Thursday, June 30, 2016

Jazz from a couple of saxophonists: Bob Mintzer and Lou Caputo lead bands on the mid- to full-size spectrum

Bob Mintzer likes his Angeleno pals.
The survival of larger jazz ensembles in the 21st century depends on the imagination and resourcefulness of leaders and arrangers alike.

Two such ensembles are Bob Mintzer's "All L.A. Band" (in a CD of the same title on Fuzzy Music) Lou Caputo's Not So Big Band's "Uh Oh!" (Jazzcat 47).

These well-recorded sets range over the possibilities of big-band jazz today. Mintzer, with credits both mainstream and on the edge of contemporary fusion (Yellowjackets), got a 17-piece group together to play compositions he wrote over a 40-year period.

Peter Erskine, "All L.A. Band" producer, recently played the Jazz Kitchen.
The tenor saxophonist is an educator as well, and the same music is available at the Mintzer Big Band Essentials play-along app. What is at hand here is a full-throated professional ride over the 10 compositions. Longtime colleagues Peter Erskine (with producer credit here) and Russell Ferrante are on hand to anchor the rhythm section on drums and piano.

There's a lot of flexibility in Mintzer's approach to the  large orchestra. In "El Coborojeno," he favors punchy brass writing. Typically, he puts spaces into the lines he assigns the various sections, often to help add rhythmic juice to the funk grooves he gets going.

The Afro-Cuban timbral tapestry of trombone-trumpet-sax in "Ellis Island" is typical. That track also features an unconventional, engaging solo on baritone sax by Aaron Schroeder. I wish there was more information on who is soloing: I assume most of the fine tenor-sax outings are Mintzer's, but I'm curious who's responsible for the sizzling trombone solos on "Runferyerlife" and "Latin Dance."

The Not-So-Big Band plays a gig in Queens, N.Y.
With Erskine on drums, the rhythm section is solid from the ground up; it also includes (when not supplemented by Latin percussion in a few places) bassist Edwin Livingston. The arrangements often feature an inviting ensemble re-entry after the solos. They've got lots of novelty to them, without sounding like musical grab bags: A tongue-in-cheek brass chorale opening to "New Rochelle" gives way to a boogaloo vibe behind the saxes' theme statement, and the harmonically adventurous piece has a great ending in the trombones.

Scaling back a bit, comfortable arrangements by leader Lou Caputo, a sense of humor, and concise soloing make  "Uh-Oh!" an amiable updating of the sort of mid-sized-ensemble charts we used to hear from Marty Paich and Manny Albam.

This is by no means a snoozy set, but if you must have consistent intensity in your jazz, look elsewhere. The Not-So-Big Band's take on "Stolen Moments" (a Ryan Krewer arrangement) is even more laid-back than Oliver Nelson's original, with a sensible yet florid vibraphone solo from Warren Smith to revel in. "News from Blueport," a bluesy mainstream number that NSBB bassist Bill Crow wrote long ago for the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, is fun to hear in the new version.

Caputo picks up the baritone, sounding like a deep-voiced version of Zoot Sims or Al Cohn, for a fine solo contribution to "If You Could See Me Now." He's elsewhere featured on alto and soprano saxophones and flute; he's an old-fashioned reed utility player writ large.

Women horn players tend to  be underrated, so it's a pleasure to hear Virginia Mayhew on this disc. Her tenor solo on Mary Lou Williams' "Busy, Busy, Busy" (which Mayhew arranged), stands out among the six solos in the disc's lively finale. I found one of the longer tracks, "Ape and Essence," somewhat ho-hum. Otherwise, this is a clever, flavorful set by a refreshingly smallish ensemble (viz., the horns are three reeds, two trumpets, trombone, and tuba) with an abundance of joy to deliver.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Early Music Indianapolis: Emma Kirkby, a star of early music who blazed trails with apt vocal style, makes a festival appearance with lutenist Jakob Lindberg

Jakob Lindberg and Emma Kirkby are seasoned collaborators.
Like a later composer more in the mainstream, the solo piano god Frederic Chopin, the Elizabethan John Dowland comes down to us as a giant in composition through his masterly concentration on another specialty: lute music, both solo and partnered with one voice.

A program of music by the English composer and his contemporaries couldn't have been in better hands than it was Sunday afternoon at the Indiana History Center in an Indianapolis Early Music presentation: Emma Kirkby, soprano, and Jakob Lindberg, Renaissance lute.

The  concert, "Like as a Lute," scrupulously curated by the artists and lovingly performed, crowned the second weekend of the festival's 50th-anniversary season.

The program title is drawn from the first line of a sonnet by Samuel Daniel — like Dowland, a contemporary of William Shakespeare's. The polished poem later refers to the lute's "warble," a word associated with bird song, which I don't hear in the instrument's sound. But it must be there to poets who celebrate it, as they frequently do when it comes to bird voices. John Dryden also extolled the warbling lute. (To me, there's often something a little off when poets describe music: one thinks of Coleridge's reference to "the loud bassoon" in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.")

The warbling comparison is likely by association, especially when the instrument is played by such a master as Lindberg. The lute's floating, ethereal sound connotes the appeal of chirping birds, often unseen in the trees around us. Besides, though there are bird songs taken to express sadness, "avian Andrews sisters" (as Ogden Nash termed them in his verses for Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals") are usually interpreted as expressions of perky cheer and joie de vivre.

Master lute composer Dowland was personally a mixed bag of emotions. Though one of his contemporaries called him "a cheerful person ... passing his days in lawful merriment," the  Grove's Dictionary entry on him notes his gnawing resentment at failure to land a court position, and finds seesawing emotions characteristic of his compositions as well: "Though capable of writing charming trifles, all his greatest works are inspired by a deeply felt tragic concept of life, and a preoccupation with tears, sin, darkness, and death."

For example: From the glum basis for one of the solo lute pieces heard Sunday afternoon — a four-note descending chromatic pattern — "Forlorn Hope Fancy" eventually flowers into an outburst of lute brilliance from which a positive attitude toward life can be felt. In both sunshine and shadow, it was one of the highlights of the recital before intermission.

There were also songs from Dowland's contemporaries John Danyel, Edward Collard, and Robert Jones — the gist of which was melancholic. After intermission, Lindberg and Kirkby turned to the Continent, where Dowland spent much of his career. Following an attractive French set — performed for an audience forced to follow the provided texts in dim light — there were whirlwind tours of Spain and Italy.

Most haunting in this part of the program was the finale, Tarquinio Merula's, "canzonetta spiritual" on "La Nanna," with its narrow two-note range in the lute's low register, above which Kirkby sang expressively a text reflecting both the Virgin Mary's interest in rocking her baby to sleep while displaying foreknowledge about the way his earthly life would turn out.

As she had earlier, Kirkby demonstrated her particular value in this repertoire. A soprano with a clear, almost vibratoless voice and the kind of delivery, especially in her middle to low range, as unpretentious as a good folksinger's, she has done much to uphold the kind of singing suitable to early instruments. There's no forcing; her kind of naturalness also makes her precise command of ornaments seem at one with whatever tune she may be singing. On Sunday afternoon, there were a few phrase ends that sounded wispy or slightly hoarse, but at 67, Kirkby seems still to have the control, direct expressivity and buoyancy that made her famous.

After an entraptured ovation, Kirkby and Lindberg returned to the stage with an encore. It was more dour Dowland: "Can She Excuse My Wrongs," a song set to a galliard that is traditionally linked to another gentleman who failed to find favor at Queen Elizabeth's court. The Earl of Essex paid for his more open opposition to the Queen with his life. Dowland may have been disappointed in his sovereign, but at least he kept his head.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Pimp and Circumstance: A Post-Brexit March, Shot Through With Misgivings, to Counter the Eurowhores

With dazzle and heart, Bobdirex's 'Billy Eliot' sets a boy's dance dreams in a dying English coal town

You can count on Bob Harbin to come up once a year with a big-hearted production that reaches out to audiences in a big way. This year, an odd timeliness — with Americans more focused on Britain than normal in the wake of the Brexit vote — helps "Billy Elliot" stand out even more.

Seen in the second performance of the run of nine (through July 10) at Marian University Theatre, Bobdirex's "Billy Elliot" succeeds not only because of the usual pizazz he generates from large casts, but also for the captivating portrayal of the title character by Thomas Whitcomb.

Thomas Whitcomb as Billy Elliot takes flight into a future with the electricity of dancing.
Whitcomb's singing and dancing fit splendidly the demanding role of the younger son in a miner's household who accidentally finds himself smitten with ballet. But what puts the shiny cap on both those skills is Whitcomb's charming onstage persona, the convincing way he blends Billy's naivete and nascent ambition. In Elton John and Lee Hall's inspiring scenario, the talented lad is nurtured by a tough dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, here given gruffness and grit, as well as insight, in Holly Stultz's performance.

Life at home is a school of hard knocks, overshadowed by the premature death of Billy's mother. Now he fights to find himself in a household consisting of an eccentric grandma (Miki Mathioudakis) and a militant older brother (Tyler Ostrander) who has followed the boys' hard-bitten, but deep-down sentimental, widower dad (Bill Book) into the coal mines in northern England. The labor force there is meeting its greatest challenge from the anti-labor government of Margaret Thatcher in the mid-1980s. It will not turn out well.

The tense juxtaposition of Billy's affinity for dance and the union's struggle for victory during a long strike is beautifully captured in an ensemble number, "Solidarity," that interlaces dance instruction with miners taking to the streets to defend their collective bargaining rights. It's just one of Kenny Shepard's well-knit, intricate choreographic designs.

Its closest match is the show's finale, a riveting celebration of community and dance that also functions as an extended curtain call. Based on a reprise of the first act's "Shine," in which Mrs. Wilkinson sets forth a dance credo that Billy will adopt wholeheartedly after much resistance at home, this production's conclusion is in the patented Bobdirex tradition of coordinated exuberance.

Supporting roles were well-filled. If memory serves, I've never seen Bill Book even slightly unsuitable for any role, dating back to his starring role in the musical "Nine" at Theatre on the Square's original home on Fountain Square. He wins again as Mr. Elliot, tending the character's evolution from Billy's opponent to ally, and indicating the effect of his wife's death in a folklike ballad solo, "Deep Into the Ground," introducing a somber note into the miners' Christmas party, keynoted by its sarcastic "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher." Book's tense dialogue with Stults' Mrs. Wilkinson, a turning point in the father's attitude toward Billy's dreams, was one of the show's highlights.

Tyler Ostrander strikes sparks as the feisty Tony, scoffing at his brother's ambitions and slow to accept their dad's conversion to them. Miki Mathioudakis looked lovably disheveled and coarsened by life as Grandma, and her Act 1 vocal solo — complete with a multiple-partner dream dance — was both hilarious and touching.

As Billy's best friend Michael Caffrey,  Jack Ducat adds an ingratiating endorsement of the joy of being different in "Expressing Yourself," a sweetly inspirational song including the boys' cavorting with three dancers dressed as mannequins. Trisha Shepard's brief appearances as the ghost of the boys' mother underlined the story's disarming sentimentality.

The workers' choruses ("The Stars Look Down" and "Once We Were Kings") were stirring under the direction of Trevor Fanning, who coordinated the singing with a mostly spot-on pit band.  Another kind of solidarity was cutely rendered by the troupe of girls portraying Mrs. Wilkinson's other students.

Whitcomb's remarkable charisma flashed forth in the first-act finale, "Angry Dance," featuring Matthew Ford Cunningham's versatile lighting design. Speaking of lights, however, there was some clumsy follow-spot work in the second act, a singular instance of technical trouble Saturday night.

General use of face mics, while a necessity on a large stage that would lose even well-projected voices acoustically, sometimes meant that words were unclear. Some of this may be due to the need for speech authenticity, as the cast had been pretty well coached in northern England accents.

Something crucial was lost, however, when the woman with a clipboard charged with scheduling Billy's Royal Ballet School audition talked to Billy in flat American. Though the part is tiny, this character needs to speak like a hoity-toity Londoner, in something approaching "received pronunciation" in England, to help underline the class distinctions that Billy Elliot faces in the course of realizing his dream.

The show has one impressive indication of the loftiness of Billy's aspirations in a dream ballet, a nicely characterized duo number with Stuart Coleman of Dance Kaleidoscope as the older Billy. Coleman's professional status was acknowledged in Shepard's more demanding requirements of him, which were met handsomely.

But Whitcomb's dancing was accomplished enough in this number, and in "Angry Dance" even more than the idealistic "Electricity," to make Billy Elliot's lofty goals in this heart-warming production look reachable. And that promise is what "Billy Elliot" simply has to deliver. It does so here.

[Photo by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, June 25, 2016

With a focus on 17th-century plucked string instruments, Early Music Festival presents its first solo recital in many years

Xavier Diaz-Latorre played music for baroque guitar (shown) and theorbo.
The focus on instruments not current for centuries has long been a part of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival's appeal.

Patrons over the psst 50 years have become acquainted with citterns and krummhorns, archlutes and rebecs, finding out a little bit about how they're made and how they work. The main payoff, of course, is exposure to the captivating music written for them in various combinations (sometimes the choice of today's players).

The spotlight narrowed Friday as the festival entered its second week at the Indiana History Center. That's where, for the first time since he began programming in 2009, artistic director Mark Cudek scheduled a solo recital. The Basile Theatre, lights dimmed and the stage set to look like an intimate salon, made an attractive setting for "Music for Kings and Commoners," a program of early baroque music for theorbo and baroque guitar played by Xavier Diaz-Latorre of Barcelona, Spain.

Diaz-Latorre emphasized music for the court of Louis XIV in the first half, then after intermission turned to folk-influenced Spanish music from roughly the same era. With its plangent courses of unstopped bass strings complementing the stopped strings, the theorbo encouraged composers to write pieces with a duo texture. In Robert de Visée's A minor suite "La Royalle," Diaz-Latorre displayed the clear-cut vitality given to dance forms when the melody seems to be animated by springing rhythmically and harmonically off the bass pattern.

"La Royalle" was succeeded by a couple of shorter suites by the same composer (c. 1655-1732/33).  "La Plainte," which lived up to its melancholy title through a Prelude followed by an Allemande for a deceased relative, was both soothing and incisive. The recitalist's firm rhythms and variety of tone color put the piece across well. The more upbeat untitled G major suite that followed indicated how those ringing bass notes can both direct and enclose the melody and harmony above them, when managed by an abundantly skilled artist.

Just before intermission, Diaz-Latorre turned to the most influential of the Sun King's musicians and court. He picked up the baroque guitar to play his own arrangment of Jean-Baptiste Lully's orchestral suite of dances from "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme." There his gift for gradations of tone was even more pronounced than with the theorbo. The majesty he imparted to the suite took on an orchestral breadth.

The rest of the concert emphasized the timbral variety and rhythmic vigor of the guitar, focusing on works by Gaspar Sanz, whose life spanned the mid-17th to early18th centuries (no even approximate dates have been established for the Spanish priest-composer).  The elaborate teaching pieces, from the 1697 "Instruccion de musica para la guitarra espanola," featured techniques Sanz explains in the book, particularly the strummed and plucked styles. Both ways of playing the instrument were vividly displayed in Diaz-Latorre's performance. The recitalist's encore was also drawn from Sanz's charming output.

He influenced several Spanish composers, according to Grove's Dictionary, including Francisco Guerau (1659-1722), whose "Poema harmonico" occupied a middle position in the recital's second half. The 1694 piece provided another exquisite exhibition of Diaz-Latorre's sensitivty to tone color and dynamics. That acumen alone makes such straightforward pieces, despite the facility they sometimes push to the fore, seem larger in scope than they are. And when you're advocating for such music as persuasively as Diaz-Latorre does, that comes close to achieving the ideal in presenting this repertoire in 2016.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Phoenix Theatre's 'Hand to God' puts personal crises through a puppet blender

Jason (Nathan Robbins) argues with Tyrone
Puppet ministry takes remote stories — foundational in the Judeo-Christian tradition — and makes them cozy and relatable. Whatever lessons apply in the tale of Joseph and his brothers, or the return of the Prodigal Son, can perhaps be conveyed more tellingly through cuddly manipulation of handcrafted, hand-worn doll characters.

In "Hand to God," which I visited as the second week of the Phoenix Theatre production opened Thursday, we don't get to see how this aspect of contemporary Christian teaching is supposed to work. Playwright Robert Askins has another end in view: to explore what the distancing effect of expressing moral and spiritual values through puppetry might mean in loss of control, in channeling deeply felt problems through puppetry so thoroughly as to create monsters. There's an aspect of voodoo in this process, like the hysterical focus on pricked rag moppets in "The Crucible."

Cypress, Texas, is a small Texas town where a Protestant church includes a youth workshop for puppet ministry. Margery is a recent widow in charge of the unruly class, fending off an amorous pastor's suave advances while resisting his unsympathetic scheduling demands. The puppet group has to make a presentation at an upcoming service, but the teens are uncooperative: one of them a snide bully, one a hard-to-motivate girl, and the third Margery's son Jason — an adept puppeteer alarmingly off-message and inseparable from Tyrone, his foul-mouthed, increasingly demonic creation.

"Hand to God" is a Southern expression intended to give assurance of the speaker's sincerity. The hand is crucial to Jason's identity, split between his depressed, confused teenage self and his loud, boastful, insulting puppet. Nathan Robbins, in another virtuoso starring performance for Phoenix, manages rapidfire dialogue between the two flawlessly. At the same time, the actor registers Jason's  split personality's defiance of the situation he finds himself in, grieving for his suddenly deceased father and harboring resentment against his mother.

With ulterior motives, Pastor Greg tries to minister to the distraught Margery.
Alienation of who we are from our hands is strikingly supported in the Christian tradition. The hand is oddly detachable in Jesus' preaching. In the Sermon on the Mount, one of his "hard sayings" advises: "If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee, for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell."

Later on, in emphasizing the need to do charity privately, his famous hyperbole runs: "...when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth." These precepts could well be inscribed on the puppet's demonic DNA.

Jessica's and Jason's puppets get it on.
Directed by Mark Routhier, the Phoenix production drives home Askins' focus on hands as both agents and victims of suffering. There are a couple of realistically staged hand injuries, though they pale in cringe-worthiness to a bitten-off ear. When a character goes off the rails, the plunge is startling and graphic. Angela R. Plank signals Margery's anxiety and desperation in the first scene and anger at her refractory son in the third. The explosion that ensues in her subsequent encounter with the menacing, needy Timothy is as understandable as it is shocking. Adam Tran, whose every gesture conveys cockiness masking insecurity, plays him with a sure grip on our likely hostility and furtive sympathy.

Paul Nicely played Pastor Greg with the bland self-assurance many of us have experienced in men of the cloth. Greg's wooing of Margery has behind it a thinly veiled expectation of being dominant. Yet, later, he is ineffectual when circumstances seem to call for an exorcism of the demon that has taken control of Jason through Tyrone. The resolution that eludes the reverend gentleman comes about through a riotous canoodling of puppets, engineered by Jessica, played with a subtle and partially blocked winsomeness by Jaddy Ciucci.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's great story "Absolution," a young Catholic boy wrestles with his conscience in a tangle of misdeeds concerning doctrine about confession and communion. The author informs us: "Rudolph reserved a corner of his mind where he was safe from God, where he prepared the subterfuges with which he often tricked God." The irony is that the lad thinks of God as a sort of chief priest, subject to being misled as human priests may be in the confessional or at the altar rail.

In his blocked grieving process, the Protestant Jason, whose tradition prizes direct communication with the Almighty with no intermediary, has a vacuum in that corner of his mind. God's adversary rushes in to fill it. Any subterfuges concocted there are not his, but the devil's. Through his puppet disciple, in a splendid display of diabolical fury at the end of Act 1 (credit Jeffrey Martin's technical direction and Laura Glover's lighting design), all hell breaks loose.

Any mental safe corner Jason might wish to claim has been taken over by the puppet. The effect on him and those around him is chilling, and this production is unsparing in putting that across. Yet in the course of its dark comedy, the play reaffirms the divine comedy: The devil is a powerful adversary, but has to exercise his rage and bluster while knowing he will ultimately suffer defeat. Behind "Hand to God" lies a theology that John Milton would have understood.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]