Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Deconfliction and Orwell's ghost: In Syria, U.S. and Russia might find common ground up in the air, and the language will go up to meet them

Listening on NPR to a pair of experts examine the respective stances of the United States and Russia on dealing with Syria, I was puzzled by a couple of words new to me: "deconflict" (verb) and "deconfliction" (noun). From context, I inferred these terms have to do with the problem NPR's reporter had identified minutes earlier: getting the two nations' militaries "to talk to each other so that they can stay out of one another's way."

George Orwell, guardian spirit of language
This may well be the only area of agreement and cooperation apparent as Syria continues to be violently riven and subject to an endless civil war in which the influence of the Islamic State — anathema to both the U.S. and Russia — continues to grow. My online dictionary finds "deconflict" to be military language for "reduce the risk of collision between aircraft, airborne weaponry, etc. in an area by coordinating their movements." As they attack ISIS from the air, both superpowers want to avoid death-dealing accidents involving their forces.

But hovering ominously like a drone over this term is a twofold problem: (1) The word's derivation hides its meaning and (2) it is a great candidate for linguistic mission creep, applying to policy at large as much as to military action. It's time to bring George Orwell's 70-year-old essay, "Politics and the English Language," into play.

Orwell attacked matters of style and slovenly thinking, in the main, and linked these age-old writing problems to political agendas. He offered at least one example that addresses my first point about "deconflict" above: "Pacification" as a term covering the destruction of villages, livestock, and the death and forced exile of inhabitants of the area being militarily "pacified". This is more than a grotesque euphemism; it also privileges the military's habit of applying a word to a whole process that should in fact be linked only to the result. Thus the difficulties, or at least complexities, of attaining the result are covered by the term used to describe them.

"Deconflict" is a particularly insidious application of this linguistic sleight-of-hand. "Conflict" is properly described as "a competitive or opposing action of incompatibles"; the prefix "de-" means "to remove (a specified thing) from." You can't be in "detox" unless a condition of toxicity exists from which you are being removed. Thus deconfliction should be the act of removing any competitive or opposing action of incompatibles. But such action cannot be removed before it is undertaken; there is no military conflict yet between the U.S. and Russia over Syria. Thus, in this case, the term refers simply to advance planning and consultation by both sides so that military conflict does not take place. It is anticipatory, and involves cooperation of crucial sensitivity and detail that the term "deconfliction" totally ignores.

The trouble is, if such planning does take place — and we have to hope it will — the incompatibles remain opposed. Those incompatibles are blatant in the quite contradictory accounts, summed up Sept. 28 by both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin in their respective addresses to the UN General Assembly, of both the causes and potential resolution of the Syrian mess. I submit that the process issues avoided in the term "deconflict(ion)" will serve the purposes of obfuscation by being applied to veil the disparate policy objectives, whether expressed diplomatically or militarily, of the U.S. and Russia.

We have here a corollary to Orwell's strictures about the influence of politics on the English language. "Political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness," Orwell states correctly.  Often this stems from a desire to confuse others or obfuscate an issue to achieve political aims.

With "deconfliction," we have achieved a new wrinkle in this use of political language. The term goes beyond purposeful cloudiness or mere slovenliness. It is, rather, a kind of agreement to confuse oneself as well as others. We don't want to know what "deconfliction" might mean applied to the whole Syrian situation, because nobody knows what the resolution of the Syrian conflict at the policy level would look like.

Thus, be on your guard for "deconfliction" to gain currency in discourse about Syria. Political language is not just a tool, we will learn, but can be adopted selectively and submitted to as a master. We can be its tool: a sacrifice even our best and brightest are willing to make in order to establish wishful thinking, self-delusion with a purpose. More of our powerful language habits than Orwell dreamed will be devoted to building castles in the air and furnishing them as though they were set upon solid foundations.

In that spirit, then, two cheers for deconfliction.

UIndy's new jazz-studies director Freddie Mendoza introduces himself as a performer in scintillating concert

The conditions were well nigh perfect — the best acoustical environment for a jazz concert as I've ever had the pleasure to bask in at the University of Indianapolis. The sound was balanced, crisp and well-blended among the four musicians.

Even better, of course: the music Monday night in the Lilly Performance Hall of the DeHaan Fine Arts Center was first-rate. The occasion was Freddie Mendoza's local debut in the spotlight, though he's made some local appearances as a sideman going back several months.

Mendoza is a trombonist and euphonium player from Texas who has succeeded Harry Miedema as UIndy's director of jazz studies. Having just taken up his duties there, it was fitting that he also make a public display of his credentials as a player.

Freddie Mendoza, new at UIndy.
He was accompanied by Steven Jones, piano; Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums. He praised this team in both halves of the two-hour concert, saying they "made my job easy."

Any good music-making is collegial (with the exception of solo programs), but if one of the participants is intended to stand out, it certainly helps if he or she feels comfortable in playing to maximum advantage. Leading this quartet, Mendoza evinced a high degree of comfort in a program of tunes he both likes playing and feels challenged by (by his own admission).

Opening with Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't," the quartet set and maintained a rapid tempo, immediately showing off Mendoza's facility and rapid profusion of musical ideas. He hit every note from the top, as it were, meaning not only was his intonation flawless but also that each nimble phrase had brightness and buoyancy.

Several times he mentioned Frank Rosolino (1926-1978) as his trombone idol, and the influence was evident here and particularly in "Here's That Rainy Day, " which was almost exclusively a trombone showcase until an outstanding Tucker solo passed the goodies around. (I can't blame the bassist for apparently shaking off the opportunity to solo in the concert's last two numbers, as he must have wanted his delving into this Jimmy Van Heusen evergreen to be his last solo word Monday night.)

Mendoza's Rosolino influence is well-absorbed into a personal manner. And I certainly trust he is more comfortable in his own skin than the much-admired Detroit musician was in his: Rosolino's life ended in a murderous outburst poignantly described in a chapter of Gene Lees' "Meet Me at Jim and Andy's."

The new UIndy faculty member's playing is comfortable in the upper range, like Rosolino's, and prone to tuck in ornamental figures with agility and expressive point, also a Rosolino trait. In "All the Things You Are," I noticed touches of Indianapolis' own J.J. Johnson in Mendoza's nicely accented pecking at notes in constructing phrases that magically hung together well. (It would be fun to hear a Mendoza version of J.J.'s cruising on "Turnpike" someday. It would also be nice to hear a jazz version of "ATTYA"  without the standard dated bop tag at both ends.)

Mendoza turned to euphonium for contrast. Its blossoming, mellow sound suited a wonderful performance of "Body and Soul," on which his solo resembled a decorative curtain carefully draped over a cherished piece of furniture. In Charlie Parker's "Au Privave" the euphonium balanced bluesy and fluttery elements attractively.

On "Body and Soul," Jones contributed a witty solo with more variety of tone than I heard in a recent UIndy appearance. I sometimes wanted to hear more distinction of phrases in his solos, but he strings together lengthy garlands of notes prettily, as was evident in Jobim's "How Insensitive." His unaccompanied introduction to "Alice in Wonderland" was superb in a performance that sustained a high level throughout: Tucker was excellent, with so much feeling, so much logic to his solo; Mendoza offered an especially cogent example of Rosolino-inflected lyricism. The drummer is a seasoned accompanist to singers, and thus right at home in ballads.

As often as I've heard Phelps' sensitive, protean drumming, I've never experienced an acoustically superior display of it to Monday night's. It was suitable for the hall and for everything that was going on in his colleagues' playing. In episodes of exchange with Mendoza and Jones — progressively shrinking in "Au Privave" — he always came up with a fresh response. He got a deserved virtuoso showcase to begin "Caravan," moving from insect-like buzzing to exploitation of the full kit before the rest of the band jumped on for the ride. And what a ride it was, just like the whole show.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, September 26, 2015

ISO's annual Gala Concert includes a powerful amount of fancy fiddling (from Joshua Bell and a possibly shy, definitely retiring Zach De Pue)

It always seems a gala occasion when the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra gets native son Joshua Bell on the schedule as soloist. As often as he has returned here, he's been solid gold at the box office.
Joshua Bell is always good for business at the ISO.

So much the better that on an officially Big Deal program — the annual "Opening Night Gala" — the Bloomington-born and Indiana University-trained superstar violinist graced the stage of a packed Hilbert Circle Theatre. The ISO was conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski, beginning his fifth season as music director, and ensemble-in-residence Time for Three  shared the spotlight with Bell.

The vehicle for his guest appearance with the ISO was a work written with him in mind by William Brohn, "West Side Story Suite." Leonard Bernstein's well-known score is treated in this work to a transformation that highlights musical (specifically violinistic) values rather than the arc of the drama, and that's how it should be. For instance: Preceded by a fiery solo cadenza,  "Somewhere" comes near the end, as it does in the show. But it yields to a whirlwind conclusion with reminders of the lively "America" and "Mambo" from the first act.

Brohn is most straightforward with the original material in "Maria," which doesn't bear much tinkering in order to be shown to best advantage. Other favorite songs, such as "Tonight" and "America," get lively treatment, showing off both soloist and orchestra. Bell played with full-out commitment to the score, displaying great variety across the dynamic and articulative spectrums.

A recitativelike opening for the violin put the audience on notice that the 20-minute work would be as much about the violin as any virtuoso concerto in the standard repertoire. Whether in filigree or in soaring melodic lines, Bell and the ISO made this an attractive new way of hearing this music.

Urbanski and the ISO opened the concert with Igor Stravinsky's 1942 arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Despite murmurs from the audience when Urbanski named the arranger, this version was thoroughly respectful of the melody. You could even sing along with it; many concertgoers did. The harmonic motion beneath it was different, however — less settled and less directed toward cadences.

There followed selections from Prokofiev's ballet score of the late 1930s for Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." The feuding families were introduced with the lightning strikes of the "Montagues and Capulets" section.  The next excerpt, "Morning Dance," started out blurred but gained clarity quickly. "Juliet as a Young Girl" was delightfully sketched. The roaring climax of any suite drawn from Prokofiev's score, "Death of Tybalt," was performed with riveting intensity. The pastel colors of "Morning Serenade" were scrupulously filled in, including a fleet solo by ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue.

Future crossings of Meridian by Time for Three will have a different fiddler in the middle.
De Pue will pay increased, less divided attention to such duties from now on. In the course of the coming season, he will gradually yield his membership in Time for Three, which he co-founded at the start of the century with a couple of Curtis Institute schoolmates. Without any mention Sunday of his phased withdrawal, De Pue was joined by his Time for Three colleagues in a piece Bell provided for the occasion, Edgar Meyer's "Death by Triple Fiddle."

There could be no doubt of the concertmaster's commitment musically to this work. But in addition to his stated desire to focus on his ISO duties, it struck me that De Pue may not be entirely comfortable with the flamboyance developed as part of the show by his fellow Tf3 members, violinist Nick Kendall and bassist Ranaan Meyer.

Bell led the way in a piece that distributes musical material in a bluegrass style expertly among the three violins. De Pue's bluegrass and country fiddling credentials run deep, but this appearance reinforced my impression from several of Time for Three's concerts here: that the exuberant showmanship of Kendall and Mayer is not second nature to De Pue.

While Bell moves and plays expressively, he and De Pue are cut from the same cloth of concert artist elan. It's hard to be all kinds of musician in both how you look and how you play, however much your heart may be in more than one musical camp. Part of De Pue's value to Time for Three might have included being, shall we say, "the quiet Beatle" for purposes of contrast with Kendall.

But he will have more of value to contribute to the ISO's development as he hits the road far less often from here on out — and by next season, not at all, as Tf3 continues to ascend in popularity with his replacement, Nikki Chooi.

No one should forget that his position as ISO concertmaster enabled the huge outreach potential of Time for Three to be exercised here more than anywhere else. Indianapolis has benefited from De Pue's riding both horses at once in the musical circus. For a still-young musician, that's a worthy legacy already.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Phoenix Theatre's uproarious new show may be a trivial play for trivial people, but who among us is bold enough to claim a personal exemption?

The title character of Richard Bean's "One Man, Two Guvnors," Francis Henshall is one of life's "overwhelming underdogs," to borrow a phrase from the late Yogi Berra.

Francis Henshall points to someone of absorbing interest.
A washed-up washboard player in a skiffle band who accidentally becomes a bantam-rooster bodyguard, Henshall ends up in the employ of two men (one of them only apparently so), both of whom have secrets they strive to hold close.

He is forced to keep his divided loyalties firmly divided.  But his craftiness is applied more with  desperate energy than cunning. To this assignment Nathan Robbins brings exuberant vitality, as seen in Phoenix Theatre's opening-night performance Thursday.

Robbins displayed the physical skills — part mime, part acrobat — of the great silent-film comedians. The scene in which Henshall's argument with himself becomes a knock-down, drag-out fight was an astonishing tour de force. In addition, this Harlequin clone is always talking, which Robbins also does with full-bore charm and resourcefulness in a consistent Cockney accent.

Derived from Carlo Goldoni's 1740 comedy "The Servant of Two Masters," "One Man, Two Guvnors" is set loosely in 1967 London and Brighton, the venerable seaside resort. One of the slightly slapdash songs the cast performs as an interlude is "The London-to-Brighton Line."

That brought to mind a scene from "The Importance of Being Earnest," the Oscar Wilde masterpiece also caught up in identity issues, when Jack Worthing has to admit to the scrutinizing Lady Bracknell that he is a foundling who was left in a handbag in the cloakroom of Victoria Station.

"The Brighton line," he adds helpfully.

"The line is immaterial," intones the aristocratic matron.

In "One Man, Two Guvnors," the line is most certainly material, as Brighton raises to the forefront Henshall's dream of flying off to Las Vegas with the lascivious bookkeeper Dolly, as well as providing the opportunity for his two deluded employers to attempt suicide in the roiling brine.

To indicate how this all comes out happily would entail untying the plot's Gordian knot, a task beyond my competence. A farce of this magnitude touches on a number of serious matters — murder, money, kinship, self-esteem, starvation, love and marriage, vanity, chicanery, fortune — only to use them as chips in a hilarious game. Everybody enjoys the good luck of cashing them in at the end.

Once it's set spinning by Henshall's manic hunger and ambition, "One Man, Two Guvnors" exerts a centripetal force: All sorts of cultural items come whirring into play, starting with the stock characters of commedia dell' arte. It was hard not to see in the stumbling, debilitated waiter played by the virtuoso Rob Johansen the decrepit servant Anthony Hopkins portrayed in "The Remains of the Day." Then, of course, I couldn't help thinking of Phoenix's last production, "Silence! The Musical," an unpalatable adaptation of another movie Hopkins starred in.

Director Rich Rand has given his cast ample room to be extravagantly silly. This became tedious only in the second act during Henshall's effortful wooing of Dolly, played with richly mixed messages of tartiness and feminism by Jolene Mentink Moffatt. More than the production, I'm inclined to fault the playwright, who runs into the main danger of the farce genre: The more extreme the shenanigans, the harder it is for the audience, even while laughing, to care about any of the characters.

Still, the quality of the performances meant that every caricature came fully to life: Chynna Fry as Pauline Clench, the dense ingenue, struggles toward happiness with the beau of her choice, Alan
Alan waxes romantic, enchanting Pauline.
Dangle, an aspiring actor invested with fragile self-regard by Tyler Ostrander. Chelsea Anderson as Rachel Crabbe and Michael Hosp as Stanley Stubbers, the deceptive employers, kept up their wacky pretenses effectively. Hosp had something of the gangling oafishness of  John Cleese in his prime.

Bill Simmons and Ben Rose added vigorous diversity with their respective sketches (I infer) of an American gangster doing business in London and a modern type of commedia zany, a Jamaican cook. John Goodson played another such serviceable fool, and musician Neil Cain, off to one side with lusty guitar and voice, completed the commedia atmosphere of high-spirited spontaneity.

Oscar Wilde described his play as "a trivial play for serious people," hinting at the probing wit behind the surface fun. In contrast, Richard Bean doesn't require that the audience think much about anything; the triviality of the mirth he creates is directed at all the triviality we can bring to it.

The production brings plenty of first-class madness to the Russell Stage, with its cozy sets by Dan Tracy and suitable light and sound design by Laura Glover and Ben Dobler, respectively.

Henshall makes a meal of a missive.
There is some running through the aisles and much direct address to the audience, so you'll feel at one with the action, like it or not. Henshall/Robbins enlisted the onstage participation of three audience members, but they were obviously plants. One of them even got watered.

There is no dry humor in "One Man, Two Guvnors." There's in fact nothing drier than the letter the famished Henshall chomps on instead of delivering.

 "Not enough ink," he complains with his mouth full.

The playwright obviously used several bottles of the stuff to make this farce. It's so over-the-top you feel helpless trying to determine the difference between surfeit and excess. But it can't hurt getting stuffed with nonsense now and then. Phoenix's "One Man, Two Guvnors" ought to do that for you.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Don't speak ill of the dead (even poets), but repetitively and at some length, if it might honor them in their own way


Satirical Elegy In Memoriam C.K. Williams

C.K. Williams found his second and third thoughts as valid as his first.

The death of another honored American poet, of course, does not put much of a dent in the American preoccupation with the sort of thing that irritated him no end

And I do mean "no end," as this was a bard who could seem to go on and on even in a short poem, especially one that was cast in long lines

Even looser and baggier than Walt Whitman's (his idol's) at his loosest and baggiest.

He was capable of discipline, but distrusted it as if there was something dishonest about leaving things out, so that focus for him meant only that stuff (read: "everything")

Which lay in or near the path of "this entity I call my mind, this hive of restlessness, this wedge of want my mind calls self, this self which doubts so much and which keeps reaching," was in play.

But I must interrupt this opening "stanza" of "The Clause," which is on page 58 of the only Williams volume I own, "The Singing," to give even this parody some appearance of suitability for blogging.

Still, what I quoted will lend you an idea of how our deceased poet, and I will not make light of his demise at 78 from the lingering agony of multiple myeloma, wrote:

As if every crossed-out phrase in his first draft had to be restored, because it deserved to be in the final poem as much as what came to him before or after it.

And besides allowing himself equalized treatment of several different ways of saying the same thing, set out in a glum parade,

He was convincing the reader that sudden, bizarre shifts of focus wouldn't matter as long as the overarching thought was serious enough, as in "The Hearth,"

Where the odd slowness to burn of a plastic coffee cup tossed upon kindling (it is "reluctant," "somehow uncertain what to do") reminds him

Of a friend talking about being severely burned by napalm, who in the telling "made it sound something like that," and from there we go to

An owl observed on the hunt, which unsurprisingly brings to mind war and the people who cause it, which is a move a poet can always

Count on to assure the reader he (or she) is not just stirring the embers of his (or her) own paltry life, but is engaged with the world's sorrows,

And that your concern for those won't suffer you, even when you write neat stanzas from time to time, to suffer any less than the reader,

Who will eventually be able to rest in peace — temporarily, by putting the book down; then permanently, like the honored American poet C.K. Williams.

Beloved senior maestro helps UIndy celebrate 20 years of the Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center

A local landmark of the start of each musical season is the Gala Opening Concert at the University of Indianapolis, conducted by Raymond Leppard, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conductor laureate and a city resident since his days as its music director, starting in 1987.

His international reputation was well-established by the time he came here, through his long association with the English Chamber Orchestra, his many recordings, and his sometimes controversial adaptations of early Baroque operas.

Now, with nearly a third of his long life associated with Indianapolis, Leppard's rare podium appearances carry a perceptible aura. Ordinary music-making becomes transfigured; "on the threshold of heaven, the figures in the street / Become the figures of heaven," as the poet Wallace Stevens notes in the first lines of "To an Old Philosopher in Rome."

Raymond Leppard turned 88 in July.
"The figures of heaven" figure largely in Antonio Vivaldi's "Gloria," a performance of which crowned a program that had opened with greetings from university president Robert Manuel and plaudits to UIndy benefactor Christel DeHaan.

Leppard led the University of Indianapolis Concert Choir, two vocal soloists from the faculty, and the Indianapolis Festival Orchestra (a professional ensemble generously seeded with UIndy teachers) in a glowing performance. Paul Krasnovsky's training of the choir deserves much of the credit. Apart from individual voices occasionally standing out (in the tenor section, mostly), this was a creditable ensemble achievement.

Expressiveness was consistent and illuminating: the sustained phrase "bonae voluntatis" stressed the importance being "of good will" as the prerequisite of peace; "propter magnam gloriam tuam" was sung assertively, but not bawled out, to emphasize God's "great glory." The concluding fugue put a splendid seal upon the chorus's performance.

The soloists — Kathleen Hacker and Mitzi Westra — worked well together in their duet. Hacker's breath support failed her once in her aria "Domine Deus," a fact hardly worth noting except for the slight contrast it made with Pam Ajango French's limpid, full-toned oboe obbligato.

Some cynical wag once noted that if you can fake sincerity, you've got it made. It's presumptuous to assess an artist's sincerity, and in sacred music, it's foolhardy to suggest that the quality depends on the singer's personal faith. To me, sincerity can be judged, somewhat gingerly, by how much a performance sounds invested in the unity of text and music; it's an attribute that rides on top of technical prowess.

Nearly two years ago, when Westra was alto soloist in an Encore Vocal Arts/Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra performance of Handel's "Messiah," I was touched by how well she fused tonal beauty and control with what has to be called sincerity. I had never heard a more moving "He was despised." Monday night I was equally impressed by her aria with chorus, "Domine Deus, Agnus Dei," particularly the firmly communicated feeling of personal appeal in "miserere nobis" ("have mercy upon us"), ending with a feather-soft trill of entreatment. Her solo aria, "Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris," likewise had stability, warmth, genuineness, and a gorgeous alto tone.

The concert opened with UIndy composer John Berners's "Sinfonia, Part 2," a work commissioned for the 20th anniversary. To heighten the occasion, the devoted university patron DeHaan was presented with a framed copy of the score before the performance. (Berners admitted he couldn't stop writing when the work reached the requested length, which is why only the latter part of "Sinfonia" was presented.)

The work was admirable for its scope. It had roles for such outlier instruments (in modern orchestras playing 18th-century music) as baroque flute, electric piano, accordion (bayan), saxophone and flamboyant percussion. All had their say in order to salute various specialties among UIndy music faculty.

The 12-minute work seemed longer than that (in a good sense), because it comprised whimsy, sentimentality and hints of menace coherently. Episodes of stark, booming punctuation and ensemble brouhaha had dissipated by the time soft staccato flicks from a solo instrument or two ended the piece.

The concert's third work was what I hesitate to describe as probably the cutest of Mozart's mature piano concertos, No. 14 in E-flat major, K. 449. Professor Richard Ratliff was the soloist, turning in his usual incisive, crisply defined performance in music of this era. He recovered well from a few unsounded notes in the first movement. By the finale, he seemed fully secure and even exuberant, finding common ground with the orchestra best where it most counted: in the fast 6/8 conclusion.

The orchestra sounded a bit woolly at times. In the first movement, balance and blend were poor. One got the unsettling sensation that each section was proceeding like toddlers engaged in parallel play. The slow movement found everyone working together much better. Leppard's acuity with texture and phrasing came through in a heady display of counterpoint and chromaticism in the last movement,  with Ratliff foremost.

"How easily the blown banners change to wings" (Stevens again) when our old philosopher in Indianapolis finally hits his stride.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Extending a niche genre (parodies of Beach Boy songs from a Republican perspective) as GOP crabs in the presidential barrel keep clicking claws

Will he be the GOP's man in '16?
For the past few hours, the essence of what follows has been up on Facebook. Such a longish status report seems to mean that FB is resisting my attempt to touch up a few places, so I'm making a blog post out of it. Originally, I figured this kind of lark lowers the dignity of my blog. Then, I found I was having a hard time figuring out what that means.

Anyway, many of you remember John McCain's fragmentary parody of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" several years ago. It was lamentable both as policy and as satire: "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran."

Now I'm adding hardly any more distinction to the tiny genre as I reflect on the roiling Republican field (now shrinking slightly) of presidential hopefuls, tweaking the Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda." I've encountered some punditry over the past few months suggesting a boomlet in favor of Mitt Romney might be in the offing, despite his sound defeat in 2012.

Herewith, an appropriate song I can imagine being sung by a walkaround character (a lead vocalist dressed in an elephant suit) impersonating the Republican establishment. On the chorus, Sen. McCain and GOP chairman Reince Priebus will no doubt be joining in with gusto. (We already know that McCain will nail the "bom, bom" bass line.)

Help Me, Romney

I’ve been watching all these clowns till I’m just about out of my head
Coming up with something worse than whatever Donald Trump just said.

Well, Romney, you know what I mean
When I say you could sweep the field clean,
So come on and help me, Romney,
Help me get them out of the way.

Help me, Romney,
Help, help me, Romney,
Help me, Romney,
Help, help me, Romney,
Help me, Romney,
Help, help me, Romney,
Help me, Romney,
Help, help me, Romney,
Help me, Romney,
Help, help me, Romney,
Help me, Romney,
Help, help me, Romney,
Help me, Romney, yeah,
Get them out of the way.

Next year, I bet the givers and the takers will both want you:
If we avoid disaster at the polls, we’ll tolerate a gaffe or two.

Well, Romney, you’ve caught my eye,
You should really give it one more try;
You gotta help me, Romney,
Help me get them out of the way.

Help me, Romney,
Help, help me, Romney,
Help me, Romney,
Help, help me, Romney,
Help me, Romney,
Help, help me, Romney,
Help me, Romney,
Help, help me, Romney,
Help me, Romney,
Help, help me, Romney,
Help me, Romney,
Help, help me, Romney,
Help me, Romney, yeah,
Get them out of the way.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Wrapping up the 2015 Indy Jazz Fest: A personal account of music at Saturday's Block Party

A jazz festival should have a certain amount of messiness when it comes to summing up the music, so what follows has no bearing on what seems to have been a well-run finale to Indy Jazz Fest 2015. The messiness is all in my head, a condition to which five-dollar beers made only a slight contribution. (Pause for eye-rolls)

Placement and continuity of the acts on two stages (outdoors near Yats, inside at the Jazz Kitchen) presumably depends on more than artistic direction. Overlapped timing not only nudged me to hear incomplete sets, but also probably resulted in not quite grasping some artists' design of their time onstage. And of course I was selective in any case, satisfying both curiosity and expectation in ways I can't explain. It's a festival thang.

Scott Routenberg, Jesse Wittman, and Cassius Goens entertain.
Adept management of the allotted 75 minutes was shown in the afternoon by the Scott Routenberg Trio. The pianist, who teaches at Ball State University, presented a full scope of piano-bass-drums magic from a personal perspective. His colleagues were Jesse Wittman, bass, and Cassius Goens, drums.

The set ended with Airto's "Misturada," whose drummer-composer's rhythmic elan gave great space to Goens. Routenberg skillfully mines new as well as old pop for useful material: Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" sat comfortably next to Bjork's "Joga."

Pianists heading a trio are in the catbird seat when it comes to expressing themselves. That's a big part of jazz history. But the good ones also make a strong impression when they and their trio mates accompany singers. You have to seem to be serving the vocalist, but it doesn't help to fade into the background. Otherwise, jazz isn't really happening.

Brenda Williams displays her sassy style.
A master class on working with singers was Steve Allee's achievement behind Brenda Williams and Everett Greene, with firm support from bassist Jeremy Allen and drummer Chris Pyle.  "Vocal Ease" is how Indy Jazz Fest billed the program featuring Williams, Greene, and a third singer I didn't stay for.

Greene and Williams seemed thoroughly at ease, living up to the set's punning title. Greene rolled out "Exactly Like You" and "All Blues" before ending with "Old Folks" in as genuine a rendition of this sentimental favorite as I've ever heard. When the irrepressible Williams came onstage she collared Greene (probably with mutually planned persuasion) into doing "There Will Never Be Another You" as a duet, with lots of teasing byplay. Williams as soloist applied her patented soulful touch to a couple of standards that usually don't go near the bluesy depths she found in "Almost Like Being in Love" and "Masquerade," the latter ending with an extended scatting episode.

There were other vocal showcases in the festival's final day, but I didn't make a point of taking them in. Before Rob Dixon and Triology's vocal guest, he welcomed American Pianists Association's Cole Porter Fellow Sullivan Fortner for a New Orleans-style tribute titled "Blues for Ben." It was quite a romp, featuring a Nick Gerlach tenor-sax solo that moved casually in and out of the blues changes and a relentless Richard "Sleepy" Floyd groove. Fortner was focused and nonplussed sitting in. With Steven Jones resuming the keyboard chair, the band ended its set with a hard-charging "Chameleon" (Herbie Hancock).

The greatest joys of the Block Party for me included the Tucker Brothers Band in midafternoon. This is a smoothly working quartet starring bassist Nick Tucker and guitarist Joel Tucker, with fully equal support from saxophonist Sean Imboden and drummer Brian Yarde.

The indefatigable Mark Sheldon (left) captures the action as the Rob Dixon band takes care of businesss.
Wes Montgomery's "Road Song" was a natural for a set featuring such a first-rate young guitarist. "I'll Be Seeing You," which Joel identified as his favorite standard, lived up to his high estimation in its performance, with his solo nicely throwing out lines and chords, chords and lines, in well-governed profusion.

Much later, having to follow the enlarged Dixon band onto the same stage put Sophie Faught at a disadvantage. Musically, the imaginative tenor saxophonist can hold her own, of course. And with Frank Glover joining her in the front line on clarinet and a fine rhythm section behind them, the letdown was only in the vibe, not the music-making itself.

Dixon and his colleagues happened to pump up the crowd and raise the party mood to new heights as the sidewalk filled from the Yats bandstand all the way to the intersection of 54th and College. They ran over, to nobody's apparent objection. And thus, the interaction that made the Faught/Glover show so enthralling on the Jazz Kitchen stage last month had a hard time finding its own atmosphere to breathe comfortably in, even though the set included some fetching Monk floated upon the crisp autumn air.

A better, more settled and still adventurous Glover exhibition had taken place inside just before, with the Steve Allee Trio participating in far-ranging renditions of "Invitation" (a favorite Glover vehicle for about a quarter-century), "In a Sentimental Mood," and "Windows."

Though a large-scale outdoor park day as an Indy Jazz Fest climax is somewhat to be missed, risking so much of the budget on such programming simply doesn't fly, organizer David Allee told me recently. As the festival's culmination, a Block Party is an acceptable substitute, especially when it is as well run as this one seemed to be. I hope everyone involved is resting easy today. They deserve to.

[Jeff Dunn photos via Indy Jazz Fest]

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Krzysztof Urbanski reaches a personal milestone with his first ISO Mozart symphony performance

Last spring when Krzysztof Urbanski's fifth season at the helm of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was announced on the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage, he spoke respectfully and with a tinge of awe about his decision to program his first Mozart symphony since becoming the ISO's youngest music director.

Having engaged major concert artist (also a native Pole) as the guest soloist featured in that audience
Krzystof Urbanski seemed to get what he wanted out of his long-delayed ISO/Mozart debut.
magnet Beethoven, Urbanski placed Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor after intermission in his first appearance on the podium here since June. (The program will be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon.)

The great G minor couldn't have sounded better. The first movement established the work's tragic cast, with its main material immediately introduced in a manner both tentative and assertive. That sounds contradictory, but it's part and parcel of this symphony's emotional depth and complexity. Urbanski showed no signs of wallowing in the emotion, however: the counterpoint in the development was clearly defined and sensitively impelled.

The Andante never sagged under its expressive weight. The lower strings buoyed up the performance, allowing the repeated two-note "sighs" to hover plaintively above. Played this well, the music could be imagined as representing Don Giovanni in a penitent mood, if that maculate hero had ever been in such a mood, with the ghost of the slaughtered Commendatore as confessor. That's how profound this performance struck me; it was at the pinnacle of all Mozart performances here in recent memory.

The modern fashion for playing minuets in classical symphonies favors a brisk tempo. Urbanski interpreted this movement against that style. The somber nature of the work made the slow pace feel  just right, and it helped set off the work's only excursion into the major mode in the Trio section.

The finale followed suit, sprightly and energetic but colored with Mozart's deepest thoughts. If it's not the tour de force of the "Jupiter" Symphony finale (No. 41), it is nonetheless uncommonly skillful in its layout, with the extra quality of genius saturating every measure. Urbanski and the ISO were equal to its demands.

Since the annual gala concert looms at the end of the week, the Classical Series opener was properly focused on just two masterpieces. The concert's first half consisted of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat ("Emperor") with guest soloist Emanuel Ax, who always goes over well here. He apparently enjoys what he's doing and he does it well. His avuncular appearance, topped by a tousled Bernie Sanders head of white hair, completes the picture.
Emanuel Ax played with elder-statesman assurance.

Indianapolis last heard the  "Emperor" about a year ago in another season-opening concert, as the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra welomed Sean Chen as the guest soloist. Chen's performance was more pointed and crisper, in some ways, but I liked the autumnal, even rhapsodic glow that Ax imparted to the solo role Friday night.

Urbanski's astute management of the accompaniment suited Ax's concept. The orchestral tuttis sustained and extended the warmth and stateliness of Ax's playing. The hushed introduction to the Adagio displayed the control and unanimity of the strings as concertmaster Zach De Pue and Urbanski have developed their rapport. I was also admiring the floating lyricism of solo clarinet and flute until the latter moved prematurely downward, producing brief, unwelcome dissonance.

The finale sprang to life immediately and kept its romping, yet poised, spirit intact. Despite decades of warning about cell-phone noises, such an intrusion almost ruined the soft duet of piano and timpani right before the full-orchestra sweep to the double bar. Otherwise, it should be mentioned that Friday night's was an unusually attentive and appreciative audience. After a sustained ovation, Ax offered an enthralling encore: "Des Abends," one of the Opus 12 "Fantasy Pieces" by Robert Schumann. And at concert's end, it was evident that Urbanski had gotten what he wanted from his orchestra — and the audience seemed to agree.

Friday, September 18, 2015

'The Fantasticks' displays its perennial appeal in Actors Theatre of Indiana production

A theater company can assure itself of good advance buzz by putting a certified hit on the schedule, and there's no hit more durable in the world of small-scale theater than "The Fantasticks."
The young lovers consider only the happiest options.

A production calculated to win Hoosier hearts is under way in the Studio Theatre at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts, where it is being staged through Sept. 27. As seen Thursday, this version of the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt musical fantasy gets both the down-to-earth and ethereal aspects right.

Neatly designed and musically shipshape, Actors Theatre of Indiana's  "Fantasticks" is best of all vividly fleshed out in characters and their interactions through an allegory of love's eternal pleasures and perils.

Directed by Bill Jenkins, the show has the ingratiating informality of the original, overlaid by the mystery and artifice so essential to the lesson the story imparts.

That lesson can be boiled down to a line in El Gallo's signature song, "Try to Remember": "Without a hurt the heart is hollow." The hurts are engineered unwittingly by the success of the young lovers' fathers in bringing the pair together. Parental interference has a way of not being able to enjoy its occasional triumphs for long. That's what drives the second act, whose scary trials are spellbindingly staged here before the hurts life inflicts on the lovers move them toward reconciliation and a happy ending.

El Gallo, a rogue for hire in the swashbuckling mold, was played by Logan Moore, whose piercing eyes and strutting self-confidence in the role were all it needed — besides an appealing singing voice, which he also had. The lovers had naivete oozing out of their pores in the portrayals of Matt (by Michael Ferraro) and Luisa (by Laura Sportiello).

As enthusiasts for the best life has to offer, their responses to the unexpected difficulties of being together were movingly carried out. Determined to experience the world, like an uncoddled Candide, Matt undergoes trials that shock Luisa until El Gallo insists she view them through a mask of illusion. The lovers' hollow hearts are eventually filled with a more mature view of love, of course.

Putting ATI's female artistic directors into the two father roles worked brilliantly. Cynthia Collins, as the fiercely controlling Hucklebee, was well matched against the parsimonious Bellomy, played by Judy Fitzgerald. Their singing and the execution of Tyler Hartman's choreography in "Plant a Radish" was a highlight of their partnership.

Paul Collier Hansen and Michael Elliott played to the hilt a pair of amusingly shabby clowns engaged by El Gallo to carry out his artfully concocted designs upon the lovers. Holly Stults helped complete the magical manipulations in the essential role of the Mute.

The musical atmosphere was richly painted throughout by the instrumental accompaniment of music director Brent E. Marty, piano, and Melissa Gallant, harp. The symbolic roles of sun and moon got stunning realization through the lighting of Marciel Greene and the props of  David "Kip" Shawger, The effective production team also includes Jonathan Parke (sound) and Katie Cowan-Sickmeier (costumes), with the overarching mastery of Bernie Killian in place as scenic designer and technical director.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bobby Watson and the Indianapolis Jazz Collective put their simpatico heads together

Alto saxophone mastery honed in the fruitful fields of hard bop got a star outing Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen, when Bobby Watson was joined onstage by the all-star Indianapolis Jazz Collective.

The first of two sets presented by the 2015 Indy Jazz Fest displayed the 62-year-old musician's sensitivity and flair. "Hard bop," though a term best applied to the long, productive history of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (of which Watson was musical director for years), seems restrictive when applied to Watson. "Soft bop" conveys the wrong message, but Watson's tone, while intense, sends warm, inviting messages with nothing hard about them.

Hearty and imaginative: Bobby Watson at the Jazz Kitchen.
Especially impressive was his solo feature, the standard "These Foolish Things." Backed by the Collective's rhythm section of pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps, Watson first stated the theme alone with an immediate rush of the nostalgic ardor the song celebrates. I admired his incorporation of bent notes on the bridge, which hinted at a bluesy side of the song that is not evident in many performances. With the rhythm section suspending activity near the very end, Watson played a spellbinding cadenza larded with Charlie Parker allusions.

That showcase immediately preceded the set finale, "In Case You Missed It," a Watson original from Blakey's "Album of the Year" (1981). That landmark album was credited by Collective tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon with solidifying his devotion to jazz as a high-school musician. The performance featured a typically robust Watson solo, with long phrases, cogent and fully supported.

The set opened with another charming Watson tune, "Time Will Tell." It's a great vehicle for a sextet of this degree of competence, drive, and lyricism.  It was wonderful to hear Dixon varying his solo so expressively after finding him a little monotonous machine-gunning notes in solos at the Indy Jazz Fest opener last Thursday. He was clearly feeling right at home Wednesday evening, standing shoulder to shoulder with his idol.

Clearly all the local musicians were inspired: Marlin McKay took an appealing flugelhorn solo, and the tune definitely appealed to Allee as well: It seemed a shirttail relative of the kind of tunes Allee writes, especially in his "New York in the Fifties" persona. The ensemble blend was pretty tasty throughout; you'd hardly know the group didn't play together all the time.

In contrast, the lickety-split version of "My Shining Hour" that followed opened with a blazing tenor statement and proceeded largely as a parade of solos. When Watson's turn came, he soloed with only Phelps accompanying for a while; then the rest of the rhythm section entered at just the right time. Tucker's bass solo, incidentally, was at such a high level that one almost wished the performance had been recorded. But good live jazz — one and done — always has an excitement all its own, because you either thrill to it at the time or you don't at all.

The stately version of  Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" the band offered brought to mind another Indy Jazz Fest milestone: a deconstructed version of the tune offered by the megastar duo of the composer and Herbie Hancock at Military Park many years ago. This version was more straightforward, with its moaning tag expertly tucked in amid expansive, soulful and soleful solos.

McKay must be looking forward to winter, as his solo quoted phrases from "Sleigh Ride" for the second time of the evening. Watson brought to his solo a little bit of preaching reflecting his roots in the black church. In the outchorus, he placed arabesques and wispy reflections against the theme carried by his front-line partners.

Most in the audience were prepared to agree with the anti-Trump rant Watson inserted into the long diminuendo vamp of "In Case You Missed It."

"This is the music that made America great," Watson said as he launched into his amusing putdown of the former "Apprentice" host. "This is what we do."

After such a set, who could argue with him — besides Donald Trump?

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ronen Chamber Ensemble enters nature's realm to start 2015-16 season

The nature theme was lightly applied in the Ronen Chamber Ensemble's season-opening concert in Hilbert Circle Theatre's Wood Room Tuesday evening.

Christoph Nils Thompson
A horn tune always places the listener in a forest, as co-artistic director Gregory Martin reminded a capacity audience before the performance of the program finale, Brahms' Horn Trio, op. 40. And Till Eulenspiegel answers "a call of nature" briefly in Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," an arrangement for violin, horn, bassoon clarinet and contrabass, which opened the concert.

Touching more substantially on the natural world was the piece being premiered, Christoph Nils Thompson's "Borchert Quintets: Five Poems for Woodwind Quintet." Thompson, assistant professor of music media production at Ball State University, read each of the poems in the original German and his own English translation before the corresponding quintet was played.

The players — flutist Tamara Thweatt, oboist Timothy Clinch, clarinetist David Bellman, bassoonist Mark Ortwein, and hornist Julie Beckel Yager — gave a good account of Thompson's picturesque settings. "The Moon Is Lying" had a teasing buoyancy, and "Farewell"'s long phrases, with swells of passion, testified to arguably genuine expressions of love. A prisoner's longing for freedom found expression in "The Bird," which of course gives the flute considerable independence in music that sometimes flows, sometimes romps with jazzy insouciance.

"The Night" came close to a classical blues, with idiomatic zest evident especially in Ortwein's playing. The finale, "Try To," one of those poems that offer a guide to right living, was resolute, almost marchlike, with "windy" episodes underlining our assigned duty to resist every idle breeze that blows. All told, "Borchert Quintets" is a palatable, multi-colored addition to the contemporary repertoire for this time-tested ensemble combination.

The Strauss arrangement moved through the essential elements of the familiar symphonic tone poem that focuses on a legendary mischief-maker who finally receives condign punishment for his misdeeds. Ortwein, co-artistic director and clarinetist David Bellman, contrabassist L. Bennett Crantford, and violinist Philip Palermo were joined by guest artist John Cox, horn, to present the work's mordant whimsy with considerable narrative and expressive skill.
John Cox, horn

Cox, first horn with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, returned to help Martin and Palermo end the program with the stirring, songful Brahms Horn Trio. I found the tempo and mood changes in the first movement rather loose and uncertain, but the performance gained focus as it proceeded. Apart from a second-movement burble, Cox played with assurance, accuracy and warmth. The ensemble was forthright and vigorous in the Scherzo and the "Allegro con brio" finale. It was adequately doleful in the slow movement, with the designation "Adagio mesto" stipulating a sad mood.

Martin had a solo spotlight just after intermission, presenting six character pieces by Edvard Grieg under the rubric, "Music from the Norwegian Mountains." Having touted the Norwegian composer as "the godfather of impressionism," the pianist exploited to the full the scores' color palette. These pieces were offered as keenly designed pictures of rural life, in solitude and in company alike. The set ended brilliantly with the lively "Humoresque."

It was good to get rare exposure to a composer often disparaged as a regionalist. Without disputing that directly, it can't be denied that Grieg knew much about traditional life in the natural world and how to put it into charming musical terms.

The Ronen Chamber Ensemble's seasonlong emphasis on nature is off to a good start.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Pharez Whitted brings some guests along on a sentimental journey home

With deep Indianapolis jazz roots, Pharez Whitted has credibility all his own.
Trumpeter Pharez Whitted, a forceful master of his instrument and a galvanizing bandleader, paid a visit to his hometown Sunday evening, courtesy of the Indy Jazz Fest.

The Indianapolis-born Chicagoan brought with him his current band, and the Indiana Landmarks Center's Cook Theater rocked and throbbed to its music for nearly two hours. Contributing to the voice emphasis of this year's festival, Whitted welcomed onstage, for a few numbers each, singer Opal Staples and rapper John Robinson.

Robinson got an outing almost immediately, during a roiling original, "Everlasting." He provided a controlled torrent of rhymes on the theme of colors, projecting clearly and shaping his words visually with a compact vocabulary of gestures. His raps favor building up over tearing down.

After a soaring eulogy to "The Tree of Life," which embraced a stunning Whitted solo, Robinson and the band offered a hip bit of jazz nostalgia, "Miles 'n' Trane," recalling the partnership of Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the 1950s. The lyrics featured a host of Coltrane and Davis song titles, and the phrases set forth in unison by the trumpeter and his frontline partner, saxophonist Eddie Bayard, recalled some classics of the "Milestones" era.

As the nostalgic atmosphere thickened and became intoxicating to breathe, Whitted and the band closed with a tune he says he's often used as a finale, "The Bringer of Joy," which he picked up long ago from the late Indianapolis drummer/griot Prince Julius Adeniyi. 

In Sunday's concert it became  primarily an essential showcase for Whitted's childhood friend and longtime colleague Jonathan Wood, whose electric bass solo represented the pinnacle of creative virtuosity on that instrument. The performance brought me back to the interesting 1980s fusion band Decoy, of which Whitted and Wood were members, and its performance of the tune under the stars at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I still have the band's souvenir T-shirt.

Whitted has a steely, declamatory approach in uptempo burners like "Afghanistan," and Bayard matches it. This is a partnership that works not so much by contrast, as John Coltrane and Miles Davis did for a time, but by presenting different timbral sides of the same stylistic and temperamental coin. The partnership claimed the attention as a truth-telling force in the "spiritual" realm of "Journey Home" as well as when the band was in the full assault mode in such pieces as "Afghanistan" and "Everlasting."

Bayard was featured in Whitted's "Freedom Song," which opened with a coruscating solo by drummer Greg Artry. When the theme came into view the drummer established a groove also laid down by Wood and pianist Lovell Bradford as Bayard spun out a plangent solo, marked by rattling tremolos and plunges to the bottom of his horn's range.

Whitted and his mates were fine partners for the show's other vocalist, the radiant Opal Staples, who sang "Perfect Stranger" and "Crazy" (definitely not Patsy Cline's) with expressive, artfully ornamented phrasing and a lyricism that steadied the outsized emotions in both songs.

The trumpeter's solo on "Crazy" was his best of the night. He was always good at putting his heart on the line while making every musical gesture — whether outlandish or tender — fit into the whole story. That makes him a natural accompanist for any vocalist who resonates with him. He was clever and fortunate enough to bring two of them along for Sunday's hometown ride.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The healer is in: Dr. Lonnie Smith and his powerhouse trio play the Jazz Kitchen

Dr. Lonnie Smith can always be counted upon to add some mystery and humor to his funk-defined Hammond B3 artistry. His second set for Indy Jazz Fest at the Jazz Kitchen Friday night was an apt demonstration.

Dr. Lonnie Smith is at one with the B3.
One of the few jazz musicians you can accurately say chooses to appear on stage in costume rather than just clothes, the turbaned, bearded and robed organist has a look almost as indelible as his sound. It all comes together as something more substantial than branding, topped by an affable stage personality and true spontaneity.

Any hints that "space is the place" for him as it was for the enigmatic Sun Ra are quickly dispelled. Smith goes his own way, but his music always speaks to the people on a broadly accessible level, with crucial assistance nowadays from guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Johnathan Blake.

The "doctor" is more a nickname than a title, which befits a musician who doesn't stand on ceremony. Yet he in fact does "doctor up the music" — the phrase applied to him long ago that's the source of the first word of his performing identity. You need look no further than his trio's rollicking version of "Straight, No Chaser," a plump interpretation just about in the middle of Smith's second set.

Blake started things off at a blistering pace with a solo featuring bass-drum patter as nimble as anything he did with his sticks. The Thelonious Monk theme was first set atop the ruckus by Kreisberg several minutes in. At length, there was a segue to a wry art-rock version of the tune; if the British group Yes of sainted memory had had Monk in its book, it might have sounded something like this. There were delicately applied quotes along the way: I heard a phrase or two of "Freedom Jazz Dance" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," as well as hints of other Monk pieces besides the evergreen "SNC."  It amounted to an amusement-park ride hurtling along the well-maintained rails of a classic.

As a teen, Smith fronted a rhythm-and-blues vocal group in Buffalo, N.Y. He honed his voice also in church, and vocalism has continued to be a part of his musical armory.  It came out immediately in "Back Track" and floated along in gravelly splendor over "Frame for the Blues." Slow, roiling triplets underlay that performance, with well-timed smears and chordal stabs from the Hammond B3.

Smith gives his sidemen lots of room, and on Friday they always took advantage of it. The trio romped in an open field more than it seemed to refurbish a familiar room. Kreisberg's long, flashy phrases were always integrated into a satisfying whole.  Blake's titanic drumming never failed to complement the melody-driven instruments, and he commanded enough variety of sound to help the good doctor lay healing hands on every corner of the wide sound world he explores.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Indy Jazz Fest opens with a salute to the pride of Hoboken, Frank Sinatra

It was more a tip of the fedora than a full-scale salute or ring-a-ding-ding genuflection, yet the opening night of the 2015 Indy Jazz Fest served the purpose well enough of memorializing a popular singer who practically invented "the standard" — Frank Sinatra.

In the centennial celebrations surrounding Sinatra's birth, this was decidedly a modest tribute attended by a large crowd in the  Lilly Performance Hall of the University of Indianapolis' DeHaan Fine Arts Center. But it was not without style and panache. True, it came close to diluting those qualities in an enthusiastic but poorly arranged finale, "New York, New York," with the three guest singers uneasily distributing phrases of the durable show-stopper.

Keynote address: They paid homage to Frank Sinatra and launched a voice-centered festival.
Everything that led up to that song, however, displayed a fine collegial spirit in addition to showing off the personal styles of the vocalists: Rick Vale, Everett Greene, and Laney Wilson. Bandleader Rob Dixon rightly emphasized that each of the men has his own style. It was not for the sake of imitating Sinatra that the singers presented such songs as "Night and Day," "Come Fly With Me," and "The Lady Is a Tramp." Instead, it was a clever, timely way for this year's festival to point up its vocal emphasis in a lineup including such notables as Dianne Reeves, Jonathan Butler and Take 6.

Sinatra was such a virtuoso of his era's pop music that the way he sang a song assured it of a place in everybody's memory book. And his ability to swing and individualize a song's phrases was in such sympathy with the spirit of jazz that he shone among expert instrumentalists who could get people up and dancing, from Tommy Dorsey to Count Basie. He didn't improvise, he didn't scat (well, there was that "dooby-dooby-doo" stuff in "Strangers in the Night"), but his timing and rhythmic kick qualified him as a jazz singer. It's a loose category by any measure.

The band couldn't have been more adaptable to the vocalists. In addition to saxophonist Dixon, it consisted of Mark Buselli, flugelhorn/trumpet; Steven Jones, piano; Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums.

Ol' Blue Eyes in the Capitol years.
The rapport was evident in both ballads and uptempo swingers. Wilson's glide into "There Will Never Be Another You" generated nifty solos from Dixon and Tucker; in between was some smart interaction between Buselli and Phelps. As a reliably expressive player, Buselli was adept at underlining  the mood of a song, as in Vale's wry performance of "The Lady Is a Tramp," which was completed by a flugelhorn solo ending in a low, sustained growl.

Of the eight songs, most were ballads. Initially, Wilson crooned with subtle rhythm section accompaniment only in "Misty." Again, Buselli on flugelhorn was very much in the singer's spirit. So was Phelps, with his subtle stick changes as the piece progressed. It ended with a floating falsetto phrase: "Look at me." We were certainly listening, too.

Greene's affectionate way with his material rode atop some time-engendered decline in his vocal prowess. But he has moved into old age with much of his liquescent basso intact. He manages to sing while smiling, which suited the optimism of "I've Got the World on a String" and the nostalgia of "Autumn in New York," but fit less well with "Blues in the Night." That blues-related song was turned into a pure blues in the solos, featuring Buselli's adeptness with the plunger mute, then an open-horn wailing interval for both horns that had the crowd roaring.

From the moment Dixon tore into his solo after Wilson had extended his "Fly Me to the Moon" proposal, the tenor saxophonist was inclined to favor flurries of notes. He was not in the mood to stress long note values except at a few crowd-pleasing peaks; I missed more display of his gifts as a melody-maker.

Graceful as always, Jones lacked depth of tone at the grand piano, the result perhaps of too much time spent playing electric keyboards.  Tucker, miked just right for this appearance, accompanied with aplomb, and made the most of his solo in "There Will Never Be Another You."

All told, and setting aside any notion that Sinatra's sound was supposed to be replicated in the vocals, I never heard these singers approach the Master in one important respect: the astonishing breath support that allowed him to carry off a long phrase while sounding relaxed and still have some oomph to invest at the end (if the occasion called for reaching a climax). Admittedly, by the time I saw him at Deer Creek Music Center late in his career, Sinatra's phrasing had become a little clipped, the climactic long notes carefully cut off before they sounded frayed.

There were hints of the midcareer Sinatra in some of Wilson's singing. In Greene's, there was that warmth. In Vale's, there was something of the right sass and offhand elegance. We'll take all that as a good enough approximation, benefiting from savvy accompaniments (there were some lovely codas) — and move on with enthusiasm into the rest of the festival.

And, by the way, who needs to hear "New York, New York" sung by anyone other than Sinatra?

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]