Sunday, April 23, 2017

With visceral impact and artistic imagination, SF Jazz Collective blows through town on the first of two nights here

Rising out of the San Francisco Jazz Festival more than a decade ago, the SF Jazz Collective has made its mark by gathering
SF Jazz Collective: Eubanks, Calvaire, Wolf, Jones and Sanchez (standing, from left); Penman, Simon, Zenon (seated, from left)
top-drawer musicians into ensemble work periodically, focusing year after year on the work of the music's major figures and touring with it.

This weekend the current tour is playing a couple of nights at the Jazz Kitchen. I heard the first set of the first night Saturday; the program was centered on the legacy of Miles Davis. Typical of the group's creativity, the program also included original compositions, as well as members' arrangements of the trumpeter's works.

To present its calling card, the octet opened with "All Blues," a perennial favorite that has been taken up by many artists. This arrangement, by pianist Edward Simon, wound its way into the theme obliquely. It featured the grandiloquent vibraphone playing of Warren Wolf, and ended in a long coda with lots of nimble ensemble tags periodically inserted.

SF Jazz Collective arrangements typically avoid any "tribute" genuflections toward the honoree's manner of performance. This is particularly evident in how they handle their borrowings from pop heroes such as Stevie Wonder, as a three-disc issue from 2011. And the solos take off  from the new arrangement more than from the original, which puts everything the band is likely to play in its own universe.

This was amply evident in the second Davis number, "Joshua," a Wolf arrangement distinguished by Simon's cogent piano solo and the rip-roaring exuberance of trumpeter Sean Jones. "Milestones" brought front and center the arranging aptitude of bassist Matt Penman, with another indication of the fresh distribution of solos characteristic of the band. This time around, saxophonists Miguel Zenon (alto) and David Sanchez (tenor) were showcased.
Shields Green, an enslaved rebel

Among the attractive originals, trombonist Robin Eubanks introduced "Shields Green," a piece named for a participant in John Brown's 1859 raid on the weapons factory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia, and spelled without the apostrophe). The historical context drew from Eubanks a rootsy sound, anchored by regular finger snaps in which the composer encouraged audience participation. Simon turned from the grand piano to a synthesizer to make the accompaniment moodier. Eubanks took an extraordinarily agile solo, expressing his own voice but bringing to mind the virtuosity of one of his Indianapolis trombone heroes, J.J. Johnson.

Just as exciting and multifaceted a new piece was Jones' "Hutcherson Hug," named for the late Bobby Hutcherson, a vibraphonist who was a charter member of SF Jazz Collective. It presented a rare reflective episode in the first set, its gentle waltz theme elaborated in an expansive solo by Wolf, Hutcherson's successor as Jazz Collective vibist. Though the band gives him lots of company in this respect, Wolf is particularly outstanding in rolling out phrase after phrase with nary a stale idea or cliche to be heard.

The set closed with drummer Obed Abaire's "One Eleven," a complex, high-energy work full of cross-rhythms — naturally featuring a drum solo, but so much more than an excuse for percussion display. Like everything this band seems to play, the collective idea in its name always seems to be more important than anything close to individual grandstanding. When individuality is called for, there is no shortage in the supply, but the collective remains uppermost.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Urbanski puts an aptly severe stamp on the consolations of the Brahms Requiem

Collaborations between the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra — two organizations with
Expert choral preparation: Eric Stark conducting in rehearsal
a long history together but structurally independent — are always eagerly anticipated.

Not too many years ago, we heard John Nelson, who considered sacred music for chorus and orchestra a specialty, lead the same forces in Brahms' "German Requiem," which ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski conducted Friday night. The warmth the former music director imparted to the music on one of his rare returns was expected, and welcome.

But I also found attractive Urbanski's more chaste concept of the oratorio, with warmth being a standard quality of the ISC under the guidance of Eric Stark. Thus, there was nothing lacking in the consoling atmosphere essential to the work. Yet there was also no overemphasis on its color or drama; spectacle is best left to the liturgical requiem settings by Verdi and Berlioz. A rare exception: the end of the sixth movement, with its text being familiar from the culmination of Handel's Messiah, certainly sounded more "fortissimo"  than Brahms' typically restrained "forte." Indeed, the extra oomph may have encouraged a premature outburst of applause from parts of the audience that hadn't read their program notes. There was one more movement to go, of course, and its subdued quality is essential to the work's meaning.

On the whole, Urbanski was scrupulous about dynamics and tempos. He didn't apply unindicated ritards to concluding measures and he kept the occasional glow of brass subsumed within the orchestral fabric. The flow  of relatively independent lines, as in the fugal conclusion of the movement that aroused an intrusive ovation, was kept clear, with no orchestral detail allowed to poke out. The ISO's current music director favored a rhythmically enlivened interpretation, to which the large chorus was unfailingly responsive.

The oratorio's moments of excitement are judiciously placed, and conductor, chorus and orchestra rose to those occasions when required in the first of two performances under Urbanski's baton at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The "drama" in Brahms' Requiem is simply a matter of the contrast between mourning and sobriety on the one hand and the promise of relief and causes for celebration on the other. The overall tone never departs far from lightly theological reminders of the brevity of human life in the embrace of an overarching deity whose supremacy guarantees that loss and mourning are not what life is about, despite appearances.

This is a good place to raise a few oddities about the projected English translation of the scriptural excerpts chosen by the composer from the Luther Bible, the traditional standard for German Protestantism. It was a little jarring to appreciate baritone soloist Michael Kelly's extensive solo in the third movement ("Herr, lehre doch mich"), with its anguish vividly expressed, while reading a translation of the opening lines that appeal to God to teach the psalmist that "my life has a purpose, and I must accept it." This sounds kind of Rick Warren-ish or New Age-y to me. Where's the death anxiety? The context requires something on the order of the King James Version's "Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is, that I may know how frail I am." Or, to more directly render the German version: "...that my life has an end, and I must go hence."

The translation used seemed to be either too literal or too liberal, and more or less reliant on the Authorized Version,  but inconsistent about it. It was amusing later (to me, a former trombonist) to read the supertitle of Judgment Day being announced by "the last trombone," when the trumpet is of course the instrument all scripturally familiar English-speakers associate with the event famously prophesied in I Corinthians.

While on the subject of guest soloist Kelly, who struck the right note emotionally in both his solos — the worried one at first, the prophetic one later — there was an odd moment in the sixth movement when he kind of snuck back from his chair to the front of the stage, after the chorus had shouted about the resurrection of the dead, to indicate the meaning of all that with the words "Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written," by way of introduction to the chorus' thundering questions: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" It was a startling effect, reminding me of when the immortal Oliver Hardy used to re-enter a scene he'd just left in a huff, wagging a forefinger and saying sternly: "And another thing..."

This weekend's soprano soloist, Christina Pier, was quite effective in her one appearance, the fifth movement's "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit."  I liked the way she regulated and intensified the fervor of certain words, to make the divine promises of "Trost" (solace) and "Freude" (joy) seem all the more real.

Stark's chorus performed with its usual polish and, as mentioned above, warmth of expression. I missed more tenor strength here and there, but particularly one place where a strong tenor section seems essential. That's in the opening movement, when the tenors are the first choral section to follow the sentence subject "They that sow in tears" with the radiant predicate "shall reap in joy." That very phrase is key to the uplift promised in this beloved work, and to hear it sung anything less than robustly detracts a little bit from a rendition of the Brahms Requiem. Nonetheless, this performance was one to treasure, right up through the final hushed iterations of "selig" (blessed).

Friday, April 21, 2017

HART emerges into a new phase as Indianapolis Shakespeare Company

In its ten-year history, Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre has secured for itself a firm niche in the Indianapolis theatrical
Vision-bearer for Indy Shakes: Diane Timmerman

What a concept!  With three principal pillars of financial support, the organization has been able to offer one Shakespeare production every summer — fully professional, and free of charge to audiences at White River State Park.

Now, in search of a more forthright identity and eager to avoid further confusion in the public mind with the Heartland Film Festival, the company, headed by Diane Timmerman, has recast itself as the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company and given itself a nickname, Indy Shakes.

It has a new website and this year will continue the tradition that gained many fans under its previous name on July 27, 28, and 29 with "As You Like It," directed by company member Ryan Artzberger.

I will not wax rhapsodic about that supernal comedy here, as Artzberger did so far more authoritatively and directly Thursday evening at a Cyrus Place fund-raising event inaugurating the company's next stage.

To prepare himself to make his local directorial debut, Artzberger told the gathering, he sought advice from directors this season at Indiana Repertory Theatre, where he frequently performs. He said what they offered him boiled down to advice that, to best meet the difficulties of readying a production as director, he should "keep returning to what you love about the play."

He proceeded to enumerate what he loves about "As You Like It,"  and my notes are too sketchy to do justice to what he said.
Ryan Artzberger as actor at work in a HART production at White River State Park.
But I remember how he lifted up the fact that its central character is a woman and how the play compares life to theater, and, significantly, that it rejects building walls as opposed to "building a longer table." There were about a dozen points in all.

All of these insights were enough to add to my eager anticipation of this show. I also think, without much to back me up except my own imagination, that the play's central character, Rosalind, is one of two Shakespeare women it's impossible to imagine being played by a boy, as female parts always were in Shakespeare's time. The other is Cleopatra.

There's something so essentially female — and thus, to this man, strange, attractive and extraordinarily rich and exotic — about Rosalind and Cleopatra as to make any production of "As You Like It" or "Antony and Cleopatra" worth going to great lengths to see. And here's a potential great one of one of them in the offing.

Before Artzberger spoke, Timmerman mentioned Indy Shakes' long-range plan to find another home besides White River State Park, which has many advantages but continues to run into the increasingly packed schedule of music shows at the Lawn nearby, plus the unavoidable effect of the audience having to look into the sun for the first act. Another park might serve as the company's future home, or a place in the redevelopment of the idle GM Stamping Plant nearby, she said.

Oh, and there have also been interruptions from fireworks at a not-so-idle site nearby, Victory Field. Timmerman credited Artzberger with being the most resourceful actor at taking note of the Indianapolis Indians feature during performances while remaining in character.

All kidding aside, Timmerman said that the "organizational infrastructure needs to be brought up to the artistic level." Well, given what we've seen in the latter category over the years, that's a lofty goal indeed, and should keep her and her board busy.

Charles Lloyd and his simpatico colleagues, aptly dubbed the Marvels, deepen his legacy in Palladium concert

Charles Lloyd has pursued his own brand of "fusion" for several decades now. It shows no signs of being dated, as demonstrated by the saxophonist-flutist's concert Thursday night at the Palladium.
Charles Lloyd has mesmerized audiences for decades.

He connected with massive rock audiences in the 1960s, but it was through the lyricism and open-endedness of his music, not through the kind of high-octane outreach that borders on pandering. We won't make jazz that will furrow your brow, he seemed to promise.

That seems to be his approach still in 2017, as the 79-year-old musical guru from Memphis tours with the Marvels, an ensemble fully in tune with his spacious, enveloping approach to making jazz that endures. Maybe Lloyd's floating discourses sounded even better with cannabis once upon a time, but who needs artificial stimuli when a master is at work, rooting his unique message in many years of pertinent communication?

The personnel of the Marvels amounts pretty close to an all-star aggregation.  Yet nothing heard in the Carmel concert was really about stardom, despite the presence of Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal-steel guitar, Reuben Rogers on electric bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Sure, there were solos, with some predisposition, naturally, to showcase the leader. But in a real sense, Lloyd and the Marvels are an incarnation on their own terms of the Weather Report watchword: Everybody solos, and nobody solos.

The music exploited the guitar-rich texture of the band without overloading it. When it comes to the fusion label, the outreach is more toward genre than instrumentation. What I heard at this concert (regrettably, I arrived late) had the quality and straightforward address of folk music, principally from the Caribbean and the Southern U.S.  Pedal steel is of course heavily associated with country music, but the band's grasp proved to be unconstrained by generic limits.

The knock on Lloyd used to be that he played tenor in a kind of watered-down John Coltrane manner. This description woefully shortchanges his individuality: He gets around the horn with some of the "sheets-of-sound" breadth of Coltrane, but the sound and the dynamic variety is his own. The ornamentation is fluttery and deftly applied. He measures out intensity judiciously, and doesn't go in for honking, squeaking or split tones.

You can relax as you listen to him, which doesn't mean the effect is bland. Lloyd doesn't sound like anybody else, really. His style partners particularly well with Frisell, a master of atmosphere who calmly and consistently rejects placement in any particular bag.

The other players proved equally compatible. Rogers avoided funky-bass cliches, interacting smoothly with Frisell and giving unforced stature, sweetness, and clarity to the music's foundation. Leisz applied the keening, flexible line of his instrument subtly but with crucial import as a lyrical complement to the leader. Harland could lay out a groove or become almost painterly in the way he used his drums and cymbals. And a further grace note to the band's sound was Lloyd's deep-dyed songfulness when he picked up the alto flute.

The Marvels: For once, a band name that may be an understatement.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Maria Schneider communicates her vision to Butler students in ArtsFest program

Maria Schneider with one of her Grammy Awards.
Sensitive to the environment in more than her declared values, Maria Schneider is an active birder in addition to being a celebrated composer and arranger working with distinction in the jazz orchestra idiom for more than 20 years.

The Minnesota native, honed by close associations with Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer in early adulthood, was a guest of Butler University's jazz program this week, capped by a concert appearance Wednesday night at the Schrott Center.

She led the Butler Jazz Ensemble, a big band under the direction of Matt Pivec, at a concert that was preceded by a wide-ranging conversation with Rich Dole. a trombonist and teacher who was to provide a vital professional voice on bass trombone at the concert. That's where the interest in bird-watching was addressed with enthusiasm.

Dole's musical contribution came during a performance of "Bird Count," an up-tempo blues with which Schneider said she used to conclude Monday night performances by her orchestra at Visiones in New York City. The Butler student musicians gave a good account of the piece, with the patented Schneider slip-sliding harmonies and section glinting off section as the catchy theme and related choruses churned along. It was up to Dole to take the final plunge into the bass-trombone basement at the end, and he made it thrilling.

To start things off in the Schneider segment of the program, there was the aggressive "Dance You Monster to My Soft Song," titled after a Paul Klee painting that captivated the composer many years ago. The delightfully prickly piece brought forth barbed splendor from the band; particularly spicy were the drumming of T.J. Schaff and a muttering electric bass solo by Isaac Beaumont.

Schaff was impressive as the drummer in another 1994 Schneider composition, "Green Piece," and seemed particularly responsive behind Sam Turley's tenor saxophone solo. The performance also featured a well-judged piano solo by Michael Melbardis.

The best extended solo was contributed by Zack Weiler on baritone saxophone, who made a poignant showcase for his instrument and for Schneider's reflective side on "Walking by Flashlight," an instrumental version of Schneider's setting of a Ted Kooser poem, which the guest artist read before the performance. That was the most recent (2013) Schneider composition, and made for an effective contrast to a second 1994 "monster" piece that preceded it, "Wyrgly," which featured outstanding solos by tenor saxophonist Eric Wistreich and Jake Small's buzzing, roaring, wailing rock-inflected guitar.

The whole set of five pieces, whose renditions drew lavish praise from Schneider, gave ample evidence of her qualities as both composer and teacher. Her music tests developing ensembles and provides encouraging settings for  student soloists learning to make their way distinctively. "I give people interesting things to play in solos that will carry the piece to an interesting place," is the way she put it in her chat with Dole.

Before Schneider's entrance, Pivec guided a peppy old-school flag-waver by Fletcher Henderson, popularized by the Benny Goodman band 80 years ago, called "Wrappin' It Up." That followed brief sets by two student small groups sketching in classics from other eras: Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite" and "Billie's Bounce," Benny Golson's "Stablemates," and Roy Hargrove's "Strasbourg-St. Denis."  Giving an extra measure of professional polish and energy to their performances was veteran Indianapolis saxophonist Rob Dixon.