Sunday, August 20, 2017

IndyFringe Festival: A comedian and some magic highlight my Day 3

Krish Mohan has matured as a standup comic.
Two years ago I took in Krish Mohan's debut as an Indy Fringe performer. I found him funny but unfocused and more than a little squeamish about identity issues. The son of immigrants from India, brought to the US as a child, the slender Pittsburgh-based comedian dazzles in a new show (thankfully!) on the stage of ComedySportz.

He's still talking and thinking fast, and the 2017 Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival monologue ("Approaching Happiness") starts with reminders of adjustment difficulties for a foreign-born kid.  Mohan's 2015 observation that, for a nation of foreigners, the USA doesn't seem to like them very much rings even truer today than it did then.

He moves on from his youthful alienation from American sports in the current show to more complex issues, like mental health, shifting views of normality, problems we all have handling our emotions, and striking this year's theme from arresting angles, as when we ask ourselves: Do I want to be happy?

Then he transitions adroitly through religious issues, since the conduct of life is central to how religions build imaginary structures around it. The Christian notion of Apocalypse he finds "adorable," for instance, in contrast to the abruptly closed curtain of Hinduism's end of time. There is an extensive reinterpretation of Jesus' last days and his relationship to Judas. It comes close to the kind of sermon on the subject you might encounter in a liberal church from a minister who used to experiment (and inhale). But his adept characterization of the savior and the betrayer, in humor and mimicry, goes way beyond anything you'd hear from the pulpit.

That brings up a habit of Mohan's that threads its way through this show as it did his previous one: responding sporadically to the audience's response. Did they get the joke? How long did it take? What might conspicuous approval mean when contrasted with silence elsewhere in the crowd? I'm not sure why many comics do this — you never hear a jazz musician say, "Yeah, the last time we played 'On Green Dolphin Street,' people talked even during the drum solo, too." Something about standup must make comics desperate to know that the audience is with them.

Mohan attempted to disarm criticism upfront when he mentioned complaints from a previous audience that his show resembled a lecture. Well, "Approaching Happiness" does have a somewhat professorial or preacherly cast — the latter especially toward the end. Mohan's peroration emphasizes the importance of accepting others as the best basic approach to happiness, and urges upon us the duty to really talk to people and listen to them, especially when they are unlike us.

Who could disagree? Fortunately, he works up to his conclusion smoothly and earns the gales of laughter that punctuated his show Saturday evening.

Comedy was threaded throughout Volume 2 of "The Best of Indy Magic Monthly" later that evening at Theatre on the Square, the home of Taylor Martin's productions for the past nine years. Beginning next month the series will move to the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre while TOTS undergoes a substantial reboot.

Everything about "The Best" was amazing, of course. Each of Martin's four guests was a master of ingratiating patter to accompany serial astonishment. Daniel Lee made laidback narrative out of his trickery with ropes — joining, parting, changing lengths before our eyes. Brendon Ware's act intersected magic and comic wordplay; he depends expertly on the gimmick of  looking like someone who can't quite do proper magic — and fools us that way.

The avuncular John West accomplished feats of classic prestidigitation with coins and their mysterious appearances and vanishings. Every time he showed us an open palm, we gasped.

The Amazing Barry took that kind of laidback persona to new levels, ending with some precarious yoga card tricks. Yoga magic is a subgenre of which he could very well be a unique master. His mastery was beyond question Saturday night. You will rarely see the correct card offered to the person who chose it by a magician's bare foot. Sole power!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Black Moon: Revisiting "Blue Moon" for our troubled times, gloomilly heralding Monday's solar eclipse

Avuncular art: Amiable fellows with an edge — Woody Guthrie and Kurt Vonnegut — highlighted my FringeFest Day #2

People with large book collections have to endure mysterious losses over the years. The one I regret most is my autographed paperback copy of "Mother Night."


With a crinkly smile, Kurt Vonnegut signed my purchase at an Ann Arbor bookstore in 1968 or early 1969. It was the only prose writer's autograph I've ever owned, having since focused on poets.  Anyway, the author-inscribed novel is long gone from my bookshelves. Not among the Indianapolis master's greatest fans (I can claim only to have read several of his books), I still nourish a pang over the disappearance of my "Mother Night."

So there was a touch of nostalgia to my Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival visit Friday night to Phoenix Theatre's Basile (or Underground) Stage for Tom Horan's adaptation of Vonnegut's tangled story of personal identity and deception centered on Howard W. Campbell Jr., who fit into German society a little too well in the late 1930s and was tapped upon the American entrance into World War II to send coded messages to the Allies in his Nazi propaganda broadcasts. The author's stated moral for "Mother Night" also provides a motto for the stage version: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

Jeffery Martin plays Vonnegut's entrapped playwright "hero" and Chelsea Anderson a bewildering variety of other roles, under the direction of Michael Hosp, in this presentation by the Vonnegut Museum and Library.

"As a playwright I should know when the hero has to die," Campbell muses at one point. But the ambiguity of real life rarely pinpoints a good death, and often blurs many other things we wish were clearly defined. This is the theme Vonnegut elaborates in one of his darkly comic plots, which typically seem a little too much like artful contraptions for my taste. For the story Vonnegut had to tell here, however, his manner of storytelling seems perfect.

Horan's choice to have an actress of Anderson's versatility appear as  Campbell's wife Helga and her younger sister Resi, as the sly American spy recruiter, a New York cop on the beat, a sadistic American army lieutenant, et al. fit the shape-shifting scenario like a glove. Not all the novel's characters and plot complications can be brought to the stage, of course, but the sacrifice doesn't distort the original, to the best of my recollection.

Hosp has the two actors smoothly deployed in different settings and effecting a continuous blend of action and Campbellian reflection. Anderson was particularly adept at the two main female roles, but also made a strong impression as the popcorn-munching, trenchcoated agent of Campbell's fraught double life.  Martin had a few line bobbles opening night, and his intensity flagged occasionally, but overall he conveyed the character's blend of cluelessness and the nimbleness that's required when a man builds his life on pretense and must wrestle with personal authenticity — whatever that is, the ghost of Vonnegut might mutter.

Thomas Jones fascinates in "Woody Sed."
Vonnegut parlayed a repressed survivor's guilt (he famously lived through the firebombing of Dresden as a POW underground) into a wary, wry approach to life. Woody Guthrie's journey of survival, triumph, and decline, was more deeply rooted in childhood and family health heritage, and the fame he eventually acquired was wrought out of unquestionable authenticity from poverty and near-nomadism — plus a deceptively simple musical genius.

Connecticut-born, Vancouver (B.C.)-based Thomas Jones embodies the folksinger (1912-1967) in "Woody Sed," which I saw in its first FringeFest performance Friday night. The master of a company of voices surrounding Guthrie from childhood until his death from Huntington's Disease, Jones mostly re-creates the big-hearted, strong-minded musician in song and story, accompanying himself on a guitar labeled (like Guthrie's) "This machine kills fascists."

The well-crafted portrait is bookended by the folksinger's struggle with Huntington's, then takes us from the teenager's hobo period into his breakthrough in regional radio in California — a destination he shared with so many other Oklahomans during the Depression, Dust Bowl refugees memorialized in John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath." The attraction to communism is unapologetically described, the natural result of Woody's recognition that the system he and his people were in the grip of did not offer them much of a purchase on the promise of American life.

On the IndyFringe Basile Theatre stage, Jones uses  as props a chair, an old-fashioned microphone and a semicircle of manuscripts representing the prolific songwriter. The rest he leaves to our imagination, but we get lots of help as he vividly fleshes out incidents from Guthrie's life across the United States and in the merchant marine in World War II. The show is aglow with the performer's amiability as well as his physical and emotional investment in his material. The result is funny, passionate, and heart-wrenching all within a packed hour. It's likely that only the Alan Lomax recordings of Woody for the Library of Congress can get us any closer to this American icon than "Woody Sed."

Cody Melcher spoke about truth.
My third show was a bit of a puzzle. A highly intelligent young stand-up comic from Chicago named Cody Melcher presented "In Falsitas Veritas" at ComedySportz. As seen in its first festival performance, the show offered in rat-a-tat fashion Melcher's thoughts about the welter of false information that circulates and often thrives throughout the America we know and love as we scarf down the junk food of rumors, guesswork, and innuendo. Here's a representative sampling: Why Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC, fad diets, the showboat quackery of Dr. Oz, the riots in Hong Kong, the flimsy basis of men's rights activism, and — climactically — the saga of Truman Capote's "cremains" and their disposal.

The show needed more nuance and variety in delivery. The performer spoke too fast and often ran roughshod over what were intended to be cues for laughter. Avoiding a common crutch,  he admirably didn't go "blue," except for an eight-letter word beginning with "b." Though Melcher seemed intimate with his material, it was not completely memorized. Comedy out of a notebook? Uh, I don't think so. It was as if he thought detail-laden written material about the elusiveness of truth would spring to life just by being spoken.

Stand-up comedy, even at its brainiest, does not work that way. The illusion of spontaneity, an off-the-top-of-my-head feeling, is essential to the genre's success. Timing is  — almost — everything. George Carlin always had you believing he had just thought of the next thing and was sharing it with you. Bob Newhart's artful hesitations were meant to have you imagine you could hear his mind wheels spinning. Brainstorming as hermetically sealed in performance as Melcher's struck me as an overthought tempest in a tepid teapot.









Friday, August 18, 2017

Fringe Plunge: 'Divos' and 'The Gab' made TOTS' main stage the place to be opening night

After last year's "Divas," it was the turn of male pop stars to get choreographic treatment in Dance Kaleidoscope's seventh engagement at the Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival.

So, of course, "Divos" debuted Thursday night as one of several shows to kick off the 13th annual festival. At Theatre on the Square,
seven members of the contemporary-dance company presented premieres of works choreographed to songs by celebrity male performers of the past few decades.

Oneiric fantasy: Missy Thompson's "Dream On"
(Photo by Chris Crawl)
The songs' rhythmic drive and musical phrasing naturally generate much of the choreography, but the choreographers also have in common an intense interest in how lyrics can guide dance expression. This is clear from each choreographer's spoken introduction to his or her creation — statements that provide the audience with insights into the personal sources and motivations behind the program.

In other words, the divos were celebrated mainly to the degree their music had something vital to impart in dance terms. From Aerosmith's "Dream On" (Missy Thompson) to Rod Stewart's "I'll Stand By You" (Stuart Coleman, in a piece titled "Surround Yourself"), the program unfailingly added an extra dimension to the songs.

"Dream On" rested on the theme of recurring dreams, mostly disturbing, and thus was replete with floating and falling movement, as well as postures of apprehensiveness and confusion, some as if airborne, others grounded. "Surround Yourself" used the full company to reinforce the virtues of group support. Its intricately coordinated, billowing language put stress on cooperation and rapport, the individual drawing sustenance from the ensemble. A particularly striking passage had the company unfolding from a tight circle outward, yielding to a solo in the center. It was like time-lapse photography of a flower in transition from bud to blossom.

Positive energy also was held up in Mariel Greenlee's "Keep Faith," to music of George Michael.  There were churchy moments at first, alluded to later, with stained-glass lighting and prayerful postures. But faith was also addressed in less transcendent ways, in a manner that expertly bridged  the meaning of faith from something remote to something near at hand. In both cases, belief in the unseen is the common denominator, and "Keep Faith" spoke particularly to the reservoir of mutual trust upon which dancers necessarily draw.

As a dancer, Greenlee had to draw upon such trust spectacularly in Brandon Comer's "Dangerous Diana," a medley of Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" and "Dirty Diana." She was the title character, supported by five DK men, and had to keep embodying the first song's laserlike opening line: "There was something different about this girl." Comer's choreography avoided the King of Pop's stylized, angular twitches and tap-rooted footwork to come up with something original, requiring a considerable amount of lift, flexibility and panache from everyone concerned  — and trust galore from Greenlee, who managed to convey both danger and vulnerability as a woman being both venerated and tossed about.

Romantic devotion was a keynote of Paige Robinson's "You Take My Breath Away," the soaring Queen vocalism providing the cue for intense interaction among the six dancers. The same number of dancers was used in a more polarized fashion by Timothy June, setting Johnny Cash's searing "Hurt": Each of three fully visible dancers has a demonic masked partner, making the theme of hurt vividly both internal and external to how we live our lives. The demonic side seemed to score a final victory with a black hand over each anguished face.

Jillian Godwin set the longest piece, a mash-up (mixed by Mike Lamirand) of four Led Zeppelin songs. "Zeppelin" was a real tour-de-force for the troupe's women, the shift among songs complemented by costuming as well as different choreographic dialects. The full ensemble coalesced for the finale. At that climactic stage, the potentially problematic guitar solo — talk about divos! who's more a divo than a rock-guitar god? — was neatly handled with fluid solos and duos for the dancers, yielding to re-emphasis on the ensemble at the end.

As with the whole show, the music was never allowed to swamp the inspiration behind the choreography nor the flair with which it was executed. Roll over, divos; tell the divas the news!
A Zachandzack hit: The shared good cheer of "The Gab" girls is just for show.

The evening thus launched, my next stop was at Angel Burlesque's "Glitter Emergency" at Firehouse Theater. Because this is a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled act, which withdrew, and with technical troubles dogging the performance, I'm foregoing commentary about the show.

The last act for me opening night was "The Gab," a production by the wizardly team of Zack Neiditch (writer/director) and Zach Rosing (producer/video designer), riffing upon the female talk show of longevity and notoriety called "The View." The rapidfire pace is set at the beginning as Maureen (Devan Mathias) and Alex (Chad Woodward) fuss and fizzle just ahead of airtime to make sure everything's all right. Of course, it isn't.

The competing egos of the star panel have ratcheted the show's tension up to unbearable levels, which means that production underlings like Maureen and Alex have to bear it all, while keeping Jim (voiced by Rosing), the show's director high up in the booth, the almost happy lord of all he surveys. Every diva around the oval table has more issues than National Geographic — and they are just as hard to get rid of.

Rosing and Neiditch dependably fashion productions whose technical adroitness matches their artistic aplomb, and "The Gab" extends the partnership's short, but already illustrious tradition. The cast seems to find the spat-filled scenario totally energizing: Jenni White, Vickie Cornelius Phipps, Nathalie Cruz, Betsy Norton, and Ericka Barker inhabit their characters exuberantly. There is generously proportioned wit, snark, and slapstick throughout the show.

A large screen above the stage replicates in-studio video monitoring, with flashes to "The Gab"'s upbeat title page heralding the next topical segment, for which the ladies hastily compose themselves. Gradually but inexorably, the fragile garment of the hit talk show unravels. The camera's bright lights, nourishing the hothouse plants of daytime stardom, can't forestall the hilarious plunge toward "The Gab"'s dusky extinction. The conclusion resembles Alexander Pope's "Dunciad," which ends:

Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries all.

Fortunately, the "uncreation" of "The Gab," the fake TV show, mirrors upside down the masterly creation of "The Gab," the  surefire 2017 Fringe Festival hit.










Thursday, August 17, 2017

Fringe preview night presents a panoply digest of short-form entertainment over the next 11 days

The applause that greeted a line in Mayor Joe Hogsett's short speech to the IndyFringe Festival's Preview Night audience seemed to have topical resonance.

Mayor Joe Hogsett put an official seal of approval on FringeFest.
In any given year, his words would have been applicable to what the festival is all about. But in 2017, after the mayor had extolled "the performances and talent it attracts," he praised the annual performing-arts bash for "the diversity and inclusion it welcomes and lifts up." Yes!

To mark the start of the festival with two-minute pitches by 50 acts, Hogsett then read excerpts from the mayoral proclamation designating Aug. 16, 2017, as Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival Day in Indianapolis.

Certainly a large crowd gathered in the Athenaeum Theatre knew that the honor is rooted in the open-ended mission of the Fringe, which enters its 13th annual season today, continuing through Aug. 27 on eight stages on and around Massachusetts Avenue.

And while it's always possible to point to ways any artistic project could inject even more diversity into what it offers the public, IndyFringe is establishing a solid record. For one thing, it has cultivated two mini-festivals during the regular season to promote female and black playwrights, respectively: DivaFest and OnyxFest.

The range of presentations Wednesday evening was immense. Many were excerpts — scenes, songs, anecdotes, jokes, vignettes — from shows that specialize in those things. The idea was to whet the appetite for admission to the full 45-minute to 1-hour performance, most of them available six times between today and a week from Sunday.

In contrast, the choice to talk about their shows was perhaps provoked by the artists' sense that no two-minute excerpt could do justice to them. A pair of agile, improvisational clowns kept performers within the 2-minute limit and chased erring artists gently but firmly offstage.

Jill Ditmire and George Wallace acted as hosts for the parade of performers, with cameo appearances that included a charming duo team of Indianapolis City-County Council members: Zach Adamson and Jeff Miller. They would have been an example of smooth-working bipartisanship if not for technical difficulties with the soundtrack meant to accompany their Bad Lip Reading-style collection of "real" lyrics behind a few popular recordings.

Like many attendees, my response to the parade of pitches was all over the place. Some choices I made in advance are now tinged with qualms or even regret. Some things I had passed over now look to me like must-sees. Other wham-bam presentations left me in a vast "meh" area.

That's part of the fun of the Fringefest: no hunches are set in stone, but at least bets you place on shows that will please you are more likely to pay off than any given lottery. Sure, you pay a little more to place those bets, but the rewards are more probable.

So: Happy Fringing (or should that be "Fringeing," so it doesn't rhyme with "ringing"?)!





Monday, August 14, 2017

13th annual IndyFringe Festival opens soon with late night additions and short runs for out-of-town artists

Thanks to a successful expansion of its home base, which enabled year-round scheduling, IndyFringe's annual theater festival rests on a firm foundation as it is poised to enter its 13th year this week.

Inspired by the Edinburgh, Scotland, Fringe and by so many subsequent staged bashes in North America, the well-established IndyFringe Live Theatre Festival runs from Thursday through Aug. 27 at eight sites in and around Massachusetts Avenue.

The evening scene along Mass Ave. five years ago during the festival.
Two of them are at IndyFringe headquarters at 719 E. St. Clair St. Besides, there are two each at Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave., and Theatre on the Square, 627 Mass Ave., and one each at ComedySportz, 721 Mass Ave., and Firefighters Union Hall, 748 Mass Ave. Seventy-four shows will have had more than 400 performances by the end of the 11-day festival.

Despite director Pauline Moffat's disappointment with increased obstacles to foreign performers getting access to the U.S. recently, she enters organizational crunch time buoyed up by several factors: the assistance of George Wallace as associate director under a two-year grant, the increase to eight theaters with the addition of the Firefighters hall, and the addition of two late-night shows during the festival's second week (see page 15 of the program book for complete information).

"The level of professionalism has increased," Moffat said, looking back over her tenure as director since the beginning (2005). "People have liked being out of their comfort zones....It's remarkable that it thrives in a city like ours, a city that's smaller. But this is a community-driven Fringe."

Both Wallace, a veteran of the Orlando Fringe Festival,  and Moffat point with pride to a diversity of offerings that has simply sprung from the festival's first-come, first-served admissions process. For patrons, the usual rules apply: Doors are shut to each performance right at the listed performance time; shows run 45 minutes to 1 hour each. The buttons that used to provide access to all shows — once individual tickets were bought — are now available as souvenirs and as a kind of bonding ornament for attendees. Getting into a show no longer has a festival button as a prerequisite.
"One Man's Journey Through the Middle Ages" opens on the festival's opening night Thursday at the Indy Eleven Theatre, the IndyFringe building's second stage.

"There's no diversity lottery needed," Wallace said. "It's intrinsic," added Moffat, explaining: "DivaFest and OnyxFest have both helped promote diversity naturally." She was referring to two IndyFringe-sourced festivals of new plays — by women and African-Americans, respectively. Plays developed there, as well as others workshopped at the facility the rest of the year, have fed into the range of local options available to festival patrons for the past several years.

This year the balance between local and out-of-town shows at the festival is about 50-50.  The festival has adjusted the usual six-show schedule to allow out-of-towners to perform just three times during the festival's second week to expedite their tours.

Among his other duties, Wallace advises presenters on the "warnings" the schedule includes. They variously advise on recommended minimum age and notifications about violence, strobe lights, gunshots, and other features meriting caution. There is frequent mention, which anyone who picks up a 2017 festival booklet will notice, of "adult content" and "adult language."

"I advise them to be true and realistic," Wallace explained, "about both their warnings and how they identify their genre. When they are having to make that decision, they can get sure of what they are."

With so much focus on national politics these days, and given that many in the arts community are wary of how the Trump administration seems to oppose their values and can directly or indirectly affect them, do Moffat and Wallace expect a lot more political content across the board? The answer: Not so much this year.

Wallace said he expects to see that influence more prominent in 2018. By the time entry applications for the 2017 festival started to come in nearly a year ago, the national election had yet to be decided. The result, stunning to many people, has had particular resonance among artists of all sorts across the nation and the world.

Politics has become enmeshed in everything we do.  In the meantime, happy Fringing!






Sunday, August 13, 2017

Comes Pence, Nothing Can Be Done!

Difficulties come to mind about opposition to current Executive Branch leadership when the possible downfall of the Chief Executive is contemplated. Does the No. 2 man present any vulnerabilities? As with love, perhaps nothing can be done.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Sammy Miller and the Congregation: Everyone's invited to the party, but the interactivity is carefully managed

One of my favorite LPs in my early, pinch-penny years as a collector, was Duke Ellington's "Jazz Party." I played it over and
Sam Crittenden plays trombone with Sammy Miller and the Congregation.
over again, from the first track with a bunch of guest percussionists right through a rollicking, all-stops-out blues featuring Jimmy Rushing. In between came bursts of applause by the small studio audience; the record buyer felt in on the party, even as a distant, eager eavesdropper.

A jazz party is what a Sammy Miller and the Congregation show is all about. In this case, there wasn't anything like the cameo appearances (notably Dizzy Gillespie's) in the studio that individuated this particular recording in the Ellington discography. At the Jazz Kitchen Tuesday night, there was just the touring band itself, a sextet now more "theatrical" (trombonist Sam Crittenden's phrase) than in its first appearance locally at Birdy's, and the paying audience had been deliberately attracted. Its hearty response was part of the show.

It's important to note up front, however, that Sammy Miller and the Congregation choreograph their spontaneity elaborately. And the feedback they generate comes from the kind of outreach that's carefully planned — gestures, instrumental arrangements, vocal showcases, and movement up and down the  nightclub's stingy aisles.

Understandably, early Ellington figures into the band's repertoire. It showed up in a travesty of opera — a jazz opera, or "jopera," as drummer Miller said in his introduction. And during an episode focusing on "Creole Love Call," with trombonist Crittenden and tenor saxophonist Ben Flocks wooing each other, that out-among-the-crowd aspect got a risky workout.

The sound of the band is boisterous and draws stylistically on New Orleans jazz as well. The Congregation uses its outdoor voice, the way the Crescent City's bands did at the dawn of jazz. Looking ahead through jazz history, the poses and the mugging evoke such jazz entertainers as Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, and Fats Waller. And at the head of the line, sometimes undervalued for the value he placed on entertainment: Louis Armstrong.

Calming things down during a Congregation set is a relative matter: The lyrical heart of "What a Wonderful World" was there in the first encore, but so was a tempo shift into high gear. The second encore returned the Congregation to its rambunctious roots: "Liza Jane" featured recurrent staccato statements from the three horns (sans rhythm section) and an intense blues harmonica solo from the pianist, David Linard.

Fun needs to have a steady presence in jazz. Not everyone can, or should, present the kind of show Sammy Miller and the Congregation did Tuesday night here. But the cluck-clucks of censors in the jazz community sometimes get out of hand. I have two examples: When I needed to replace my copy of "Jazz Party," I was only able to get a tweaked version with all the applause trimmed away and a version of the oft-recorded "Satin Doll" unnecessarily inserted. Some party!

Furthermore, when I needed to get a CD of "Satchmo at Symphony Hall," one of my favorite LP purchases from my teen years, I found that the reissue producer had cut out the Velma Middleton vocals. True, she was never a first-rate jazz singer, but her bounteous voice and enthusiasm were part of the atmosphere of that now 70-year-old Boston concert, with solo turns in "Since I Fell for You" and "I Cried for You." And the band's accompaniments are great; they loved them some Velma!

Also dropped was her wonderful, clownish duet with Armstrong on "That's My Desire."

Suffice it to say that when Louis ad-libs "I feel the touch of your chops all wrapped up amongst mine" in place of the original line "I feel the touch of your lips pressing on mine," he forecast the approach and appeal of Sammy Miller and the Congregation.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Aaron Parks, an APA Cole Porter Fellow with a solid career, issues a new CD

"Find the Way" is an apt title (after an Ian Bernard song influenced, in the performance here, by Shirley Horn) for Aaron Parks' new trio recording. It's got an exploratory feel, with ample confirmation that the exploration has yielded genuine satisfaction.


Aaron Parks has delivered on the promise that marked his Cole Porter Fellowship.
Parks, a Seattle-raised pianist who first came to national attention as a precocious teenager via an NPR feature, will be familiar to Indianapolis jazz fans as the 2001 Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association. Among his accomplishments since then, he was a Terence Blanchard sideman for several years, contributing much to the trumpeter's band through his composing and keyboard skills.

On "Find the Way" (ECM), he works with bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, recorded in Pernes-les-Fontaines, France,  in October 2015. The mood is relaxed and thoughtful, but avoids dawdling, daydreaming or tempting the listener to turn its eight originals (plus "Find the Way") into background music.

The disc opens with the brooding "Adrift," a more focused piece of music than its title indicates. The theme features rising phrases that repeat an ascending pattern, which seems to keep the music afloat as well as adrift. It's quickly apparent that the imaginative drumming of Hart is a major sustaining factor.  There's an integrated feeling to the soloing that makes this trio feel like a gentler version of the Bad Plus. No one spoils the mood of the program with a display of chops.

A drum feature, "Hold Music," allows well-managed focus on the veteran Hart.  His adeptness on brushes superbly complements the tasty phrasing of Parks' piano on "Song for Sashou."   Adventurousness gets under this trio's elegant skin subtly: "The Storyteller" is a particularly winning example. "Alice," titled in tribute to Alice Coltrane, is both gritty and tinged with avant-garde suggestions in a school-of-hard-knocks manner.

"Find the Way" exhibits an original sense of melodic freshness and a keen awareness from all three players of how to make their evident rapport fascinating for listeners.




Sunday, August 6, 2017

Tributes to a couple of entertainers with indelible auras: Dance Kaleidoscope's "Frere Jacques" and "Piaf: A Celebration"

Marie Kuhns, Stuart Coleman, and Missy Thompson in "Piaf Plus."
The expressive range of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel in their songs makes responding in another art form to the words as well as to the music a particular challenge.

In a brief run at the Tarkington (Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts), Dance Kaleidoscope revives a couple of artistic director David Hochoy's most compact, mercurial recent pieces. Seen on Saturday night, "Piaf Plus" suited well a company with an intriguing blend of veteran expertise and continued receptivity toward new talent.

In "Piaf: A Celebration," which I first saw in 2011 when DK was dipping its skilled feet into the Indy Fringe Festival pool, what was especially remarkable was the masterly flow Hochoy imparted to a succession of songs associated with Piaf. The order of the songs served the choreography particularly well. The blend of humor, sentimentality, violence and panache seemed to hang improbably on a single thread. The mixture was beautifully supported by Cheryl Sparks' costumes, moving across a spectrum from goth severity to a kind of wary, formal joie-de-vivre.

A couple of duos stood out for me, indicating some of the bittersweet outlook on life with which Piaf struggled to keep bitterness from overwhelming her. Disease, addiction, love troubles — all shadowed the vulnerable Parisian, rooted in her mother's abandonment of her and subsequent upbringing in a brothel, on into an adulthood marked by three marriages and many love affairs. We saw this tension in Emily Dyson and Timothy June's dancing in "Hymne a l'Amour," and with a couple's internal rapport ratcheted up into violence and rejection in "Mon Dieu," danced with exquisite definition amid angular postures by Jillian Godwin and Cody Miley.

The whole suite is accurately labeled a celebration of the hallowed French singer. The flourishing movement that amplifies the main theme of dogged perseverance in the finale, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," convinces us that Piaf indeed regretted nothing. Leading up to that point, and prefaced by the international hit "La Vie en Rose," the fragile elegance of the troubled chanteuse moves to the fore. Ballroom dancing is evoked, but with the women's costumes signaling something more elemental than social graces. The punishing gestures of Apache dancing, explicit earlier in the suite, continued to hover.

There were subtle suggestions of Piaf's vocal quality — its hard edge, an intense vibrato, a penetrating timbre always on the verge of moaning — in the choreography. The predominance of numbers for the company projected a whole urban world out of personal pain. There was maniacal comic relief in "Bravo pour le Clown!," with life-size rag dolls amusingly tossed and manipulated in echo of the rough handling of a floppy real-life counterpart. Otherwise, the gloom-tinged poignancy of Piaf's art provided the keynote to Hochoy's inspiration.
Mariel Greenlee in "Frère Jacques"' "Marieke"

The emotional resonance of the show's first half, "Frère Jacques," was more manifest to the audience because the Belgian artist's songs were used in their English translations. The home-base audience is thus able to appreciate the wit and wordplay, as well as the scene-painting, of Jacques Brel as expressed in ten of his songs. Also enhanced by Laura E. Glover's lighting and Sparks' costumes, "Frère Jacques" occupies a more variegated milieu. The heart-tugging quality is more insistent and less veiled than with Piaf, yielding more buoyant dancing.

A subdued piece like "Desperate Ones," given measured restraint by Emily Dyson, Mariel Greenlee, and Caitlin Negron, provided a rare point of introspection. The social whirl is often the focus of Brel's tart observations, nicely fleshed out by "Marathon," an amusing evocation of the marathon dance-contest craze. The anthemic "If We Only Have Love" brought some sculptural steadiness at the end, following the dizzying acceleration of "Carousel." These were two company numbers that seem to compete in the memory with outstanding solos: Stuart Coleman's comic virtuosity with fantasy flair in "Jackie" and Greenlee's lofty, place-specific lament for lost love in "Marieke."

Both those showcases had the star quality that has helped sustain Dance Kaleidoscope over years of personnel changes, some of them rather sudden. Yet the bedrock of that star quality continues to be the company itself, with its storehouse of ensemble richness gathered and nurtured by its artistic director.



[Photos by Freddie Kelvin and Chris Crawl]

Friday, August 4, 2017

The joy of hunger artistry: The film 'Dunkirk' and a jazz duo's account of 'Left Alone'


"Metaphors for art as an activity tend to center upon a particular place, where a heightened sense of presence can manifest itself."
     — Harold Bloom, "A Map of Misreading"

"Shepp's is a precarious style; his balance of elements is fragile."
      — John Litweiler, "The Freedom Principle"
All eyes on peril: British soldiers watch the  skies while awaiting evacuation.

"...no one could produce first-hand evidence that the fast had really been rigorous and continuous; only the artist himself could know that; he was therefore bound to be the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast."
        — Franz Kafka, "The Hunger Artist"


Within two days this week, unplanned encounters with two works of art got me wondering how we take them in when the process feels similar to how we might describe a mesmerizing speaker: that we were "hanging on his [her] every word"  — that uncanny absorption of cumulative detail that's unquestioning and fully committed from start to finish.

What can account for thorough immersion in a work of art, with no flagging of interest, or without even a fleeting notion of  any analysis or second thoughts about the experience until afterward? What spellbound me through nearly back-to-back experiences of the movie "Dunkirk" and a jazz track hidden in a recorded CD anthology I took off a shelf at home on a whim?

Sometimes thorough immersion stems from the creative artist's apparent decision to fuse subject matter and treatment, to minimize contrast, even to risk wearying the attention and eventually "losing" the receiver. Such a work of art's strength paradoxically has to emerge from its chosen limitations, its flirtation with imaginative weakness, even stasis.

How does this happen? It starts with the artistic address to our attention being daringly focused, edge-to-edge like an Abstract Expressionist canvas, concentrated on providing one overwhelming impression. It doesn't leave any gaps for us to fill in or places to seek relief or catch our breath.
Cover art of 1978 recording: Archie Shepp and Dollar Brand

Built into most artistic products is the notion that some variety or respite from the dominant material or style  keeps the alertness level high. Providing contrast weighs into an artist's sense of duty toward the experience he intends to turn into a work of art. We associate artistic significance with shifts of perspective that throw its main argument into high relief.

But that's not the way of  Christopher Nolan in his cinematic treatment of the daring evacuation of thousands of British soldiers to safety from a beleaguered enclave in Dunkirk, France, in 1940.

And it's not the way of saxophonist Archie Shepp, together with the South African pianist Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), recorded in Japan in 1978,  playing a song by Billie Holiday and Mal Waldron called "Left Alone."

Neither one is startlingly long for its genre, so I'm not finding it remarkable that works of these respective lengths (1 hour, 46 minutes for "Dunkirk"; 7 minutes, 50 seconds for "Left Alone") exerted such a relentless hold on me.

Nolan has been acclaimed for his war-movie innovations in making the ordinariness of fear and self-preservation surmount the engagement in conflict for which soldiers are trained. The historic situation makes such a choice almost the only option; the task then is to fill out the "trap" scenario with imagery — visual and auditory — and the often improvised dealing with the unbearably tense situation. The RAF pilots attempt to beat back German attacks in the sky; that's contrasted with the valiantly manned little boats assembled to cross the English Channel and load up soldiers for removal to safety back home. The scenario is completed with focus on the waiting soldiers, sometimes moved to undertake desperate measures, like the small group that waits, hidden, for the tide to take a stranded ship out into the water.

Nolan intercuts among the arenas of action abruptly, with the effect of blending the three planes of action into one story of desperation and heroism. Knitting everything together is an overwhelming parade of war sounds and sights. "A  heightened sense of presence" in a particular place quickly overwhelms the viewer. An ambush on deserted town streets opens the film. It is hardly an introduction; the fury of movement and the shattering gunfire noise plunge the viewer into 100 minutes of barely varied chaos.

Similarly, Shepp and Brand discard the introductory phrases with which jazzmen often open their interpretation of ballads, as slow, lyrical songs are called. They plunge right into the tune, and never waver from repeating or paraphrasing it. Brand's musical background and influences from his native South Africa lend a thoughtfulness to his interpretations that American musicians access with difficulty. Shepp, well past his most revolutionary playing by the time he recorded "Left Alone" in 1978, was able to assemble almost achingly vulnerable ballad interpretations out of what seem to be fragments — until you recognize how well they cohere. Litweiler's assessment of Shepp's "fragility" can seem negative until the listener realizes, taking "Left Alone" as a test case,  that such a quality is a settled stance that over time  emerges as an assertion of strength. The saxophonist maintains it in tandem with the pianist, who even in his solo hardly departs from the laconic understatement of his duo playing.

Similarly, though no one can mistake Nolan's virtuosity for fragility, the filmmaker focuses on warfare from the ground up, never leaving the emotional effect of being under deadly assault and constantly doubtful of survival. He practically wallows in obsession with this theme. "The balance of elements" that Litweiler cites in Shepp's style is also fundamental to Nolan's filmmaking. The balance is daringly sustained by never varying much from the sensory overload of "Dunkirk"'s storytelling. Any variation, even a rare suggestion of calm, is shot through with the impact of this overload. One of the private boats rescues a shell-shocked sailor; the psychologically fraught passenger immediately lends Bloom's "heightened sense of presence" to how we process Dunkirk, a "particular place" we are meant to associate with noisy horror and death. We want to escape on a visceral level, yet the movie unfailingly draws us in and holds us there, just as surely as the modest vessel carries the eventually menacing sailor to the French shore to carry out its mission.

The most moving of these counter-chaos touches comes toward the end, as the film returns again and again to the slow noiseless gliding of an RAF Spitfire, out of fuel, onto the beach at Dunkirk and the pilot's inevitable capture. The silence of this downward flight is deafening, less a contrast to than a confirmation of war's maelstrom of destruction. Similarly, the spaces that Brand and Shepp leave in their account of "Left Alone" help define their concentration on the melody. Splashes of ornamentation, sudden accents, and great interval leaps somehow reinforce their steady focus on the song's pathos.

Finding pleasure in art is an unassailable benefit of experiencing it. But it is never the whole story. The more a work fascinates us, the more we may realize the uncomfortable distance between ourselves and the artist. When a work won't let go of its initial grab for our attention, but uses it to exert a total grip to the very end, we may be tempted to ask with irritation: "Impressive — but can't you give us something else too?"

With Nolan's "Dunkirk" and Shepp/Brand's "Left Alone," we are retrospectively lost in admiration that the obsessive style is not abandoned. In the film, for instance, there is at the end no cutaway to Churchill's rallying speech about "fighting them on the beaches," etc. — no actor plays Churchill in cameo, no voiceover intrudes. Instead, on a train heading home, one of the rescued soldiers reads to a comrade part of the speech from a newspaper. Similarly, there is no climax in "Left Alone" — a hint of an ascending cry from Shepp's horn quickly subsides. The duo eases ever so slightly, and the pianist rounds everything off, with unresolved harmonies that are neither a fade-out nor an expressive compromise, but rather a seal on an extraordinary vision.

In Franz Kafka's great story "The Hunger Artist," the interest of the audience in the sustained public fast of the title character inevitably is fed by the hope to catch him cheating. Spectators' admiration is corrupted by their expectation of being fooled. Of art that has the ability to focus so much more than life, we may wonder: Do you really mean this? Why aren't you interested in variety? When you narrow your focus so, are you perhaps imaginatively impoverished?

But the well-fed, uncaged audience can never be as focused as the confined hunger artist. That is why complete satisfaction in his/her achievement is reserved for the artist. It seems unfair, but where mastery is involved, such satisfaction is what allows artists to double down on their material. As Kafka suggests just after the sentence I quote above, the payoff even makes their self-imposed limitations feel easy to them. Such uncanny confidence — a surprising level of comfort — can be transferable, however briefly, to us.