (Miles Davis Quintet, Maiden Voyage, Blow Up, Speak Like A Child and many, many other sessions) and Grady Tate (many sessions, particularly at Verve). Also, all of the principal jazz players featured here are also heard together on Kenny Burrell’s Blues, The Common Ground (Verve, 1968). So it’s a safe bet that it is indeed Herbie Hancock making the piano purr here.

And the music is, quite simply, divine. There are nine pieces in total; some short, some long. But all perfect in length to the drama of the performance at hand. Klein keeps the orchestrations simple and evocative, allowing plenty of room for particularly nice improvisations: Jerome Richardson (“Matovu – Bor’chu,” “Sh’ma,” “Sanctification,” “Kiddush,” “Torah Service-Adoration”), Thad Jones (“Sh’ma,” “Final Amen”) and Klein himself (“Micho Mocho”).

It’s hard not to favor the beautiful passages helmed by Herbie Hancock (“Matovu – Bor’chu,” “Sh’ma,” “Micho Mocho,” “Sanctification,” “Torah Service-Adoration,” “Final Amen”). The piano is often granted the greatest palette for improvisation. To these ears, it is the pianistic interjections – guided by Carter’s magnificent bass lines – which make this such a magical feast for the ears. Also, what happens on piano behind the soloists also proves it can only be Herbie Hancock on the piano.

The album is wondrous from start to finish. But the particular highlights include the modal magic of “Sanctification,” the bossa jazz of “Kiddush” and the bluesy modes of “Torah Service-Adoration.”

According to the notes, Jonathan Klein went on to Brown University in Providence, R.I. and the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he participated in the Herb Pomeroy-supervised recording of Jazz In The Classroom – Volume XIII (1971). The All Music Guide lists a Jonathan Klein as “assistant music editor” on two John Ottman CDs, but, sadly, nothing else.

I have no way of knowing if it’s the same Jonathan Klein. But it would be nice to know what happened to the young prodigy who created the stupendously beautiful Hear, O Israel.

Cast Your Fate to the Wind

This illustrious song was originally recorded by its composer, Vince Guaraldi, for the pianist’s 1962 album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus (Fantasy). One of only two Guaraldi compositions on the album, it appeared (in a slightly edited form) on the b-side of the album’s 45-rpm release of “Samba de Orpheus” (an edited version of the well-known Jobin (sic)/Bonfa composition). But radio stations picked up the b-side of the single and “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” became immediately popular.

This was the song producer Lee Mendelson heard on the radio one day and knew instinctively that this was the perfect sound for the animated Peanuts TV specials he wanted to produce. Indeed, Vince Guaraldi went on to score many of the Peanuts TV specials up until his death on February 6, 1976.

“Cast Your Fate To The Wind” was also discovered by many other musicians who were enticed by its evocative charms. The chordal ballad was conceived almost like a hymn, with gossamer major tones settling into a Latin-esque groove. In the pianist’s original conception, he launches into a magisterial jazz solo that’s so simple it’s sublime. Only a master craftsman could have even conceived a song this perfect.

“Cast Your Fate To The Wind” is, like Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” or Gershwin’s “Summertime,” one of the great musical palettes upon which artistic musicians are able to freely express themselves. And many have. Almost as soon as it came out, musicians flocked to this tune as a means of their own expression.

While I can’t cover every version of the song ever recorded, here are 15 of those that I know – and revere – as beautiful tributes to one of life’s greatest-ever pieces of music.

Jazz Impressions of Black Oprheus - Vince Guaraldi Trio (Fantasy, 1962): Pure perfection. This is the original. It became such a big hit that the album cover bannered this song in letters larger than the album’s actual title, which –oddly – never changed. It’s so spiritual and pure, that it transcends jazz. It’s almost like a hymn: timeless and perfect. Curiously, Ralph J. Gleason’s liner note doesn’t even reference the song.

Quincy Jones Plays The Hip Hits - Quincy Jones (Mercury, 1963): This, the first of two times Quincy Jones recorded “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” is a feature for Bobby Scott’s piano. Somehow Q manages to mix George Shearing (in the verses) and Ramsey Lewis (in the chorus) into a Basiesque framework. Scott plays just wonderfully, with a real feel for the blues. Indeed, this is the closest the song ever came to sounding like gospel music.

Cast Your Fate To The Wind - Sounds Orchestral (Parkway, 1965): “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” was the first hit British arranger, producer and record maker John Schroder had as part of his Sounds Orchestral aggregate. Here Johnny Pearson helms the Oscar Peterson-esque piano, Tony Reeves, who brought the song to the session, plays bass and the great Kenny (Clarke Boland Big Band) Clare mans the drums. Schroeder provides the unobtrusive yet cinematic string accents. Pearson’s solo curiously mixes gospel flourishes with a cocktail-bar tinkler’s heavy handed approach to Tin Pan Alley but maintains interest nonetheless. Curiously, Schroeder’s liner note to the album says that “(t)he tune although not easily memorable, had a fantastically elusive magic about it that really got me.” Is that damning with faint praise or praising with faint damnation?

Guantanamera - The Sandpipers (A&M, 1966): This lush and beautifully arranged vocal version of Vince Guaraldi’s classic is more of a treat than I would have ever expected. Like a number of other nuggets in this male vocal trio’s discography, it is a strangely haunting performance. Carol (also Carel) Werber (also often listed as “Weber”) wrote the appropriately poetic words and Mort Garson helms the lovely arrangement that mixes acoustic guitars, harp and flutes:

A month of nights, a year of days
Octobers drifting into Mays
I set my sail when the tide comes in
And I just cast my fate to the wind

I shift my course along the breeze
Won't sail upwind on memories
The empty sky is my best friend
And I just cast my fate to the wind

There never was, there couldn't be
A place in time for men like me
Who'd drink the dark and laugh the day
And let their wildest dreams blow away

Watch Out! - Baja Marimba Band (A&M, 1966): This novelty band (that probably meant what they did quite seriously) was led by the fine percussionist and arranger Julius Wechter takes a typically South-of-the-Border spin through Guaraldi’s hit, enlivening it with bluesy Bobby Scott-like piano and a clever horn chart that had to come from Herb Alpert. The marimba lead sounds just right here.

Goin’ Latin - Ramsey Lewis (Cadet, 1967): The great Richard Evans arranged this superbly elegant orchestral reading of “Cast Your Fate To The Wind.” Lodged firmly in the Latin mode of the album’s title and spurred no doubt by the powerfully perfect drumming of future Earth, Wind & Fire leader Maurice White (listen just to what he does here), pianist Ramsey Lewis proves his mettle in a remarkable performance. It’s as much a success for Evans, who alternates strings and horns most masterfully throughout, as it is for Lewis, whose solo mixes Latin with soul and blues with gospel with a typically crowd-pleasing finesse. All that’s missing here (fortunately) are the crowd cheers and party sounds.

It’s A Guitar World - Chet Atkins (RCA, 1967): A very pretty guitar version of “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” that suggests what Pat Metheny would do with the song some two decades later if he had ever strolled down this road. Chet Atkins sounds positively bewitched by the melody here, effortlessly employing some showy but effective technique that, in turn, becomes ultimately bewitching.

Toussaint - Allen Toussaint (Scepter, 1971): Legendary New Orleans songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint oddly included this reverential take of Vince Guaraladi’s classic on his 1971 album (which also includes his own “From A Whisper To A Scream,” “Working In The Coal Mine” and “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” – all made famous by other performers). Toussaint works out a real and welcome New Orleans spin here, grounding the song in a sort of jazz funeral march before launching it into a swampy bayou funk. While it’s odd to hear Toussaint perform someone else’s tune, particularly a jazz tune, the pianist clearly appreciates the melody and the way Vince Guaraldi’s pianistic poetry made the song what it is. But he very nicely brews a hearty gumbo here that is all his own.

Rides Again - James Gang (RCA, 1970): Seems unbelievable that rock once promised a very creative new direction for music. You’d never guess it was the case today. The James Gang was one of the proofs that it could have been great. The Cleveland trio’s second album (one of the first recorded at LA’s famed Record Plant studios) produced the great hit “Funk #49” as well as the equally phenomenal “The Bomber,” a medley featuring the group’s “Closet Queen” with surprisingly electric takes of Ravel’s “Bolero” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate To The Wind.” The Guaraldi tune comes in at the 4-minute and 53-second point of the song, accented by Joe Walsh’s stunningly beautiful guitar virtuoso. The rhythm section stays in “Bolero” mode throughout the Guaraldi interlude (which lasts for only about a minute) but Walsh’s guitar is a miracle of heavy-metal melodicism. It would have been nice to hear more of what the James Gang would have made of this. Still, “The Bomber” makes for one of rock’s finest moments – and something worth hearing for “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” alone.

Smackwater Jack - Quincy Jones (A&M, 1971): The second of two recordings Quincy Jones made of “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” is a sublime fusion classic. Q comes up with a tremendously subtle arrangement and gives the melody line to Bob James, who is very distinctively manning the Fender Rhodes. The solos here are positively electrifying. Eric Gale helms a sizzling solo on electric guitar, Bobby Scott (who guided the tune in Q’s 1963 recording) gives a soulfully magnificent jazz solo before the great Marvin Stamm, buoyed by bassist Chuck Rainey, gives a melodic counterpoint to bring it all back home. This is one of the best casts “Cast” has ever had.

Shades of Green - Grant Green (Blue Note, 1971): Guitarist Grant Green and arranger Wade Marcus team up here to provide a psych funk take on “Cast Your Fate To The Wind.” Thanks to Marcus, things get off to a rather middle-of-the-road start. But Green raises the bar with his typically melodic and soulful approach. When they break into Green’s absolutely electrifying solo, Marcus and company get into a sweet Blaxploitation groove, with Emmanauel Riggins on clavinet, Billy Wooten on vibes, King Errisson on conga and bassist Wilton Felder and drummer Stix Hooper, both of The Crusaders, laying down a positively mind-blowing groove.

Heavy Axe - David Axelrod (Fantasy, 1974): A quirky, though not altogether unsuccessful, arrangement of “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” came courtesy of legendary composer, arranger and producer David Axelrod in 1974, produced by Cannonball Adderley (who’d been produced by Axelrod for years). As a composer, Axelrod had long been obsessed with hypnotic rhythms and quasi-religious themes. “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” might be heard that way. Certainly Axelrod spun it into his musical universe, replete with the cream of LA studio musicians, a small but pointless gospel choir, George Duke’s fine pianisms and an ironically devilish synthesized bass groove. It doesn’t quite succeed (it seems only half thought-out). But it’s fascinating nonetheless.

Good King Bad - George Benson (CTI, 1976): This sumptuous version of “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” was the very first version of the song I ever heard. To this day, I think it is the best. It is what encouraged me to explore the music of Vince Guaraldi (Oh, the guy who does the Peanuts music!) and one of my earliest CTI obsessions. This song first sang to me when Benson’s “This Masquerade” was all the rage. It convinced me that George Benson is one of the greatest of all jazz guitarists. What he does here is simply magical. I know every note of both solos he takes here by heart and each is chosen with the passion, fire and grace of a great player who cares about what he plays. Benson is absolutely sublime here and, while his catalog brims with much terrific playing, he has rarely sounded this inspired. Joe Farrell adds such a complimentary counterpoint on flute that a whole album was conceived (Benson & Farrell) the following year to capitalize on the simpatico symmetry of the two soloists. The great David Matthews adds a subtle fusion arrangement that features Bobby Lyle on electric piano (though I would have guessed it was Matthews himself), Gary King on bass, Andy Newmark on drums and the barely noticeable addition of the great David Friedman on vibes. Matthews adds brief string flourishes that are so delicate that they too just enhance what everyone else is doing. Simply put, this one is breathtaking.

Waiting For Spring - David Benoit (GRP, 1989): Pianist David Benoit has recorded plenty of tributes to Vince Guaraldi and the Peanuts music over the years. His lovely touch and perfectly jazzy approach to popular forms have also gotten David Benoit scoring jobs on such Peanuts specials as This Is America, Charlie Brown (1989), It Was My Best Birthday Ever, Charlie Brown (1997), It’s The Pied Piper, Charlie Brown (2000), Lucy Must Be Traded, Charlie Brown (2003) and I Want A Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown (2003). Here, the pianist, who sounds remarkably like a mix of Guaraldi and Dave Grusin on piano, is accompanied beautifully by such greats as John Patitucci on bass and Peter Erskine on drums. There have been few recordings of this tune that stay well within Guaraldi’s universe as Benoit’s gorgeous take does. Benoit is scintillating on piano and he adds something of his own to the resolution of the refrain. But Patitucci does something here that few bassists ever have done in a piano trio. He’s dynamically alert and ignites the pianist into some particularly inventive passages, starting with the pianist’s solo and, most notably, the song’s outro, which starts about the 2-minute and 28-second point. It suggests that this version of the song is far too short at only three minutes and some change. Very nice.

Linus & Lucy – The Music of Vince Guaraldi - George Winston (Windham Hill, 1996): This is one of the few solo piano versions of “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” recorded and it comes from the first of two discs pianist George Winston has recorded of Vince Guaraldi’s music. It’s difficult to discern whether it’s the solo-piano presentation or George Winston’s performance of the tune that make this one of the most hymn-like of all the Casts ever recorded. In George Winston’s hands, the tune also takes on the luster of one of the seasonal perennials he performed on the magnificent December (1982). Winston’s winsome solo provides the performance with his own indelible signature, favoring the tune’s church-like quality over the rhythmic changes most improvisers groove to. I tend to hear more of a painful longing in Winston’s version of the song than the “joyful feeling” he describes in the CD’s liner notes and find it hard to enjoy the performance here as much as many of the other versions of the song – until the pianist takes a more jazzy turn in the song’s outro: two minutes of rather inspired and interesting bliss that the song often inspires in great players.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 6

Agatha Christie’s Poirot – An Introduction
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 1
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 2
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 3
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 4
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 5

1. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (first broadcast January 1, 1995): The wealthy and tyrannical invalid Simeon Lee reunites his family for a “grand” Christmas get together at his manor home of Gorston Hall. Lee, who made his fortune mining diamonds in South Africa years before, has long had strained relationships with every member of his family, which includes eldest son Alfred and his wife Lydia, both of whom live at Gorston Hall with old Simeon; son George, an M.P., and his wife, Magdalene, who benefit by an allowance provided by old Simeon; son Harry, who long ago left the family home to travel the world; and granddaughter Pilar, the adult child of Simeon’s deceased daughter, Jennifer, a young lady no one in the family has ever met (estranged son David, a painter, and his wife Hilda are left out of the film version as well as Stephen Farr, the alleged son of Simeon Lee’s former business partner). It turns out that Simeon Lee has gathered the family only to anger everyone about changes he wants to make about living arrangements at Gorston Hall and, more importantly, to his will. When the family questions the decisions he has made, he angrily dismisses them all as worthless wastrels that he has no time for. On the night before Christmas (it’s a different night in the film), Police Superintendent Sugden appears at the house collecting for the police charity and Simeon Lee permits him to his quarters. Shortly after the policeman leaves, a terrible commotion and a loud scream emits from Simeon Lee’s room. After the family breaks his locked door down, they discover furniture, ceramics and all sorts of bric-a-brac scattered through the room and Simeon Lee lying dead, his throat cut and blood everywhere. Sugden appears on the scene almost immediately and begins an investigation. Poirot realizes that the death could only be the result of murder and that the murderer was a family member.

First published in 1938 and published in the US as Murder for Christmas (1939) and again as A Holiday for Murder (1947), Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is another one of author Agatha Christie’s famed locked-door mysteries. Similar to any number of Miss Christie’s “manor murders,” Hercule Poirot’s Christmas draws very distinct inspiration from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sagas (one of the story’s characters even laments this fact), notably The Crooked Man and even something of Hound of the Baskervilles thrown in for good measure. Like The Theft of The Royal Ruby, it is another of Poirot’s holiday investigations, though the film version of this particular adventure finds Poirot rather inconceivably invited to spend the holidays at Gorston Hall by Simeon Lee before his death (in the book, Poirot is visiting with his friend, Colonel Johnson, when Johnson is called to the scene of the crime and invites Poirot to accompany him in the investigation, a similar method Christie used to involve Poirot in The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman). The story is also similar to other Christie “blood will out” novels like A Pocket Full of Rye or Crooked House where a tyrannical patriarch is dispatched (or a matriarch in the case of Ordeal by Innocence) by one of their own. Here, Miss Christie goes out her way to remind the reader that the offspring bear uncanny traits of their parentage.

Clive Exton’s dramatization is remarkably faithful to Agatha Christie’s novel, even using large chunks of the book’s dialog to tell the story – particularly during the film’s third act. Exton’s script also does away with several unnecessary characters, including Colonel Johnson (replaced, of course, by Inspector Japp), and transfers Stephen Farr’s interest in Pilar to Harry, who expressed a rather lascivious attraction to Pilar in the book. But the film makes some rather sweeping changes that probably do more to spice up the story than Miss Christie’s rather unbelievable yet undeniably engrossing yarn initially permits. First and foremost there is the film’s South African prologue, not in the book and nicely getting in a brief cover of Miriam Makeba’s famed “The Click Song” (pretty cool for 1897!), which finds Simeon Lee killing his diamond-hunting partner and, after getting wounded in the struggle, being nursed back to health by a lone woman with unusual markings. He has sex with the woman and then suddenly disappears. The film also finds Simeon Lee inviting Poirot to Gorston Hall, claiming his life is in danger (something that is never properly explained). In the book Simeon Lee never meets or talks to Poirot. The request, explains Simeon Lee in the film, is made, rather amazingly, at Superintendent Sugden’s suggestion – placing Poirot, unbelievably again, right at the scene of the crime (the book never suggests that Sugden and Simeon Lee have previously met either).

Exton also does away with the unrealistically huge quantity of blood at the novel’s crime scene. This allows Christie to throw suspicion on one of the family members with the oft-repeated quote from Lady Macbeth, “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” There’s far too much blood in the novel – which was intended (it is also never properly explained how the two different types of blood that were present were determined to be different) – and hardly any in the film itself. In both versions, though, the killer manages to inconceivably escape without getting stained or marked by any blood at all. Although Exton’s script maintains the same killer as Christie’s story, the film changes the vengeance behind the crime to a spurned mother, almost suggesting Hitchcock’s Psycho. This individual, created for mere story-telling purposes, also does not appear to pay in any way for her involvement in the crime that took place at her behest. Exton also does away with Poirot’s surprisingly total lack of respect for Superintendent Sugden throughout the novel, which is probably much aligned with David Suchet’s kinder, gentler portrayal of Poirot (though he delivers some rather sour zingers – right out of the novel – when detailing all the people who could have killed Simeon Lee). Director Edward Bennett, who, like dramatist Clive Exton, was present for the very first of the Poirot films, The Adventure of the Clapham Cook, stages a typically efficient mystery with many lush, wintery scenes that surely were filmed in early 1994 – even though this film was first seen on New Year’s Day 1995. The ensemble cast does a decent job of bringing Miss Christie’s story to life, even overcoming the herculean task of many having to look as if they descended from Simeon Lee. Vernon Dobtcheff (Simeon Lee) also appeared in the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express (with Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot) as well as the 1977 James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, which also featured Brian Gwaspari (Harry Lee). John Horsley (Tressilian) also appeared as Professor Wamstead in the 1987 Miss Marple film Nemesis and as Mr. Spragg in the 1980 TV film Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?.

2. Hickory Dickory Dock (first broadcast February 12, 1995): Miss Lemon’s sister, Mrs. Hubbard, who is matron of a youth hostel on Hickory Road owned by a Greek woman named Mrs. Nicoletis, consults Hercule Poirot about some items that have gone strangely missing at the house. Most of the items are fairly worthless, but several of the items strike Poirot as rather strange. These include an expensive stethoscope, a diamond ring that is later discovered in one of the residents’ soup and a rucksack that turns up torn to shreds. The hostel residents, who include American Sally Finch, Celia Austin, Patricia Lane, Leonard Bateson, Colin McNabb, Nigel Chapman and Valerie Hobhouse appear as baffled and disturbed by the missing items as Mrs. Hubbard. Poirot consents to visit the hostel, which enrages Mrs. Nicoletis. But shortly thereafter, Celia Austin confesses to taking some – but not all – of the items. As it appears that all is resolved, Celia is discovered dead. It is quickly ascertained Celia has been poisoned and her death is nothing less than murder. Mrs. Nicoletis is horrified that this death brings more policemen to her hostel. But she too is soon discovered dead, also the victim of murder. As Poirot investigates, he unravels a mystery involving international smuggling and a murderer of long standing living at the house on Hickory Road.

First published in 1955 and published in the US as Hickory Dickory Death, this Poirot novel is the first of the Poirot novels to feature Miss Lemon, who appears only in several of the Poirot short stories. Here, she gets a rather substantial role in the story and Poirot is as surprised by some of what he learns about Miss Lemon in the book as we are by watching her life outside the office unfold in the film. Although the book’s title comes from the well-known children’s nursery rhyme (as does Miss Lemon’s sister, “Mother Hubbard”), only the story’s hostel location on Hickory Road ties back to the title. The book provides several casual references to the nursery rhyme to make the connection. But the film provides the pervasive presence of a mouse at the hostel (and quite a few clocks) and a piece of cheese at the end to tie the story to its odd title.

It’s a mess of a story. Like The Adventure of the Clapham Cook (1923), Hickory Dickory Dock starts with a seemingly trivial event that turns into serious crime by the story’s end. There is also the hint of matricide that Agatha Christie would explore much more fully – and better – with Ordeal by Innocence (1958). Rarely, though, has Agatha Christie scripted such a whodunit that reads like a soap opera. First, it’s completely over-populated by suspicious characters and, rather unpleasantly, with too many questionable “foreigners” that are questionable because of their foreignness. Second, the meat of the mystery takes far too long to kick into gear. By the time the real mystery is revealed – or, guessed at, by Poirot – and it is determined that everything is a cover for a rather unlikely smuggling operation (about two thirds of the way through the book), the reader hardly cares anymore. Still, Agatha Christie fans will have fun picking up references in the novel to previous Poirot adventures. The scene in Chapter 4, where Poirot first engages with the students at the hostel, provides references to such previous Poirot stories as Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952) and the strange series of short stories known as The Labors of Hercules (1947). There is also a rather oblique – possibly inaccurate – reference to After the Funeral (1953) in Chapter 21.

Anthony Horowitz’s dramatization does much to alter Christie’s crazed conundrum. First, he takes the novel’s mid-fifties setting back to the Poirot series’ mid-thirties timeframe. Thankfully, this allows the scripter to dispense with the many mentions of communism and all of the various issues that go along with that and those that would be on the mind of many in the mid-fifties. Next, Horowitz surgically removes many of the needless characters in Christie’s story including “Mr. Chandra Lai” (as he is always referred), Gopal Ram, Miss Reinjeer, Mr. Akibombo, Genevieve, Rene (?), Elizabeth Johnston (Black Bess), Ahmed Ali and Jean Tomlinson as well as the hostel’s “Italian” servants, Geronimo and his wife, Maria. Horowitz mercifully simplifies any number of odd plot points from Christie’s novel. He does away with the complicated maze of false passports from the novel and shredded scarf. He only uses one stolen poison, rather than Christie’s set of three stolen poisons. Horowitz doesn’t complicate the stolen diamond ring issue by having it replaced with a fake, as is done in the novel. The whole issue of the spilled green ink, which figures largely in the novel, is fortunately missing and Valerie Hobhouse’s mother is never named in the film (which might have helped make some of the motivations clearer…but they’re not all that clear in the book either).

Some of the changes Horowitz makes in the film are rather inspired. For example, The American, Sally Finch, is allegedly in Britain on a Fulbright Scholarship, specializing in Keats (one of Horowitz’s many poetic/literate references) – but she knows nothing whatsoever of Keats. Sally Finch turns out to be someone else altogether. The dying Sir Arthur Stanley, seemingly renowned in the book as a research chemist, becomes a famed M.P. in the film, a hero of the Labor party and the Jarrow marchers, and someone Patricia Lane quite admires (which, of course, leads to her downfall more realistically than it does in the novel). Valerie Hobhouse works for a design house (named “Sabrina Fair,” which comes from Milton, as the book references, but is also the title of a popular Broadway play of the time, that was turned into the popular film, Sabrina the year Agatha Christie’s book was published) where she has developed stitch work of a particularly singular signature that helps Poirot unravel the crime. Horowitz also replaces the novel’s Inspector Sharpe (and Sergeant Cobb) with Chief Inspector Japp, who is frazzled by his wife’s absence, which allows Poirot to invite the policeman to stay with him and enjoy his particularly odd cuisine and, comically, discover the benefits of a bidet.

The film, directed with aplomb by series veteran Andrew Grieve, is only marginally more successful than the novel. The scenes featuring the mouse are wonderfully well shot, as far as filler goes, but there isn’t too much that the director or the dramatist could do to make this presentation anything more than a stage-bound presentation of a rather too talky piece of mystery ephemera. The presentation hints at the inspiration behind many of the Italian gialli. But this is surely one of the few Poirot novels that hardly justified its feature-length presentation. There is, however, some fine acting here, particularly from the great Jonathan Firth as Nigel Chapman, Damian Lewis as Leonard Bateson and Sarah Badel as Mrs. Hubbard. Rachel Bell (Mrs. Nicoletis) also appeared as Jennifer Fortescue in the 1985 Miss Marple film A Pocket Full of Rye while Granville Saxton (the mysterious Mr. Casterville, Sally Finch’s weird and rather inappropriate boss) also appeared in the 1983 episode of Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime titled “The House of Lurking Death” as Dr. Burton. The great David Burke (Sir Arthur Stanley) is, of course, best known for his appearances as Dr. Watson in the 1984-85 series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

3. Murder on the Links (first broadcast February 11, 1996): Millionaire Paul Renaud asks Hercule Poirot to meet with him in order to avert a perceived threat. Before the two can meet over the life-threatening issue, Renaud is murdered. The murder, though, is most peculiar. Masked intruders apparently stormed Renaud’s house, the Villa Geneviève, located in an exclusive region of Northern France. They bind and gag Renaud’s wife, Eloise, and force M. Renaud to reveal his “secret.” When he is unforthcoming, the bandits abduct him from the house and disappear into the night. The next morning, Renaud is discovered lying dead, stabbed in the back, in an open grave located by a nearby golf course (the links of the title). It is determined, as investigations persist, that Renaud was involved in a relationship with his neighbor, Madame Daubreuil, or – possibly – a mysterious woman named Bella. It’s possible that Renaud could have even been involved in some sort of blackmail scheme with one of these two women. Poirot discovers that on the day he was murdered, Renaud inexplicably sent his son, Jack – who was involved with Daubreuil’s daughter, the beautiful Marthe, “the girl with the anxious eyes” – to work in South America and dismissed his driver for a holiday. Poirot is surprised at the reaction Renaud’s wife has to her husband’s death and the similarities this crime has to an earlier crime of his recollection.

First published in 1923, The Murder on the Links (“the” prefaces the novel but not the film) is a genuinely perplexing tale of a bizarre murder which apparently mirrors an earlier crime. It is the second Poirot novel following The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and, most interestingly, is dedicated to the author’s first husband, Archibald Christie, whom she divorced only five years later – and the man who is responsible for Christie’s mysterious disappearance in December 1926 that became the subject of the 1979 Michael Apted film Agatha, starring Vanessa Redgrave (who appeared earlier in the 1974 all-star production of Murder on the Orient Express), Timothy Dalton and Dustin Hoffman. This nearly Shakespearean tale often harkens back to the terrible-things-out-of-the-past tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle such as The Adventure of the Speckled Band (1892) and The Adventure of the Crooked Man (1893). There are several references to Sherlock Holmes throughout the novel, including Hastings’ narration that says Poirot “has a certain disdain for tangible evidence, such as footprints and cigarette ash,” the very things that helped Sherlock Holmes solve his baffling crimes. Poirot is said to be more of the hunter type and the hunting dog that so many policemen and detectives are, using his “little grey cells” to solve crimes, therefore disdaining any of the legwork or the action that American detectives of the period might employ or American readers of the period might expect in such a telling. There are also hints – but only hints, grand or as elusive as they may be – toward such Shakespeare stories as Macbeth, Othello, King Lear and Hamlet. Naturally, such previous Poirot adventures are recounted in the novel, including The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), referenced in chapters 1, 2, and 7, and the short story The Plymouth Express (1923), noted in chapter 2. Like The Cornish Mystery (1923) and the later How Does Your Garden Grow (1935), Poirot’s assistance is requested here by a victim who is murdered before outlining the investigation they want Poirot to pursue.

Scripted, as was the previous Hickory, Dickory Dock, by the great Anthony Horowitz, Murder on the Links is an exceptionally colorful telling of Agatha Christie’s magnificent story. Here, Poirot is conned by Hastings to a golf hotel in the real French province of Deauville (the book’s locale is the fictionalized Merlinville) where Poirot meets M. Renaud, the owner of the hotel, and Hastings first encounters his beloved, Bella Dulveen. In the book, Renaud’s letter commands Poirot to France. Poirot, of course, insists that Hastings accompany him. Horowitz also nicely changes the initial meeting between Hastings and his beloved, “Cinderella” as he considers her through most of the novel, from a meet-cute on a ship voyage which opens the novel to a more realistically bewitching musical performance at the French hotel. The dramatist also morphs the Dulveen twins into the magnificent Bella, who is a much more human concoction in the film than she is on the page, particularly as portrayed by the lovely Jacinta Mulcahy in her only appearance in the entirety of the Poirotseries thus far. The film also finds Jack Renaud as a Le Trophe Cycliste de Deauville bicyclist (he had no such interest –or any real interests – in the book), giving him a stronger reason than Marthe to want to stay in France. The film also changes, rather meaninglessly, the book’s timings of when the Renauds and the Daubriels move to their luxurious French digs. Horowitz also ups the wager between the lead investigator on the case, Giraud of the Sûreté, and Poirot by changing a 500 franc bet at who will solve the crime first into a call between Giraud giving up his famous pipe (a la Sherlock Holmes) if he fails to solve the crime first or Poirot shaving off his moustache if he fails. Guess who wins? As an aside, this particular situation reminds me of the 1944 Sherlock Holmes film The Spider Woman where Basil Rathbone’s Holmes’ faked death causes the surprisingly grieving Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) to request one of the investigator’s famed pipes from Holmes’ long-time comrade, Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce), as a remembrance. It’s not the same thing, of course. But there is the same sort of reverence and respect to each of the scenarios - and something of Horowitz’s amazingly referential writing.

Like Horowitz, director Andrew Grieve returns here to mount this particularly well-staged production. The story beautifully begins with a Citizen Kane-like introduction – a perfect way to introduce the viewer to the story. (David Suchet also starred in the excellent 1999 HBO film RKO 281, recounting the making of Citizen Kane, where he expertly portrayed the very different-than-Poirot American film-lord Louis B. Mayer.) It probably takes more than one viewing for the film to clarify itself. But that’s ok. As is, it is skillfully presented. Hardcore Christie readers might disapprove of putting the back story up front like this. But such a presentation is visually and temporally necessary to explain something the audience would not be able to know as familiarly as the characters in the story. Additionally, historical facts can unfold as they are discovered in a book. In a film, this would require so much exposition that it would be laborious and unbelievably coincidental by the time it was presented. As such, Horowitz and Grieve conspire to present the story’s “past” rather ingeniously here. Henrietta Voigts (the maid Leonie) also appeared as Alice in the 1987 Miss Marple film At Bertram’s Hotel and this was the last of news reader Richard Bebb’s (1927-2006) six heard “appearances” in the Poirot series.

4. Dumb Witness (first broadcast March 16, 1996): Unable to sleep one night, the elderly and often sleepless Emily Arundell wanders outside her bedroom, trips and falls headlong down the stairs. The whole house is awakened by the fall, including Miss Arundell’s companion, Wilhemina (Minnie) Lawson, and such houseguests as nephew Charles, niece Theresa and another niece, Bella, and her husband, Dr. Jacob Tanois. The elderly lady survives the fall but it is suspected she tripped over the ball her pet dog, Bob, a fox terrier, often plays with. Emily Arundell doesn’t believe Bob or his ball was at fault and becomes fearful for her life. Unbeknownst to everyone, Emily Arundell changes the will benefiting her family, leaving everything to her companion, Wilhemina. Several weeks later Emily Arundell does die. Poirot finds the circumstances leading up to Emily Arundell’s death very suspicious and investigates.

First published in 1937, Dumb Witness was also first published in the US as Poirot Loses A Client, a dumb title that hides an early American fear of political incorrectness (it’s also known in its serialization as “The Mystery of Littlegreen House”). The “dumb witness” obviously refers to the dog that knows all but is unable to speak. But as the dog is not present as a witness in the novel and the sheer number of animal references Agatha Christie’s story attributes to the sorry lot of humans she conjures up here (dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, etc.), the author may have been implying a sort of double meaning with the potentially offensive adjective. (With the story’s inevitable hints of Sherlock Holmes, a better title might have come from the 1893 Conan Doyle tale Silver Blaze regarding “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” which was used as the title to Mark Haddon’s wonderful 2003 novel.) It is the last of the Poirot novels to be narrated by Captain Hastings until the final novel, Curtain (1975), written during World War II. It is, indeed, a most curious tale with a conclusion that is as baffling as the sequence of events that lead up to the dénouement. In considering the nature of unsuspecting individuals he has encountered in the past, Poirot recalls in the novel’s regrettably titled eighteenth chapter previous adventures when he says “I am reflecting on various people, handsome young Norman Gale (Death in the Clouds), bluff, hearty Evelyn Howard (The Mysterious Affair at Styles), the pleasant Dr. Sheppard (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), and the quiet, reliable Knighton (The Mystery of the Blue Train).” But as Hastings wasn’t there for most of the adventures, the names mean nothing to him. It is Agatha Christie’s way of suggesting that the guilty culprit will not be the person she is setting you up to believe it is.

The novel unfolds considerably differently than the film that was adapted by Douglas Watkinson in the third of his three Poirot adaptations. The book finds Poirot receiving a rambling, near incoherent letter from Emily Arundell, dated two months earlier and requesting his assistance. Intrigued, Poirot goes to visit Miss Arundell in her village of Market Basing, only to find that the old lady died shortly after writing the letter – which makes its sudden appearance even stranger – and that Littlegreen House, her home, is now up for sale. With Hastings’ assistance, Poirot assumes various identities to learn from the people of the village that Miss Arundell’s death was in no way suspicious and that her companion, Miss Lawson, has quite surprisingly inherited the old lady’s house and her large fortune.

The film, stylishly directed by Edward Bennett in the last of his ten Poirot adaptations (he also directed the very first, The Adventure of the Clapham Cook), finds Hastings rushing Poirot off to see an old school chum, Charles Arundell, break a water speed record. This helps introduce “Battle-a,” as in “Battle of Hastings,” the nicknamed Hastings, and Poirot to the Arundell family. After Aunt Emily’s fall down the stairs, it is Poirot who suggests the elderly lady change the will that benefits her family equally to one special friend that no one knows about. While the script does away with the novel’s Dr. Donaldson (and Theresa’s engagement to him), the dreadfully gossipy Miss Peabody and Ellen, the Littlegreen House maid (who is replaced in the film by a briefly seen character named Sarah), it adds a break-in at Littlegreen House, Dr. Grainger’s affection for Miss Lawson (and his subsequent death) and the up-charged significance of the “dumb witness,” Bob. The film character of nearly all the book’s personalities differs quite substantially too. The Greek Dr. Tanois, the elderly Dr. Grainger, the companion Minnie, gadabout Charles Arundell and even Poirot, who is unusually deceptive throughout, are quite different in their film roles than they are presented in Christie’s novel. And Bob, of course, takes a distinctly more important role in the film than the book. While both stories essentially end the same way (except the murderer commits suicide in the novel), they go about their telling in quite different ways. Both are entertaining. Miss Christie’s novel is an entertainingly light read – but makes much of the machinations a bit more sensible than the film. The ITV film is an equally entertaining visual delight, with a tremendously well-cast set of actors to bring the somewhat ridiculous story to life.

Norma West (Wilhemina Lawson) also appeared in the 1987 Miss Marple film The Murder at the Vicarage as Mrs. Lestrange and in the 1983 episode of Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime, “The Ambassador’s Boots” as Estelle Blaney while Jonathan Newth (Dr. Grainger) also appeared in the 1985 episode of Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime, “The Case of The Missing Lady.” Pauline Jameson (Isabel Tripp) also appeared in the 1964 Miss Marple film Murder Most Foul while Muriel Pavlow, who nicely appears as Isabel’s sister Julia, also appeared in the 1961 Miss Marple film Murder She Said.

Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 7
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 8
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 9
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 10
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 11
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 12