Sunday, February 19, 2017

Joe Lovano Quartet fills the room and our warm February souls at the Jazz Kitchen

Joe Lovano, looking like the chairman of the board.
Coming into the Jazz Kitchen on a beautiful unseasonably balmy Saturday evening to hear the Joe Lovano Quartet provided a layer of further relief.

The early set by the veteran saxophonist dispensed not only balm, however, but also a bracing sort of liniment that stung before it soothed. An older sax master, Sonny Rollins, offered a musical caution about global warning several years ago. But sometimes you just have to enjoy the late winter gift of 60-degree temperatures, set aside thoughts of planetary danger, and just take in the music.

Lovano's protean style and wealth of invention skirts the edge of glibness, but there's always enough in his solos and the unity he has nurtured in his bands over the years to keep the music fresh. With a short introductory cadenza as a kind of throat-clearing, Lovano and the band launched into some bluesy oratory with the leader's composition "Fort Worth."

Now, Fort Worth is a homespun Texas city that nurtures its cowboy heritage reasonably well, but I assume the title is applicable to what Lovano does because Fort Worth is the hometown of Ornette Coleman. The theme is down-home, casual about chord changes, and saturated in country blues, and thus is a durable tribute (you can hear it on at least a couple of Lovano CDs) to the apostle of free jazz.

Lovano's solo was cogent and vigorously focused, but his young pianist Lawrence Fields, besides being undermiked, was somewhat slow to roll out his ideas, then reluctant to release them.  His improvement in the course of the set was dramatic. By the third piece, "On This Day, Just Like Any Other," he was hitting his stride, moving things along smartly. He sounded both fully relaxed and generously motivated in the last two numbers, a Wayne Shorter tune and Tadd Dameron's "Hot House."

The set's second piece,"Our Daily Bread," gave the capacity crowd the first extended exposure to bassist Peter Slavov, vivaciously interactive with Larry Istreli's pistol-shot drumming. This band can fill in a broad canvas without seeming to turn aside to touch up an unrelated watercolor. In other words, it can  establish a ballad feel on a piece like this, work it up to a midtempo swinger and, with the leader as inspiration, turn a reflective mood into a more playful one, as Lovano did in his second solo. Yet it all hangs together, and declines to ride madly off in all directions, unlike Stephen Leacock's Lord Ronald.

The sixth tune, the aforementioned "Hot House," came off like something you might hear in a second set. The quartet was fully at home and reacting well to its enthusiastic reception. The conventional device of exchanges with the  drummer, delayed until this piece, was unusually high-profile and concise. A chorus or two with just Lovano and Istreli made an exciting interlude just before the quartet chimed in for the out-chorus.

We may all be living in a hot house with a sense of foreboding, but we might as well catch a little fun as the glaciers calve and the polar ice caps melt. The Joe Lovano Quartet is among the vehicles to carry us away from worry for a while.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

An elder statesman among conductors works wonders with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

Realizing that I was out of town when the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra last played Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ("Eroica"), I unfortunately can't comment on how different Friday night's performance under the baton of Edo de Waart was
Edo de Waart, this weekend's guest conductor.
compared to Mario Venzago's in 2014.

But it was soon evident as the first movement got under way at Hilbert Circle Theatre that de Waart was drawing something of significant contrast to the Beethoven styles of Krzysztof Urbanski,  Venzago, or Raymond Leppard — the current ISO music director and his two immediate predecessors.

I've never heard the ISO sound quite like this in core classical repertoire, and it's almost frustrating to try pinpointing the differences, which were all to the good. There was a glow and warmth to the first movement that avoided overheating. The sound was full and commanding, without excessive upholstery. In "The Symphony: A Listener's Guide," Michael Steinberg complains of conductors "whose attitude of reverence and awe before A Great Classic leads them into 'monumental' tempi" that seem to justify early critical carping that this trailblazing symphony was inordinately lengthy, even unendurable.

While grandeur was never far from the vision de Waart imparted to the ISO, the performance never took on any rigidity of the kind summed up in Steinberg's capitalized phrase "A Great Classic."  This was a supple interpretation whose dynamics and tempos seemed to grow from within.

The structure of each movement — particularly the first and the fourth — was delineated without any evidence of micromanaging. I think Beethoven meant for his audience to see both the forest and the trees. The "greatly compressed motif cells" (Maynard Solomon's phrase) in the opening movement, for example, were given a clarity that was nevertheless nestled in the fabric of the whole. The tidiest movement, the Scherzo, had the requisite panache, including the three-horn magnificence of the Trio section. The "funeral march" second movement sounded properly like the best thing of its kind ever created, music that Richard Wagner sought in vain to equal in his heroic funeral music for Siegfried.                 

The finale was not taken on the power trip some performances can't resist. It's obvious Beethoven is treating his much-loved theme to a kind of apotheosis, but why clamber up Parnassus heedless of the terrain's special beauties? De Waart never let the cumulative insistence of the material take over. He invited the orchestra to bask in the spectrum of Beethoven's variation treatment, and it did — from march to caprice to "Hungarian" dance to the flaming coda.

The overall progressive development of the ISO is not to be slighted, even though the vacancy issue must continue to be addressed. Nonetheless, while acknowledging the contributions of the three music directors already mentioned, what a guest conductor of de Waart's stature can lend to the ensemble speaks not only to his gifts but also to the flexibility any major orchestra needs to display. When the ability to adapt in repertoire the players know thoroughly is exercised this well, the result encourages enthusiastic patronage and brightens the future.

De Waart opens this weekend's programs (the series concludes at the Palladium Sunday) with the significant but rarely heard "Symphonies of Wind Instruments" by Igor Stravinsky. Twenty-some musicians are required for the 1920 work, heard here in its 1947 revision. Friday's performance sparkled, but showed the need for a little more rehearsal. At issue is not how well the performance hung together; it did that, but there's a host of challenges in blending so much instrumental diversity in unconventional ways.

Saxophone virtuoso Timothy McAllister
The work's peculiar title indicates the composer's interest in elaborating on the roots of the word "symphony": a sounding together. Declaring himself — in an annoying watchword of modernism — uninterested in expressing emotion, Stravinsky still managed to come up with a chastely moving tribute to Claude Debussy, as was commissioned from him. But the main focus is on a constant shifting of ensemble colors across a range of short themes that owe much, including their Russian character, to "The Soldier's Tale," "The Wedding" and even "The Rite of Spring."

Though Stravinsky disdained the organ ("The monster never breathes!" he once said), I often think that this work should come across as if one instrument were parading all these different sounds in front of us, like a finely registered organ. Friday's performance was fairly shipshape, but the score's challenges are huge. To give just one example, in one of the passages just after another repetition of the work's signature herald-like motif, three flutes have a showcase marked mezzo forte ("medium loud"), joined near the end of the seventh measure by a large proportion of the band playing piano ("soft"). If the large group does not play softly, it of course will tend to obscure the flutes. Not having a phonographic memory, I won't try to assert how close Friday's performance came to Stravinsky's demand here, but I had the sense that overall blend and balance were not all they could have been; maybe just two more concert performances will meet every requirement.

The novelty in this weekend's program is John Adams' Saxophone Concerto. To play the solo part, the ISO enjoyed the participation of the alto saxophonist who inspired the composer to create the piece, Timothy McAllister.  The soloist's playing was equal to the unrelenting nature of Adams' writing — to its bursts of lyricism and controlled feverishness alike. His tone remained pristine and properly centered throughout. The orchestra supports him after the Adams manner of repetitive elements that change direction much more freely than the minimalism with which the composer was associated long ago.

The first movement creates the illusion of rising continually, yet somehow remains grounded, like a tethered hot-air balloon.
The soloist is set against an instrumental texture that owes something to a style of Weather Report, and indeed that seminal jazz-fusion group's saxophonist, Wayne Shorter, was an acknowledged influence on the composer. The surprising breadth of Shorter's phrasing — his way of leaving a notion incomplete in one place only to answer it satisfactorily later — was represented  excitingly in the solo part.

There are moments of relaxation in the course of two long movements. The finale, with its spiky energy from soloist and orchestra alike, drew more on early bebop pioneers, specifically Charlie Parker. This was a style in which rests and abrupt breaks in the line take on structural importance. After meeting so many requirements so well, McAllister still seemed to have fresh resources to bring to bear on the second movement's climax. I'd love to hear this piece again before too long.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Letter from the Earth: Phoenix Theatre nails the Deity in "An Act of God"

Not sure what the technical glitch (clearly intentional on the part of the Phoenix Theatre tech team) was that gave an opening-night audience "legendary local character actor" Scot Greenwell as an emanation, or incarnation, or embodiment of God Himself in "An Act of God" Thursday night.

You'll have to forgive me for my confusion on how to describe the substitution. Human theological language is mostly opaque to me. I should say right off that, coincidentally, I was there as a representative of regular blog critic Jay Harvey. As an angel, though not among the higher orders — my application to either Dominions or Thrones is under consideration — I am pretty well qualified to stand in for any human observer of the celestial scene. I daresay Harvey cannot make that claim.

First off, I have to declare that David Javerbaum, the author of "An Act of God," has some startling insights and intuitions about Himself. You can see for yourself on weekends through March 12 at the Phoenix, whose current home used to be a church. I find that charming, given this production.

Scot Greenwell convincingly doing some God-splaining.
And Greenwell is a dead ringer for God. Of course, since man was made in God's image, just about anyone would be, right? But that gets into theology, and I've already implied I would avoid that as much as possible. So let's just say that Greenwell is outstanding in a play in which Himself tirelessly presents a revision of the Ten Commandments and talks at great length about his motivation and achievement. He wraps things up by presenting an entirely new vision of Creation, which I guess quaint human custom would advise me not to reveal here. God Himself hasn't always been conscientious about spoiler alerts. Not that I'm bragging.

Under the direction of William Fisher, the actor exerts a firm hold on our attention from the start. He certainly held mine, and I'd never conceived of Himself being anything close to "legendary local character actor" Scot Greenwell. This is part of the magic of theater, which God in this play assures the audience he loves. People eat that kind of thing up: If they know God loves what they love too, they feel reaffirmed. The audience couldn't have been happier at the end, though I wonder if the final divine directive was bound to co-opt the slightest resistance. But my lips are sealed.

Greenwell is given lots to say, and he seems fully invested in all of it. As God, he has His moods, and He has a sense of humor, with great timing. Irony is not His strong suit, yet 21st-century humans like to interpret a lot of what God says and does ironically, and Javerbaum plays to that tendency brilliantly. When I'm sent down here on my occasional errands, distinguishing between irony-impaired and irony-dependent people is the hardest thing I have to do.

Archangel Michael won't take divine guff.
Everybody knows from Genesis that God is quite verbal. He felt the need to announce a lot of what He created over those six days, and unless He meant for us angels to overhear him, He was talking to himself, or Himself. Subsequently, as the Bible records, He chose His words carefully but always had a way of making them stick. Presented with an opportunity to justify divine injustice, He went on and on to Job (the play reminds us), becoming as beside the point and abrasively defensive as Kellyanne Conway.

Yes, I'm up on current events and pop culture,  as is Javerbaum's God. Omniscience entails an allusiveness as extensive and au courant as Shakespeare's. (They're neck-and-neck as to who has more footnotes.) The play's God also presents an up-to-date take on the first human beings — not particularly clearing anything up, but rather setting perpetual confusion upon a new platform, IMHO.

Archangel Gabriel attends to the sacred text.
Himself's talk about His "mysterious ways" seemed a little smug and evasive to me, but we hear that in Heaven all the time. It's one of the God cliches He says He hates. That wasn't the only point during Thursday's performance that I heard low murmurs of agreement from the audience. And there was plenty of laughter, too. This God really likes his human creatures, wants to amuse them when appropriate, and seems in this play to blame Himself for many of their failings. Well, it's about time, a survey of my colleagues might find. Just sayin'.

Michael certainly thinks so. Played here by Joshua Coomer, the patron angel of Israel tightens the rhetorical thumbscrews on Himself several times, with understandable frustration, even ferocity. Once, he gets a wing lopped off for his pains. He is of course in character to bring up the Holocaust, among other ills besetting the Creation. Nimble Michael also fields questions from the audience, which have an inevitability to them. It's nonetheless risky, as when the current U.S. President calls on reporters not from FoxNews or Breitbart.

In contrast, Gabriel (Michael Hosp) stays at an onstage lectern, some distance away from blowing the last trump (I've picked up the nasty human habit of naughty puns). He's devoted to the Good Book and the Heavenly Record. At the end of the show, the archangels join Himself in an uplifting trio that conveys God's parting message.

These dutiful, slightly edgy inner-circle angels have been splendidly outfitted by Sara Gable on a multilayered set (designed by Phil Male, and lit with just the right amount of dazzle by Michael Moffatt).  Michael is more working-class celestial; Gabriel projects archangel chic. White dominates, of course, and the apt accents and exquisite detail on all three figures made me feel right at home.

Questions and issues that have vexed human beings for millennia are addressed with magnanimity. Impressively, Himself takes a detour through the Valley of Tender Parental Regard in talking about Jesus, his headstrong middle child. On the whole, though, Himself is currently miserable. If He wrote a personal ad to humanity, it would no longer say "ISO LTR." Yet every time there's a one-night stand, a new cult religion gets founded.

But you'll have to discover for yourself why God might come to such a wary, weary conclusion. It will be worth your while. Speaking personally, this show put me in touch with the better angel of my nature. Maybe I could even make Seraphim! That would be awesome, if you'll allow a rare, suitable use of that word.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Butler University Theatre opens a resonant "Glass Menagerie"

Butler's Wingfield family in "The Glass Menagerie"
Background music is part of the scenario Tennessee Williams stipulates in "The Glass Menagerie," the 1945 drama that made his reputation.

In Butler University's production of the play, the overheard accompaniment varied in appropriateness; there were some puzzling anachronisms. But particularly exact and evocative of both the era and the mood was Billie Holiday's recording of "Crazy He Calls Me," played before the first words came from the stage.

The romantic devotion the song addresses is never realized by anyone in the Wingfield household in a lower-middle-class apartment in St. Louis. But the fierce wistfulness of the family matriarch, Amanda, is caught particularly in these lines:  "The difficult I'll do right now / The impossible will take a little while."

Wounded by the early departure of her handsome husband and the father of her now-adult children, Laura and Tom, Amanda does the difficult daily. That means keeping her son on track, correcting his manners and nurturing the conventional ambitions she imposes on him, while  pressuring her painfully shy daughter to develop a few modest pink-collar skills on the way to a proper marriage. Pathetically, she tries to bring in a little money selling magazine subscriptions by phone, flattering her customers with effusive sympathy for their woes.

Seen in a preview Wednesday evening in the Studio Theatre, the show reinforces in several respects the distortions of memory and the way fantasies sustain the will to go on, grasping to transcend real-life constraints and inhibitions. There is choreography, for example: Dance takes wing to elaborate upon Amanda's memories of being an attractive Southern belle, and later to allow Laura's imagined release from her shell, spurred by a sympathetic conversation with the Gentleman Caller. The former seemed to put forward an overly Oedipal interpretation of the mother-son relationship, but was well brought off. More poignantly, the Laura/Caller dance projected an attractive young woman, moving free of lameness and blossoming under the male attention she misinterprets.

Director Elaina Artemiev displays an imaginative latitude in fleshing out the playwright's assertion (through Tom as narrator) that the story is not told realistically. There is occasionally bold separation of actors, turning Rob Koharchik's unit set to advantage, as some conversations take place as if symbolically underscoring the way each Wingfield, though crucially bound to the others, lives in an individualized world. Tom seeks escape from a dead-end job at a local warehouse, Laura retreats into her collection of glass animals, and Amanda attempts to keep her sugary, vinegary temperament in control while clinging to the hope that the impossible will take just a little while.

Lexi Rohrer, playing Amanda, probably didn't need a dialect coach to emphasize the matriarch's Southern roots; she hails from Lexington, Kentucky. Beyond the idiomatic accent, she creditably created the illusion of a middle-aged, careworn woman. I'll admit I thought her sashaying and fluttery gestures in Amanda's reminiscence of her belle-of-the-ball youth were excessive, but then it struck me that the distorting mirror of Tom's memory means that his mother needn't be played with stylistic restraint or consistency. People we have mixed feelings about tend to be recalled with their features and idiosyncrasies exaggerated. It was thus quite striking that the scene shortly afterward, with Amanda returning home grim and humiliated by the discovery Laura has been skipping classes in stenography and typing, presented a much different person, with all the flutter and well-honed gracefulness gone, and defeat stamped on every feature.

Jeffrey Bird played Tom, a touch self-satisfied in retrospection — a trait that I thought worked: Though Tom's feeling is genuine for his sister and mother, it has been refined by distance in time, place and perspective. In the scenes where Tom is fully in his recalled past, Bird showed an appropriate range, flaring up at his mother or playfully chatting with Laura after a night on the town. Everything about the character came together in Tom's final speech, which I've always considered the most beautifully poignant narrator exit in 20th-century American literature, along with the last page of "The Great Gatsby."

Kallen Ruston's Laura conveyed better through her facial expressions than her voice Laura's fragility, but her look and sound worked together well enough to convey the tender heart of the action. As the Gentleman Caller, Ian Hunt projected the buoyancy and good nature of Tom's co-worker, a dinner guest of whom far too much is expected. It's a difficult role, in that we have to see him as sympathetically sincere, even if he may have self-consciously worked on being well-liked to further his ambitions, rather than someone toying with Laura's affections. A wild analogy: the Gentleman Caller must not seem Eddie Haskell-ish, smugly leading either Laura or Amanda on. Hunt skirted the edge of such a characterization, yet helped keep the poignancy of the situation mostly intact.

The black-box environs probably presented no practical way to lend enough symbolic stature to the family's crucial missing member, but it's no small matter to mention in conclusion that the framed portrait of the scapegrace father ought to be much larger — if only for the sake of reinforcing the memory exaggerations this  production otherwise represents admirably. He stands for the endless "little while" that doing the impossible can take. It's a feature that's made this play classic in a nation devoted to fresh starts and second chances.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

'Flynn Is Out the Back Door': An upbeat revision of an old favorite celebrating the departure of Trump's national security adviser

Duchess brings its three sets of vocal cords and six old and new ears to bear upon a varied vocal repertoire

Duchess is a vocal trio whose vocal discipline never smothers its direct appeal.
Jazz vocalists who push scatting and vocalese (new lyrics on old tunes and solos) to the sidelines are fairly rare, particularly when they combine in groups.

Thus Duchess, which on the recorded evidence has a keen jazz sensibility, also draws on an old pop tradition represented by the Andrews Sisters, the Boswell Sisters, and the Mills Brothers. In the trio's second recording, "Laughing at Life" (Anzic Records), the blend is seamless and invigorating. Projecting the lyrics with verve and clarity seems to be a watchword with Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou. At the same time, they negotiate clever arrangements with agility and true pitch.

The tempo shifts in "Everybody Loves My Baby" are thrilling, particularly with a couple of lickety-split choruses (to Duchess lyrics)  that are the last word in precision. This song also enjoys idiomatic help from clarinetist Anat Cohen. The selection of guest stars on the disc is unerringly right; besides Cohen, there's the sly, inventive trombonist Wycliffe Gordon,  licking his chops to savor "Stars Fell on Alabama" and "Creole Love Call." Cohen is also featured on the perpetually wistful "We'll Meet Again."

Each of the three singers handles a solo turn more than capably: Cervini on Cole Porter's ode to flirtation, "Give Him the Oo La La," Stylianou on the moody Newley-Bricusse number "Where Would You Be Without Me," and Gardner animating a high-kicking tour through Ray Charles' "Hallelujah I Love Her (Him) So."

The nucleus of accompaniment — pianist Michael Cabe, bassist Matt Aronoff, and drummer Jared Schonig — is always firm in support of the songbirds. Occasional supplementary zest comes from guitarist Jesse Lewis (his acoustic solo on Vet Boswell's "Dawn" is exquisite) and tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer. The latter contributes some flavorful roadhouse deep-fry to the first track, "Swing Brother Swing."

Enthusiasts of close-harmony vocal jazz and classic pop will find every part of that repertoire range well-covered. To mention just two adjacent tracks: Porter's imperishable "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" yields to one of Johnny Mercer's inimitable novelty numbers, the teasing portrait of an artistically self-directed ecdysiast, "Strip Polka."

The nonesuchness of Duchess is evident throughout "Laughing at Life," whose title tune alone is a great pick-me-up in these difficult times.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Israeli guitarist finds simpatico quartet in his American home base with "The Village"

Born in Tel Aviv and trained in jazz on a scholarship to the New School, Yotam Silberstein has been a rising star on the
"The Village" is Yotam Silberstein's fifth recordings as a leader.
international jazz scene for about a decade. Like many Israeli jazz players who've become known in the West, Silberstein is unusually open to making the music truly multicultural in addition to putting a personal stamp on it. It sounds entirely natural and inevitable the way he goes about it.

On "The Village" (Jazz+People) he has the advantage of putting his fleet, melodic guitar style into a thoroughly compatible quartet context. His pianist, Aaron Goldberg, is often paired with Silberstein on this disc in unison statements of the tunes, most of them originals.

The partnership is subject to all kinds of steeplechase challenges, in songs like Carlos "Negro" Aguirre's "Milonga Gris," Lennie Tristano's "Lennie Bird" (a "How High the Moon" contrefact featuring lots of guitar-piano counterpoint) and the leader's own aptly named "Changes," a composition that seems as loaded with harmonic shifts as Coltrane's "Giant Steps."

Goldberg is a deft accompanist, with an even touch, as well as a soloist given to single-line soaring that never seems desperately in search of new ideas. The quartet is completed by bassist Reuben Rogers, set a little low in the mix but obviously contributing much to the texture, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, who's a focused whirlwind in the extra exposure he gets on Silberstein's "Albayzin," a piece inspired by a visit to Granada, Spain.

The title song brings it all back home, being a tribute to Greenwich Village, which Silberstein describes as "a very important place for me... musically and spiritually."  But the guitarist-composer says he also means to refer to the way music has become a global village. The piece picks up speed and energy as it proceeds, as if to fulfill the all-embracing insistence of this extravagantly gifted guitarist's muse.