Thursday, September 21, 2017

'Loyal Cuban guy' proud of his American success as 'straight-ahead jazz drummer' makes Indy Jazz Fest visit

Ignacio Berroa spent ten years as Dizzy Gillespie's drummer — a hiring milestone for the superstar musician who had long the Jazz Kitchen,  Gillespie didn't engage him to play Latin percussion, but to be the sole man behind the trap set driving his band no matter what the musical idiom.
Ignacio Berroa focuses fruitfully at the Jazz Kitchen.
cultivated the fusion of Cuban music and bebop. As Berroa put it plainly Wednesday night when he brought his Cubop Quintet to

In its short first set as part of the 2017 Indy Jazz Fest, the quintet sailed through a half-dozen tunes associated with Gillespie, who came into his own with the birth of bebop in the 1940s and remained active until shortly before his death in 1993. Near the end, as was clear in a Clowes Hall appearance I reviewed for the Indianapolis Star, he had next to no breath support for the instrument on which he remains one of the handful of major innovators. The 19-year-old Indianapolis festival has taken note of the birth centennials of Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and (somewhat meagerly) Thelonious Monk.

Berroa's group sounded fully compatible Wednesday, projecting the self-confidence of a much more seasoned ensemble. Musical director John Zappa played a blazing trumpet, nimble like Gillespie's but with a stinging tone effectively recalling Indianapolis' own Freddie Hubbard.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with him in the front line was J.D. Allen, a tenor saxophonist whose playing ranged over the instrument's entire compass; he was thrilling in the lower register, and generally eschewed the piercing, partly shredded sound at the top, except for "A Night in Tunisia" — giving free rein to a notion that ought to have been resisted. His solos generally followed the reassuring Lester Young dictum: "Tell me a story."

Hard-digging pianist Mike Darrah showed lots of rhythmic punch throughout the set. I liked how he helped define the rhythmic contour through slight hesitations punctuating the line. I treasured his Monk-like solo on "Ow," one of the few Gillespie tunes I'm certain was played in the first set. There were no tune announcements except before the one that didn't need it: the finale — "A Night in Tunisia."

I connected with Gillespie's "Ow" in part because of its basis in the chord changes of "I Got Rhythm." That Gershwin song has more abundant "contrafacts" (the term used for jazz melodies based on other songs) than any other. I thought I was hearing "Whispering" as the underpinning of the next-to-last piece, so I'm guessing that was "Groovin' High." Dizzy Gillespie is part of the wide spectrum of my jazz listening, but I often come across familiar music that I can't put a name to. That's how things stood Thursday night; the first three pieces I'm not about to hazard a guess about. Contributions and corrections are welcome!

"Salt Peanuts," one of the few Gillespie tunes I never fail to recognize (who can forget President Jimmy Carter's rendition of the refrain during a jazz celebration at the White House?), was quoted briefly in Darrah's solo in the opening number.

Bassist Aaron Jacobs stayed mostly in the background, but seemed to be lending unerring support to his colleagues.

Berroa took his only extensive solo to launch what I think was "Groovin' High," starting on tom-toms and cohesively expanding his patterns to the whole kit. His accompaniments were always geared to what the sidemen were doing. I particularly liked his vigorous comping — always complementary, never dominating —  behind Darrah on "Tunisia," a predictably high-spirited version that ended on notes of splendor in out-of-tempo cadenzas by Zappa and Allen.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The President Addresses the UN General Assembly, the world gasps

I've used this tune before, but it really fits well in responding to Donald Trump's blustering address to the United Nations the other day. To be sure, there's a bad moon rising.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Randy Brecker: Indy Jazz Fest welcomes back to Naptown a durable trumpeter-bandleader-composer

Randy Brecker and I are contemporaries, so it was a coincidental boost to my mental hold on youth to appreciate how robust a
Portrait time at the Jazz Kitchen: Kenny Phelps (from left), Rob Dixon, Randy Brecker, Nick Tucker, and Steve Allee.
trumpeter he remains after decades before the public.

The trumpeter turns 72 at the end of November; I dialed up that number on Sunday at the Jazz Kitchen, where Brecker was the Indy Jazz Fest's guest star with a band of local all-stars known as the Indianapolis Jazz Collective.

A clever composer with a puckish sense of humor, Brecker opened his first set leading the quintet through his "There's a Mingus Amonk Us," the punning title reflecting inspiration from 20th-century jazz titans Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. Both the bassist and the pianist were highly influential to jazzmen during the formative years of Randy and his brother Michael, a powerful tenor saxophonist who died 10 years ago.

The tune starts out Monkish, with quirky harmonies and short phrases, then easily passes into the smoother but characteristically rambunctious style of Mingus. There were solo choruses all around, then exchanges — first eight bars each, then four,  between the hornmen and pianist on one hand, the drummer on the other. This is often the kind of format that pick-up small groups employ to get everyone used to each other; it quickly appeared that minimal rehearsal beforehand had been sufficient to get the band into high gear.

Brecker obviously admired his sidemen for the occasion: tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon, pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps. He expressed his pleasure in between songs along with a few brief stories on his works' origins. "Shanghigh," for example, not surprisingly came out of an experience involving recreational drugs in China. Disco music was involved at the time, and so this peppy piece proceeded over a a steady disco beat.

Dixon, playing a horn new to him while his regular axe is in the shop, sounded remarkably at home. Though he always sounds like himself, he seemed to be channeling the Brecker brothers' roots in Philadelphia r&b and back beyond that to John Coltrane (who was based in the City of Brotherly Love for a while). There were "sheets-of-sound" aspects in his solo that channeled early and middle Coltrane, modified by Michael's bar-walking affinity for funky pop, a genre adapted profitably for jazz in the 1970s by the Brecker Brothers band.

Also notable in "Shanghigh" was the firm yet understated underpinning Phelps gave to Tucker's solo. The coming-together of disparate experiences continued with  "O Corko Mio," an attractive piece written by Brecker's wife, Ada Rovatti, an adept saxophonist who's part of the trumpeter's regular touring band. The theme is rooted in aspects of Irish folk music, the band having been working in Ireland at the time she wrote it. In one of his well-articulated solos, Brecker drew on both the florid lyricism of his wife's Italian homeland and the modal characteristics of the Celtic tradition. I liked the witty manner with which Allee climaxed his solo with chiming chords. Phelps followed with an effervescent solo before the end.

Brecker graciously included a piece each by Allee and Dixon. Allee's "Ebony" had the urban elan of his memorable compositions for "New York in the Fifties," the TV realization of a Dan Wakefield memoir. Dixon's enchanting "Twilight Dusk" brought forth from the saxophonist a solo that made his ownership of the material crystal-clear. There was some simultaneous improvisation in the hornmen's paraphrased return to the tune near the end.

In between, everyone got a chance to stop reading charts to offer "Body and Soul," which drew particularly rich lyricism from Brecker. The well-received set ended with a romp through Brecker's "Free Fall," which righted itself superbly after a false start.

Apart from his well-preserved chops and the oomph and brilliance that continue to come out when he plays, Brecker also struck a chord with me when he made gentle fun of the ubiquitous shortening of the city's name to "Indy." "We used to call it Naptown," he said in his first spoken interlude to the full house. He used the old nickname without a trace of disparagement, but accompanied "Indy" with a little eye-rolling. Exactly!

"Naptown" never implied that Indianapolis suffered from narcolepsy, I believe, while "Indy" always sounds a  bit like baby talk to me. Hey, I'm an old man. I don't have to make my peace with "Indy." So, kudos to the Indy Jazz Fest for bringing Randy Brecker back to Naptown.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Dr. Lonnie Smith heats up the Jazz Kitchen to complement the current weather's warming trend

The distinctive Hammond B-3 master out of Buffalo, N.Y., made a return visit to the Indy Jazz Fest two years after his
Dr. Lonnie Smith takes care of business with evident joy in IJF appearance.
last engagement, distributing fitful elegance and pervasive powerhouse effects during a second set Saturday at the Jazz Kitchen.

Dr. Lonnie Smith, with a title that has become part of his name and an honorific by extension of the high regard in which he is held, brought his touring trio to the Northside club for two sets.

He mingled with patrons between sets, and cemented his rapport with the public during a climactic piece in which he walked the aisles playing his growling, rumbling, wailing electronic cane.

These were characteristics of his appearance in 2015 as well, when, I must admit, my overall impression was more favorable. Introduced by Tony Monaco, an Ohio organist with quite a local following who shared this weekend's "Organ Summit" festival programming, Smith and his trio presented an emotionally expansive but tidy hourlong set to conclude his latest appearance here. The organist is on tour with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Xavier Breaker.

The trio opened with "Mellow Mood,"  a cumulatively fiery piece that (Smith admitted with a chuckle) didn't stay true to its title, not that anyone minded. It proved an exciting opener, with Kreisberg's long-lined solo yielding to Smith's overarching mastery. He has a way of driving a figure almost into the ground just before he varies it. At his best, Smith has a superb feeling for dramatic effect: In the second number, "Alhambra," he made the most of an upward-creeping pattern on the bridge. His solo reflected that later in gargantuan terms, rumbling up from the depths of the keyboard. The trio put together a climax as if out of nowhere, capped by organ trills, before moving into double time near the end.

Smith erects signposts on the way to key changes that build audience anticipation. Surprises abound when a ballad is undertaken; the fourth song in the set, for instance, metamorphosed subtly when Breaker introduced a strong backbeat pattern.

Stretching his audience's ears considerably, Smith turned to other electronic keyboards for a long introduction to a fast-moving piece. The introduction — with its drifting, otherworldly manner and crunchy harmonies, through which was threaded a synthetic muted-trumpet solo — sounded like a lost Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration from a couple of galaxies over.  Then, after the aforementioned ballad, Smith ended the set with his "cane scrutiny" number before returning to the Hammond B-3 to wrap things up.

Good showmanship, as usual, from the doctor. But to me there was less clarity than on the Dr. Lonnie CDs I'm familiar with or to the best of my concert recollection from two years ago. Some of the reliable mannerisms of his style seemed more to be felt than firmly etched this time around. Though not lacking in energy and flashes of imagination, the hard-hitting Breaker didn't strike me as an ideal partner for the guitarist, who was always intense but a model of debonair control. Fortunately, Smith was able to mediate between them with an old pro's zeal and savoir-faire.

The trio worked compatibly enough, but not at the same high level as formerly. Yet, with a half-century career for him to build upon, there can be no doubt that experiencing Dr. Lonnie Smith is like visiting a monument — the kind that will never be removed from its pedestal.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, September 16, 2017

A view past identity politics toward an embrace of difference: ATI's 'La Cage aux Folles' conveys the impact with glitz and authenticity

Power couple: ZaZa (Don Farrell) and Georges (Bill Book)
The conservative politician concerned to impose his narrow vision on society is a fixture of America today. In "La Cage aux Folles," he gets his comeuppance in a manner consistent with the score-settling gusto typical of French farce. That harks back to the play upon which the Harvey Fierstein/Jerry Herman musical of the same name is based.

But the 1983 musical comedy that opened Actors Theatre of Indiana's season Friday night at the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Theatre  has a more satisfying theme than the just deserts visited upon self-righteous bigotry. And that is the enduring vitality of relationships built on mutual acceptance, but ultimately resting on a foundation of willingness to change as a result, to love beyond what you are used to.

Set on the French Riviera in the not-too-distant past, "La Cage aux Folles" is at the edge of seeming dated, except for the energy it puts into what's required to live authentically outside "the norm" (the scare quotes seem inevitable). The nightclub of the title, its brand built on the zesty naughtiness of performers in drag, rests upon the professional and personal romance of proprietor/emcee Georges and Albin, who as ZaZa is the multifaceted marquee name of La Cage aux Folles.

Georges' early liaison with a woman, an affair he chooses to characterize as accidental, resulted in a son, Jean-Michel. Raised largely by Albin, he's now about to definitively express his heterosexual identity by marrying the nubile Anne, independent-minded daughter of the aforementioned conservative politician and his officially dutiful wife. The conflict that puts the fizz in this highball is a meet-the-parents visit that would make the demonstratively gay Albin an encumbrance, imperiling the match's prospects of success.

The resolution of this dilemma is of course anything but smooth. It demands much from everyone in the know about the host household — expressed with saucy resistance by Jacob, Georges' maid/butler, and with a nagging campaign by the desperate Jean-Michel — but largely falling upon Albin's sleek, vulnerable shoulders.

Don Farrell sounds all conceivable comic notes of the character, as well as the pathos of the self-sacrifice Albin is called upon to make. His performance as ZaZa of "I Am What I Am," an adaptation of the brilliantly staged earlier production number "We Are What We Are," made for a rousing finale to the first act on opening night.

Farrell's ZaZa impersonation, winsome and provocative, was striking enough to render his scenes as Albin — hissy fits and
In the end, the enduring partnership of Albin and Georges is reaffirmed.
pained tenderness alike —  thoroughly credible. The portrayal contrasted appropriately with the blithe accommodation Georges is accustomed to make between his public and private selves in Bill Book's polished performance. The discrepancy between the drag queen and "the plain homosexual" (Georges' self-description) was believably bridged by the genuine rapport that Farrell and Book projected under Larry Raben's astute direction.

With the central relationship so well defined in this production, the show's underlying theme thrives both beneath and beside the manic comedy and vividly costumed and choreographed representation of La Cage's entertainment product. Kudos to Stephen R. Hollenbeck and Carol Worcel, respectively, crowned by the spectacular wigs and makeup of Daniel Klingler, who also plays Jacob.

That theme is the hard-won but essential respect that intimacy requires if it is to last. Not the kind of contractual respect summed up in the Aretha Franklin hit, but rather something Feierstein articulated in the final scene of his near-masterpiece "Torch Song Trilogy." when the hero Arnold's mother defends how she raised her children: "I wanted them to respect me because they wanted to."

Les Cagelles, the resident troupe supporting ZaZa, frolic in "La Cage aux Folles."
In "La Cage aux Folles," the respect finally comes to Albin because the other characters, chiefly the single-minded Jean-Michel, want to extend it to him. If you have to call it the show's message, OK — it's a message. It comes through in Georges' wonderful second-act solo,"Look Over There," later adopted by Jean-Michel after the pivotal production number "The Best of Times."

Sean Haynes is an earnest Jean-Michel who moves from self-absorbed plotting to a genuine change of heart. Throughout, Jerry Herman's songs both sparkle and stick in the mind and heart. Directed by Levi Burke, they are brightly performed in this production, with well-coordinated accompaniments from an offstage band that is sometimes a little too insistent. Wishing to avoid a check list covering the whole cast, I need at least to salute the well-integrated vigor of everyone's acting, singing and dancing.

Long before "La Cage," an influential book by sociologist Erving Goffman, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," used theatrical analogies to demonstrate how direct interaction between people makes us all not only actors but also playwrights and, to a considerable degree, the burgeoning production team of a perpetually workshopped project. We act as the persons we believe we are in part to shape others' responses to us and to create compatible environments for the selves we inhabit.

That truth is fully fleshed out in "La Cage aux Folles" with this production's smoothly interacting backstage and onstage milieus and a degree of character development that goes well beyond farce. The audience itself balances on this fulcrum as the truth enunciated by "Torch Song Trilogy"'s Ma hits home: We can't demand respect for who we are; we have to find ways to persuade other people, especially those we care most about, to want to respect us.

It's all show biz, but, given these terms, what's so bad about that?

[Production photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, September 15, 2017

Themed 'Hip Then, Hip Now,' Indy Jazz Fest looks to past glories while asserting present ones as well

Rob Dixon was bandleader and emcee as Indy Jazz Fest 2017 got under way.
Thelonious Monk's enduring companion and patient wife, Nellie, once said memorably of her often cryptic genius husband that he had "a marvelous sense of withdrawal."

Apparently, that trait applies posthumously as well, at least as far as the 2017 Indy Jazz Fest is concerned. As the 19th annual festival got under way at the University of Indianapolis, Monk was withdrawn from what had been advertised as a tripartite tribute concert to the birth centennials of three jazz giants. The other two are Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, who were duly celebrated in a 90-minute concert of generally high quality at the University of Indianapolis.

1917 is to jazz what 1685 is to classical music's baroque era, when three geniuses first saw the light of day — J.S. Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti.

Mark Buselli was occasionally Dizzyesque.
Program length may have been a consideration, yet it seems the unique pianist-composer — whose contributions to the music are still widely enjoyed and take many developing musicians profitably to school — could have been troweled into the program somewhere. His best-known piece, "'Round Midnight," might  have gotten an outing. If a quirky masterpiece like "Criss Cross" had been considered a little out there, one of his funky-sided tunes, like "I Mean You," would have been a natural. And if "'Round Midnight" had been the choice, there is a natural tie-in to one of the other honorees, because Gillespie contributed material at the beginning and end of the song that is usually considered an essential part of it, the way Barney Bigard's original clarinet solo in "Mood Indigo" became fused to the Duke Ellington composition.

I'm sure this excellent sextet knows its Monk: saxophonist Dixon, trumpeter and congas player Mark Buselli, trombonist Ernest Stuart, pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps. We heard good things from them in the Gillespie numbers: Buselli's plunger-muted solo in "Birks Works," following upon Allee's tidy, deep-rooted blues playing; Stuart's exuberant showcase in "Manteca," setting the stage for a delicious congas-drums duet bringing forward the excellence of the Buselli-Phelps partnership; and tenorman Dixon's  forthright staking of claims on "Groovin' High" territory.

Yvonne Allu held up the Ella end of the tribute concert.
True, Stuart sometimes sounded unfocused and scattered in his soloing, especially on "Groovin' High." And Tucker's typically alert work on bass came across somewhat blurred — the well-managed sound system still has disadvantages in the Ruth Lilly Performance Hall where jazz is concerned. Tucker was clearest, joined to the subtlest of Phelps accompaniments, in "Birks Works."

Nonetheless, the pacing and variety of the show worked well, with instrumentalists taking turns sitting out now and then. There were several beautiful endings, drawing hushed audience responses before the applause.

The Ella portions of the concert were competently handled by vocalist Yvonne Allu.  She has a heavier instrument than Ella's, but she deployed it tastefully.  I missed hearing a few scat choruses on "How High the Moon," where Fitzgerald was accustomed to showing off her virtuosity.  But Allu went briefly into scatting elsewhere, and her spontaneity reached in the direction of Fitzgerald's genius for paraphrasing a melody. "Summertime" really rocked, and "Night and Day" featured an exquisite partnership between the singer and Buselli's flugelhorn.

As an ensemble achievement, "Manteca" came across a little lead-footed, though it always stirs up excitement. More cohesive, in part because the composition has a more interesting structure, was "A Night in Tunisia." Ahead of a performance late in his career with the United Nation Orchestra (whose drummer, Ignacio Berroa, brings his band to the festival next Wednesday at the Jazz Kitchen), Gillespie hilariously (and accurately) said of his classic: "It has withstood the vicissitudes of the contingent world and moved in an odyssey into the realm of the metaphysical."

No one could have put it better. And whatever that description may mean, the Indy Jazz Fest Band seemed to embody it Thursday night, no more so than in the flamboyant break with which Buselli launched his trumpet solo — Dizzyesque to the nth degree and harking back to a similar break taken in the golden age of bebop by Gillespie's confrere, Charlie Parker. That's metaphysical, bruthuh!

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]

Monday, September 11, 2017

Clarity, insight, and power: Nikita Mndoyants, 2016 winner of the Cleveland International Piano Competition, plays a 'Grand Encounters' recital for APA

Among other accomplishments of his recital Sunday afternoon in the Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall at Butler University, Nikita Mndoyants shared a fresh outlook on the much worked-upon 24th Paganini Caprice. Long a favorite of composers to rhapsodize upon and submit to variation, the last number of the violin virtuoso's Op. 1 had the Mndoyants stamp put upon it a decade ago, according to the American Pianists Association's "Grand Encounters" program book.

Nikita Mndoyants played a brilliant solo recital Sunday afternoon as APA's guest.
The winner of the 2016 Cleveland International Piano Competition showed his gifts as a composer, too, when he returned to the stage after intermission to play his Variations on a Theme of Paganini (2007). Launched with isolated notes abstracted from the theme, the work soon lands on the familiar tune, but quickly springs free of literalism.

There is obviously no need to mirror what has already been done memorably by Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawski, Brahms, and Liszt, even with novel harmonies.

So Mndoyants sets a free fantasy upon the melody, using its contours and characteristic rhythmic flow with great originality. He looks askance at it even as he celebrates it. There is a quasi-fugal episode and other indications that the composer-pianist knew how to apply a wealth of techniques to familiar material.

But what was most striking to me was Mndoyants' evident insight into the embedded mood of Paganini's original: The first part of the tune is brightly assertive; the second half is veiled in mystery, swirling downward as if in counterstatement to what precedes it.  Mndoyants has something to say that's more than clever; he pays tribute to the caprice's immortality. The composition shows what makes the 24th Caprice a permanent, tantalizing icon, like the Mona Lisa. What's more, Mndoyants' piece ends with — what else? — a capricious flourish. All in all, quite an accomplishment for a teenage pianist-composer.

Also impressive was the second half's companion piece, the formidable Eighth Piano Sonata (in B-flat, op. 84) of Sergei Prokofiev. Mndoyants made sense of the sprawling, knotty first movement, Andante dolce, in a way previously unavailable to me as a listener. Despite the heading, the movement isn't predominantly sweet; it presents a host of vexations to both pianist and audience. Mndoyants laid everything out clearly. The long, sinuous phrases that justify the "dolce" directive were nicely proportioned and wonderfully balanced. The work's greatness is unmistakably established in a performance of this sort, though the slow movement, Andante sognando, strikes me as unworthy of it. Despite its imaginative treatment, the theme itself is sentimental, close to salon music.

Enter, gratifyingly, the motoric drive and buoyancy of the finale. Mndoyants' rhythmically crisp and dynamically varied performance was delightful.  Even in the most finger-busting toccatalike passages, he displayed an uncanny variety of touch. You never got the feeling he was just barreling through all the excitement. The audience's tumultuous approval elicited two Baroque encores: Rameau's "Le rappel des oiseaux" and Purcell's Ground in C minor.

In the first half,  Mndoyants' mastery had already been quite evident. He brought an extra buzz to intermission conversation with a spectacular performance of Liszt's "concert paraphrase" of Wagner's Overture to Tannhäuser. The Pilgrims' Chorus, one of the noblest tunes in early Wagner opera, ranges from stately and pious to overwhelming in its first appearance. But that proves to be just a warm-up for the hurricane force (I wonder why that image popped into my head) of its return. The returning pilgrims have brought from Rome the green, leafy miracle of the Pope's staff, signaling Tannhäuser's rescue from the sensuous distractions of Venusberg.

Liszt, with his sharp sense of the tussle between virtue and vice (his girlfriend, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, was trying to extricate herself from a failed marriage at the time), certainly wanted to bring the full resources of the piano to his future son-in-law's depiction of the conflict. Mndoyants was equal to the task of representing the music's daunting spectrum of emotion and sonority.

The recital opened with Beethoven's Six Bagatelles, Op. 126, a set of miniatures hard to encompass with any brief description — music expressing the stubborn freedom of the prematurely aged composer,  totally bereft of hearing beyond what his imagination could produce for him. At first, the live acoustics of the Eidson-Duckwall seemed to require more of a scaling back from Mndoyants than he was willing to provide. The necessary adjustments were made by the third bagatelle, and its soft-spoken fleetness was fully engaged. The ebb and flow of dynamics in the sixth piece sounded fully responsive to the environment. Like just about everything else in this recital, the performance confirmed the pianist's fitness for whatever he applies himself to.