Monday, August 31, 2015

Debussy masterpieces anchor new discs by Frederic Chiu and the Avalon String Quartet

Paul Rosenfeld, an insightful if excessively florid music critic of the early 20th century, was in full cry when he turned his attention to Claude Debussy. From various sources, there is a host of picturesque writing about the French master (1862-1918). His music is forever linked to impressionism but he was more comfortable with the designation "realism," as Frederic Chiu usefully reminds us in notes for his Debussy centered CD, "Distant Voices." Rosenfeld was swept away by the music, whatever label better applies to it.

Frederic Chiu partners Debussy with Gao Ping
Debussy's realism can be interpreted to mean reconceiving musical structure, harmony, and color to fit the contours of life as it is lived — the ordinary life of Manet's "Boating Party," for example. Rosenfeld hints at some of this in a typically all-embracing pair of sentences about the String Quartet in G minor (1893). This work is as solid an indication as you can find of how Debussy, just turned 30, evolved from Romanticism toward something new.

"The Quartet is alive, quivering with light, and with joyous animality," Rosenfeld wrote. "It moves like a young fawn; spins the gayest, most silken, most golden of spider webs; fills one with the delights of taste and smell and sight and touch."

Why write about one way a piece of music strikes you when you can write about several ways it does so all at once? This is the Rosenfeld procedure, and, prophetically, it applies perfectly to the way the Avalon String Quartet plays the work in its new recording, "Illuminations" (Cedille Records). What is most impressive is the sense of movement, on that animal level that Rosenfeld praised.
Leading off with classic Debussy, the Avalon Quartet (violinists Blaise Magniere and Marie Wang, violist Anthony Devroye, and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee) spotlights fellow Chicagoan Stacy Garrop.

Rosenfeld's fawn may call up an image of the sound-alike creature that's the subject of Debussy's most famous piece, "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." But the string quartet's woodland creature is the immature deer Rosenfeld had in mind.

In the Avalon's performance you can feel the sinews of life, the twitch of muscle beneath the skin. This is the most rhythmically acute, the leanest and most alert, account of the piece I've heard. In urban terms, the Avaloners give some street cred back to the Debussy quartet.

Some other ensembles choose, so it seems, to stress the latter part of Rosenfeld's description. Indeed, quite a bit of Debussy's music evokes the atmosphere suggested by those golden, silken spider webs.

Examples might include the Debussy "hit," "Clair de Lune," which with "Reverie" makes a kind of coda to Chiu's fascinating recording. And, of course, "Reflets dans l'eau" (from "Images") and "Jardins sous la pluie" (from "Estampes"), also evoke delicate imagery, despite strong appeals (synesthetically) to all the senses.

Chiu's performances are strikingly colored, assertive while being fully within the Debussy idiom. Both books of "Images" are presented, as well as two pieces from "Estampes."

They complement the oddly more demanding works of Gao Ping. That's not to say there's anything easy about Debussy's piano music, particularly teh sort of brilliant  performance as Chiu gives to "Mouvement," the last of Volume 1 of "Images") Those that call for "vocalizing pianist" must evoke a non-artistic use of the voice, applied as if out of impulse. The three Gao Ping for piano alone display his sparse, 21st-century impressionism of a distinctive kind, as well as his Russian-inspired motoric energy and coruscating flair. (A well-directed, visually informative DVD of the program is part of the issue.)

Also on the Avalon disc is the title piece, a nine-movement evocation of the Book of Hours, an illuminated manuscript of the 15th century, a cycle of daily devotions for Duchess Catherine of Cleves. **The composer, Stacy Garrop, seeks to bring the listener close to the experience of turning the book's beautiful pages.

 There is a good deal of expressive variety in her settings, which are inspired (the notes say) by the familiar "Pictures at an Exhibition" (Mussorgsky). That suite's famously detailed translations into musical terms of images that are hardly in anyone's consciousness when the Russian work is performed are a worthy model. Garrop's piece opens up the rarely seen treasures of this book in ways that draw the listener in, whether the subject is "Singing Angels" or "Christ Carrying the Cross."

The other work on the disc with a religious cast to it is Osvaldo Golijov's "Tenebrae," which I found kind of vacuous in comparison. What remains are four charming short works by Benjamin Britten, character pieces titled Three Divertimenti plus the straightforward "Alla Marcia."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Jazz Kitchen performing debut: The intricate swing of Amina Figarova

Amina Figarova revels in a joyful moment at the Jazz Kitchen.
Amina Figarova, a native of Azerbaijan who has established herself well as a jazz composer-pianist first in Europe, now in the U.S., understandably says she would rather play than judge young pianists.

She has been in the latter role once at the Jazz Kitchen, sitting on the jury of the American Pianists Association's Jazz Piano Competition earlier this year. Her own music seems as convoluted as any imaginable jury deliberation. Its intricacies delivered payoffs, however, in the almost two sets I heard at the Jazz Kitchen, where she made her Indianapolis performing debut here Friday.

Figarova, specializing in a sextet book of her own making, properly paid special tribute near the end of her second set to Rob Dixon, sitting in on tenor and soprano saxophone and fitting in superbly in his first outing in Figarova territory.

Other members of the group she's traveling with (she'll appear at the South Bend Jazz Festival today) are her husband, flutist Bart Platteau; trumpeter Alex Norris; bassist Rashaan Carter, and drummer Jason Brown.

The opening number had a kind of deep churn that displayed her writing's piquant harmonies and rhythms well. Figarova's piano solos are typically single-line affairs, a predilection offering a nice contrast with the density of her writing for the band.

So many jazz pianists these days think vertically that sometimes one becomes nostalgic for the Bud Powell legacy of right-hand soaring, winding and skittering. Yet Figarova has something to say in the lower register and with the left hand, too. That was more than adequately set forth in her unaccompanied solo introducing "Blue Whisper," the title song of a new CD, the 13th under her leadership. Its plangent octaves and tenor-range melody initially gave a funereal cast to the piece, which soon shook off the moribund mood as her bandmates joined in.

Dixon took one of his best solos of the evening (on soprano sax).  I had lost the thread of Carter's bass soloing in the previous number, despite Figarova's efforts to keep everything grounded, so I was pleased that his long showcase that brought "Blue Whisper" to its conclusion made more sense: It had an Eddie Gomez sort of fluidity wedded to a Charles Mingus better-get-it-in-your-soul urgency.

The band showed off its pinpoint control in the fast-moving "Sneaky Seagulls," with its three-horn chirps and squawks punctuating the flight of Figarova's piano. Also displaying both virtuosity and a sense of humor was "NYCST," which stands for New York City Subway Tango. The sometimes anxious piece featured some of the flutist's best work of the night: Platteau's phrases are well-connected and his tone is substantial, not the peanut brittle you get from some reedmen who pick up the flute now and then. This man is a specialist, and it shows.

With so much creativity coming out of the bandleader's mind and fingers, at the keyboard as well as onto the page, it's not surprising that performance will always provide Figarova with more pleasure than weighing the merits of ambitious youngsters — however necessary that work may be.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]  

Friday, August 28, 2015

Jazz bassist Daniel Fortin's "Brinks": How to stand out in a crowd without getting bizarre about it

Daniel Fortin writes with understatement, heads a simpatico quartet.
Plenty of imagination and technique funnel into the creation of new jazz worldwide. Amid the abundance, fans have a trickier task than ever just figuring out who is worth hearing. My view is: Why compile a short list, when exploring the ever-lengthening long list can be so much fun?

The problem for musicians is how to present something honest with enough individuality to lodge in the world's ear somewhere. You have to assume you're going to be part of a crowd and just make the most of what you have to say.

Here's a new release that does just that. I've recently been listening to Toronto bassist Daniel Fortin's debut album, "Brinks" (Fresh Sound, New Talent). As a composer, he shows a strong commitment to crafting pieces for a working ensemble that sounds as if the participants really belong together. My guess is he's not too concerned about having his compositions taken up by other musicians; they seem fully at home with this personnel.

On "Brinks," at any rate, we are offered 10 varied statements highlighting group rapport, which means showing off in disciplined yet relaxed fashion the many facets of the Canadian quartet. Besides Fortin, it consists of David French, tenor sax; Michael Davidson, vibes; and Fabio Ragnelli, drums.

The pieces hold aloft the independence of the two front-line instruments: Davidson and French thread their ways forward with minds of their own, but the mutual responsiveness is evident. Fortin's pieces don't depend on a "head" that privileges the unit: In the first number, "Verona," the tenor sort of sidles in after his three bandmates have gotten things going.

Davidson's hard, ringing vibes sound owes something to Joe Locke's. The dispassionate tone of French's sax is welcome, for the most part. Sometimes I yearn for more overt expression, but his restraint helps make for a good partnership. Ragnelli's drumming, while full of variety, is never self-regarding or bent on display. Fortin takes a substantial solo on "Ends" and moves into the spotlight briefly elsewhere, but characteristically steadies the band harmonically without drawing too much attention to himself.

The pieces' structure, tempos and stylistic influences vary, from "Flecks," a ballad that turns urgent and faster after a while, to the funky churn of  "Smithereen" and the probing "Mince," with their prominent drum backbeats. The band flirts with free jazz in "I Don't Know" and gets atmospheric in "Progress Bar." Overall, the emotional palette remains cool, and all four men seem totally at home with the blend and subtlety that result.

"Brinks" is a good addition to my long list of current jazz worth listening to.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Silence, please! The performance art of Marianne Moore, or poetry as theater's secret agent and the world's caretaker

Eyes on the prize: A pangolin subject to out-of-control harvesting
The toll mankind exacts on wildlife throughout the world took a poignant turn for me when I listened to NPR's Aug. 18 report on the threat to the pangolin, a compact anteater that I'm guessing few people have heard of. The report calls it the most trafficked mammal in the world, despite its obscurity and low profile in conversations about exploitation and extinction.

I would have been among many American listeners unfamiliar with the beast had I not known one of Marianne Moore's inimitable animal poems, "The Pangolin." I went back to this poem as I reconnected with the poet's severely truncated version of "Poetry" in order to make a point about my response to Phoenix Theatre's current show, "Silence! The Musical."

Considering whether to lasso "The Pangolin" into that post, I was stopped by my internal editor, who barked: "Wait a minute! You're reviewing 'Silence!' Please tend to business."  But there is an odd relevance of both Moore poems to the themes often obscenely pursued in "Silence! The Musical." That's what I plan to probe here.

Near total annihilation in habitats elsewhere, the pangolin in Africa is under dire threat, spurred by what some might defend as a cultural norm that our Western values should not disturb. I will disturb it here.

To quote the NPR report: "The animal has long been prized for its scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. But  Jonathan Baillie, a pangolin specialist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in London. says nowadays pangolin meat is considered a luxury item by a growing middle class in Vietnam and China. 'We're seeing that the body is actually being eaten as some sort of celebration when a business deal is done,' he says. 'The price can go up to many hundreds of dollars per kilo.'"

It may be harsh to find this sort of heedless desire akin to the psychopathology that drives some people to the extremes of Hannibal Lecter, famished for human flesh, and Buffalo Bill, who has human skin in the game, in the Phoenix show. But once the world is conceived as being for our use and pleasure, there's no stopping us. And we tend to individualize that in the worst way.

There is no end to human vanity and greed, qualities for which money exists in part to assign costs to. From time immemorial, East and West, many celebrations have been accompanied by wasteful feasting. When we push ourselves back from that groaning board, the perspective changes: "To explain grace requires / a curious hand," Miss Moore notes in "The Pangolin." This insight is nestled amid praise of the pangolin's fitness for its unspectacular existence, with its artichoke-like armor proof against its food's resistance and its predators' designs. The current headlong harvest by the worst of all predators is something else.

Miss Moore always had that steady, curious hand.  Her animal poems are exact in description and oblique, even coy, in extolling her subjects. To put a stamp of unique performance upon these tributes, many of her poems are set in unconventional line lengths and with a controlled, sinuous variety of indentations (the forced adherence to the left-hand margin you will find in versions of "The Pangolin" online makes as much sense as stressing the downbeats in a Debussy prelude).

"The Pangolin" is gloriously discursive, ending in a meditation that blurs the line between this charming, dogged animal and that king of the hill, mankind, about whom Miss Moore is richly ambivalent. An odd effect of reading such a poem is that you become super-aware of a human sensibility shaping every phrase, and yet somehow the animal itself seems to emerge intact and unexploited for your inspection and admiration.

Marianne Moore: Showing the deepest feeling.
In Moore, culture and nature are often intertwined: In "The Elephant," for example, the poet writes: "As loss could not ever alter Socrates'/ tranquillity, equanimity's contrived // by the elephant. With the Socrates of animals as with Sophocles the Bee, on whose / tombstone a hive was incised, sweetness tinctures / his gravity."

The dust jacket of my "Complete Poems of Marianne Moore" carries praise from fellow poets as diverse as T.S. Eliot (his eye ever turned toward eternity) and John Ashbery (relentlessly focused on this world of time and change). Ashbery's kudos runs thus: "More than any modern poet, she gives us the feeling that life is softly exploding around us, within easy reach."

Such energy occupies a different universe from the noisy explosions  — and ejaculations —  in "Silence!: The Musical." The creators' exclamation point hypercharges the irony of that abbreviated version of the movie title. The show's gravity is peculiarly hard to access, and no sweetness tinctures it.

Miss Moore had her "Silence," too, it must be pointed out. She devotes the short poem of that title mainly to recalling her father's wisdom, ending with these lines:

"The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."
Inns are not residences.

As we continue to hack away at the health and viability of other species, we ought to consider the earth as our inn. Regarded solely as our residence, how can the earth help being ours to do whatever we want to with pangolins, elephants, other people, and species that are disappearing faster than we can count them?

It's instructive to encounter the lack of restraint that boils over in "Silence!: The Musical," but we don't want to live there, do we? Whoever or whatever you may want to consider our host on earth, it seems healthier to have the good manners and restraint of a guest. The pangolin might then thrive in its own modest way, along with earth's other guests.

Continuing to exercise what we deem to be the prerogatives of residence is frightening to contemplate. The rest — to quote the most quotable literary character ever — is silence.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Gag reflex: Musical comedy from a world untuned in Phoenix Theatre's "Silence! The Musical"

The queasiness at the heart of "The Silence of the Lambs," the much-laureled 1991 film starring
Bleat treat: The lambs raise their voices
Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, gets dialed up beyond retching in "Silence! The Musical," a jolly interpretation of an imprisoned cannibal's rapport with an ambitious FBI agent in search of an even more heinous mass killer.

The Off-Broadway hit has been freshly interpreted by the Phoenix Theatre to end its 2014-15 season in the intimate basement confines of the Basile Stage. As seen Sunday at the end of its second weekend, the all-out musical thriller could hardly have been carried off with more gusto.

The cast pins our ears back and props our eyes open (like Alex's in "A Clockwork Orange") with its adroitness and fervor. This goes from the intrusive Lambs — generally grouped in buoyant and nimble choruses reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan — through the dogged law-enforcement crowd to the keenly portrayed, psychopathic blood brothers Hannibal Lecter (Paul David Nicely) and Buffalo Bill (Scot Greenwell).
Phoenix's Lecter never lacks focus.
The text that "Silence! The Musical" might be said to preach upon lies no further off than the opening speech of "Twelfth Night," which many readers of this blog will have seen at the beginning of the month in Heartland Actors' Repertory Theater's production. "If music be the food of love, play on," intones the self-involved Duke Orsino. "Give me excess of it, that surfeiting / The appetite may sicken and so die."

Music feeds the grossest kinds of love in "Silence!" Others must be sacrificed to the voracious, just as the lambs in Clarice's childhood memory had to be. Surfeiting may sicken the appetite of most of us, but not Lecter and Buffalo Bill. The show's creators — Hunter Bell (book) and Jon and Al Kaplan (songs) — have attempted to make excess a comfort food that's digestible only in discomfort, including laughter.

Buffalo Bill wants to be his own rough trade.
To present the show competently requires strong heads, hearts and stomachs, working in organic concert. Bryan Fonseca brings his usual flair to the directing job, smoothly assisted by choreographer Kenny Shepard. Musical director Jay Schwandt seemed flawless Sunday at the electric piano in the chameleon accompaniment.

Nothing detracted from the gut-wrenching funny business of giving offense. So I mean it as a compliment when I say "Silence!" is the most disgusting show I've ever seen at the Phoenix.

That is not to dismiss it.  What we call bad taste is no counterfeit coin. It maintains its value, for it helps us keep a purchase on our limits.  When bad taste comes from the right mint, you can bite it like a peasant trader without leaving tooth marks. If we prefer to invest in good taste, it makes sense, as with more tangible investments, to diversify somewhat. In one corner of our portfolio should be, for example, two of "Silence!"'s ickiest songs:  Buffalo Bill's fantasy of violent self-buggery and Hannibal Lecter's love song (reprised, even!) outlining an olfactory fantasy about Clarice.

The most fastidious American poet of the 20th century, Marianne Moore, notoriously dismembered one of her most quoted poems in her "definitive edition," offering readers a bleeding chunk of the much-anthologized "Poetry." More compact, the poem became more sententious: "I, too, dislike it. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt of it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine." That's the whole thing, all she wanted to say finally about poetry itself.

And it's close to my reaction to "Silence!" But I did discover in it, I must admit, a place for the genuine. In one of the excised lines of the full-length "Poetry," Miss Moore touted the genre's ability to "present for inspection imaginary gardens with real toads in them." This show certainly qualifies: The garden is luxuriant and well-tended, though the toads are damned ugly.

The collective gusto I praised above is a word derived from the Latin for "taste," which is rooted in an older word meaning "to choose." Though the word itself has a bad odor today, discrimination lies at the basis of taste. Nausea thus becomes one of the varieties of aesthetic experience. When Chelsey Stauffer's excellent Clarice was about to ralph a couple of times in the performance I saw, I was with her all the way — and even more often.

Another of the phrases Miss Moore removed from her original may be apt here in conclusion. Among the things "we do not admire (because) we do not understand," the poet points out, is "the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea."

Sunday, August 23, 2015

My IndyFringe wrap-up: A grab-bag of shows seen late in the run

The strong, beating heart of the IndyFringe Festival is the eternal, thumping appeal of comedy, sometimes just abrasive enough to make us unembarrassed by hints of uplift and happy endings.

In cobbling together a selection of shows, I had to take into account the need to check in with new productions by Indianapolis Opera and Phoenix Theatre while shrugging off my late arrival (due to out-of-state travel) at the festival after the crucial opening weekend.

Jeremy Schaefer detects fishiness in the workaday world.
But funny things have happened on the way to this forum, though I'm the only one holding forth on it.  Two examples of highly accomplished comedy spun out along the narrative threads characteristic of storytellers were "Working Titles"  and "Hannibal: Liar!" Both shows — the former by Jeremy Schaefer presented at ComedySportz and the latter Chris Hannibal's blend of comical high spirits and amazing magic on the Indy Eleven Stage — privileged memory, family, perseverance, and the kind of personal triumphs that help, rather than hurt, others.

Schaefer gave vignettes from his job history — lifeguard, swim teacher, Christmas elf, diversity workshop assistant, among the line items — that sharpened his perceptiveness about other people. Without egotistical display, thanks to lightly applied self-deprecation, Schaefer made the stories riveting as well as amusing.

Gaining useful perspectives on one's place in the work world, he demonstrated, is of enduring benefit. In our security-mad society, Schaefer learned this in attempting to market a non-profit's lame show about protecting kids from online predators and finding that a police officer's startling bluntness was far more effective. Without privileging his position as a professional storyteller, Schaefer displayed the usefulness of knowing your limits and playing to your strengths as you find your way in life.

Nothing about cards, stories and autographed dollar bills escapes Hannibal.
"Hannibal: Liar!" proceeded from childhood memories, just as Schaefer had in describing his relationship to work through helping his father with household chores. Hannibal learned his craft of weaving spells through stories and sleight-of-hand from his grandfather. His show relied more on stories than trickery,  though there was a continual presentation of amazing feats, chiefly involving a pack of cards. His knowledge of them permitted no shuffling, except of the deck itself.

Hannibal has developed an uncanny ability to play to an audience, to elicit shouted challenges from them that he knows he can handle. Whose attention has ever wandered at a magic show? Magicians tend to attract intense scrutiny (we all think we can penetrate their secrets). This rotund prestidigitator knows how to toy with it, then deliver fresh surprises, better than most. The only discordant note was his disproportionate put-down of a woman who offered a ribald remark I thought was in the spirit of suggestive banter the performer had earlier instigated; Hannibal took her for a heckler, and verbally smacked her.

The proof is in the putting on: "Scientist Turned Comedian."
Low-key delivery, along with a lack of warm fuzzies, served "Scientist Turned Comedian" well. Tim Lee feels no need to court an audience's sympathy. He engages its mind, partly through satirical variations on common types of graphs. With Power Point precision, Lee exposed the realities of lying's relationship to success on the job, party behavior, drinking (but I repeat myself), and family interaction. It mocks the way we like to process secure knowledge so it reinforces what we know intuitively. It's confirmation bias wearing a jester's cap.

His insights were unfailingly amusing, and if most of us don't really understand science, pseudo-science pervaded by cleverness goes over well. His "announcer's voice" (his description) sometimes skirted inaudibility, however; and it was odd in an act as far from slob appeal as possible to note that Lee's suit jacket was partly tucked into his waistband near the right vent in back.

The sexy solon: Identity questions complicate staying on message
Performers should pay attention to how they look before going onstage.  Does their appearance reinforce the kind of show they are setting before the public? In "I'm Not Gay," the actor playing the part of George, a politician's assistant, wore a suit that was too small, the center jacket button straining to hold. Politicians characteristically like to keep up appearances, and their staffs follow suit (pun unavoidable). Matthew Barron's four-character play relies on that well-established fact. A conservative state senator, long married and with two grown sons, has been linked to a publicized liaison with a young man. The officeholder's image is in tatters.

The satirical thrust of the story is tentatively applied. Barron has other goals: He is working toward the senator's reconciliation with those close to him. The politician mostly sticks with the denial summed up in the play's title; by the end, he has reaffirmed his love for both his wife and his gay staffer by incorporating inclusiveness in his public speeches.

Barron exposes some of the costs of hypocrisy in lives that demand adhering to mainstream ideas of probity and uprightness. But to me he achieves a soft landing for the central character too easily. Performances by the four actors were earnest, and something beyond that in the case of the hearty gay-bar proprietor.

"I said of laughter, it is mad" was a rare quotation from the Bible (Ecclesiastes) to be found in the old Mad Magazine. The editors capitalized "mad," of course, and as a boy, much of my immature sense of humor was fed by my Mad subscription. Manic goofiness has left its mark on me, which made me fairly tolerant of the frantic fun pervading "Speedthru," a two-character farce with a flimsy set-up.

Desperation drives a pair of unprepared thespians in ETC production
Two actors with bit parts in a play they are barely familiar with are forced to rehearse the whole piece in the absence of the rest of the cast. They don't know what's what: It's Eclectic Pond writer Jeremy Grimmer's insanely ADHD version of Christopher Durang's "The Actor's Nightmare,"  which is based on everybody's nightmare of being unprepared for a task you are expected to undertake right away and well.

The premise here is that the actors' company's board of directors is dropping in to get a look at the drama, "The Importance of Being Jeff." For some reason, the bit players — at first almost at ease running through their fight scene in the last act — feel duty-bound to render as much of the play as they can remember. It's as if their careers will be over if they don't get the whole clumsy drama as right as possible.

As a result, there is scarcely a let-up in the words and action they jam together in order to approximate a work that apparently is a classic, but is both (a) set in the 1860s and (b) features "thees" and "thous" in the dialogue — among other incongruities. The ETC regulars who manage to keep the madness under artistic control could hardly be more invested in this nonsense, which went on about 15 minutes too long. Still, this sort of exercise in rapidfire teamwork is undeniably in the true IndyFringe spirit. The sun also rises, and Ecclesiastes has it right, as usual.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Indianapolis Opera resumes its production history with "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"

Opera throws more obstacles into the paths of true identity and genuine love than you can shake a selfie stick at.

Moment of truth: Dr. P. grabs wife's head when it's time to go.
But no obstacle is more bizarre than the degenerative brain disease suffered by the main character in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," Michael Nyman's one-act piece drawn from the title true story by neurologist Oliver Sacks in his best-selling book. It's the story of an accomplished artist, identified only as Dr. P.  He's primarily a singer and voice teacher but also an accomplished painter, suffering from a puzzling, persistent mental tarnish darkening his golden years.

Indianapolis Opera Friday night resumed its interrupted and imperiled course into the 21st century at the Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler University. It was the first of three performances, designed and directed by GLMMR (Giving Light Motion + Memory + Relevance), a performance-art company based in Brooklyn, N.Y. A string ensemble (including piano and harp) from the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra was in the pit; its music director, Matthew Kraemer, conducted.

Nyman invented the term "minimalism," but his style (as pointed out by IO general director Kevin Patterson in a pre-performance talk) is not in the strict, extended style associated with Philip Glass. The repetitive structures tend to be briefer and change more often. In "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,"  this balance — shifting patterns of phrases, mostly consonant, with lots of textural variety — suits the nature of the action well. Dr. P. lives in a cubist world, sliding between planes in which cognition consists of identifying selected markers of objects and people, rather than the whole object or person.

Dissonance in the modern era has so often represented distorted visions of reality that it's almost a shock to realize that you can manipulate conventional tonality and go through the looking-glass just as convincingly. (David Del Tredici demonstrated that at length in his Straussian "Alice" pieces.) The comedy in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" is more saturated with pathos, however.

The relative simplicity of the musical language matches the almost static dramatic momentum of the work. The opera is closely wedded to the growing realization by Dr. S. (representing Sacks) of the dimensions of Dr. P.'s illness.

Treatment, sadly amounting to little more than management, has already been put in place by his wife. She does her best to keep her husband's day orderly so that he can use a childlike song to accompany each activity. If there's conflict in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," it's mainly focused on Mrs. P., whose resistance to the growing diagnosis becomes fierce when Dr. S refuses to take the fragmentation and incoherence of her husband's recent paintings for artistic development.

Friday's performance was distinguished by consistently fine singing from tenor Brian Joyce (Dr. S.), bass Tony Dillon (Dr. P.), and soprano Emily Pulley (Mrs. P.). In his lower range, Dillon was sometimes covered by the orchestra, but for the most part he and his colleagues projected their voices clearly and expressively over the accompaniment. The acting style of all three was appropriately  understated, almost out of an oratorio bag.

Given that "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" places what happens almost exclusively in the province of Dr. P.'s mind, a lot of gestural or vocal stress would not have seemed apropos. Clear, well-designed projections, both slide and film, take care of that dimension, externalizing it as the patient struggles to make it cohere.

At the very end, when the couple settles into a motionless embrace after the doctor leaves their apartment, musical symbols — white on black — swirl around them. There could be no better representation of Dr. S.'s final assessment of the case. In Sacks' words from the book: "What I would prescribe, in a case such as yours, is a life which consists entirely of music. Music has been the center, now make it the whole, of your life."

The edge-to-edge tapestry of Nyman's music fulfills that prescription, and this production is conscientious in displaying its rationale and the compassion behind it.

[Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Friday, August 21, 2015

Dance Kaleidoscope again makes an indelible impression at IndyFringe

One of the hottest tickets at the IndyFringe Festival for several years has been the annual hourlong show by Dance Kaleidoscope, the city's durable contemporary-dance troupe.

For a couple of years, the program has focused on new works by DK dancers rather than samples from its repertoire. Artistic director David Hochoy displays both graciousness and wise encouragement in turning over to his member colleagues this part of the company's outreach.

The show I saw Thursday evening brimmed with lyricism, exuberance, and simple truths. Titled "New/Next/Now," the production consisted of seven works, all introduced by their creators or designated spokespersons (Hochoy and DK rehearsal director Liberty Harris).

Choreography necessarily bridges abstract and dramatic expression. All the pieces in "New/Next/Now" reflect their creators' idealism and desire to either transcend or resolve conflicts through the language of movement. The collaborative spirit is intense and sustained in this show. The technical demands are often huge, but they are met within a context that privileges communication.

Justin Sears-Watson's whiz-bang finale was untypical of the show but perfectly placed. Using eight dancers in "Speak Easy," Sears-Watson outfits his dancers in insouciant partying clothes and sets them spinning, jumping, twitching, and soaring to the explosive music of the Buddy Rich big band.
A slow, sensuous middle section makes for a satisfying tripartite structure in which joie de vivre can be displayed in full spectrum. Though the piece is an ensemble triumph, its  saucy energy — with facial and physical expression fully integrated — can be summed up in the performance of Jillian Godwin.

Earlier, Godwin introduced her piece, "Flashes of Life," with words about space — both close and far — and her interest in how people relate to it. The work for five dancers involved lots of space on and near the floor. There was a sense of struggle, slow and difficult, as if people have to fight isolation and dispersion in order to form alliances.  There were helping gestures, sometimes tentative, moving toward  recognition that we're all entitled to occupy space, to move into and claim our full stature.

This kind of working through uncertainty was central to Timothy June's "Origin of Love," which bases modern views of identity on the Platonic notion that human beings move toward love to complete their sense of self. Finding a soul mate is an essential life project subject to interruption, distraction, and false choices. Choreographed for three couples, the bonds shift in the course of the work, set to the sublime "Tallis Fantasia" of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Rejection of unsatisfactory alliances is gently handled, because June is focused on the nobility of this universal search for completion and fulfillment. The work remains true to the philosopher's fanciful concept.

A similar idealism pervades other pieces, such as the opener, in which creator Stuart Coleman, replacing an injured Brandon Comer, partnered Mariel Greenlee. This modest, ethereal duet yielded to a trio that incorporated a few energetic disturbances before ending placidly: Noah Trulock's "Silently/Seeking/Solace."

Two edgier works complete the program, whose final performance is Sunday on Theatre on the Square's main stage. Like Coleman, choreographer Zach Young needed to dance his own piece, "Sovereignty," due to Comer's injury. With Godwin in a role unusually requiring toe shoes, Young and June moved from sparring to redirecting their attention to the feisty, fiery-red-clad woman. The piece was physically daunting, yet smoothly balanced cooperation with a persistent three-way drive to come out on top.

The other somewhat barbed piece is Greenlee's "State of Grace," a study in barely controlled violence and reconciliation. The choreographer said the piece grew out of her witnessing a couple's street quarrel through a restaurant window, then imagining the story behind it in dance terms. Six dancers stayed close to the tense physicality that makes erotic attraction potentially dangerous, especially when conflict bursts out in public, as it did in the work's generating incident.

 The reconciliation was fully achieved, however, putting "State of Grace" in line with "New/Next/Now"'s pervasive endorsement of happiness. There's nothing shallow about happiness; it's not a smiley-face emoticon or decal. This show beautifully represents that fact seven ways.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Learning more about how our brain processes our worlds: Indianapolis Opera adds information to production of "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"

There are notable mad scenes in the operatic repertoire, but little focus on other types of brain dysfunction. A rare exception is on the cultural schedule this weekend.

Indianapolis Opera opens its 2015-16 season presenting GLMMR's production of "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," Michael Nyman's adaptation (with two librettists) of neurologist Oliver Sacks' book of the same title. One story in particular, of a man suffering from visual agnosia, a condition in which someone can see but not recognize or interpret visual information, forms the basis of the opera.

Distortions of normal perception in loved ones occasion lots of heartbreak in families, and opera is rich in heartbreak. To help those who attend performances this weekend at the Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler University, the company has set up panel discussions two hours before each performance of the opera.

At 6 p.m. Friday, the panelists will be Dr. Brandy Mathews of Indiana University's School of Medicine, Linda Altmeyer of the Alzheimer's Association, and Tina McIntosh of Joy's House. an Indianapolis adult day service.

General director Kevin Patterson
At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, participants will be neurologists Mike Sermersheim and Cynthia McGarvey, Candace Preston of Joy's House, Dr. Tim Brimmer of Butler University, and Altmeyer.

Contributing to the final conversation in the series, "Understanding Brain-Based Diseases: A Catalyst for Community Discussion," will be four representatives with different specialties from Community Health Network: Zonda Stead, Todd  Wagoner, Dr. Syed Hasan, and Suzanne Clifford. The discussion begins at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

Admission is free to the discussions on the Schrott Center's mezzanine. Tickets to the opera performances can be obtained through the opera company's website.

In addition, IO general directdor Kevin Patterson will give a background presentation on Nyman's work an hour before each performance. A talk-back opportunity for audiences will follow all performances, with the performers participating.

What a Wednesday for whimsy! Reviews of three IndyFringe shows, chiefly comical

Performances that give an hour of impure pleasure are a staple of IndyFringe, and my abbreviated 2015 coverage of the festival yesterday focused on three funny shows.

Because attempts to capture humor in a review are futile almost to the same degree as having to explain a joke to someone who didn't get it the first time, this post will be brief.

Squeeze-box heroics: Daniel E. Biemer as Captain Ambivalent
"Not So Secret Origin of Captain Ambivalent"  presents life according to accordion, accompanying original songs by the performer Daniel E. Biemer of Valparaiso. It's a story with generous amounts of fantasy, superhero impersonations and unfulfilled wishes. The self-description Biemer ends up with — the one in the title — indicates that the mission-driven clarity of superheroes is unsustainable for an ordinary guy adept at pushing keys and buttons for fun.

Biemer's songs are packed with wit, sometimes on the borderline of being inaccessible at first hearing. (That's why he's selling CDs, perhaps). But a song about the richness of ancient Greek in supplying five words for "love," where English has to wear one word to a nubbin, indicates that what's too complicated to understand can entertain the creative mind.

The show accumulates  a variety of ways to lighten the load of growing up American, resulting in Biemer's adopted persona of "Pirate Ninja Zombie," sung with lusty commitment and a parade of partial costume changes. The finale, despite the stubbornness of an inflatable dinosaur, rocked the house (downstairs at the Marott Center). What needs upgrading is Biemer's delivery of spoken narrative: too often it came across as a set-up for the next song. He obviously put a lot of work into what he has to tell us between songs, and the awkwardness (some of it due to having to manipulate props) was a distraction.

Those songs are consistently droll, however: I won't soon forget a sea chantey repurposing pirate sailors' enthusiasm for going ashore, not for the usual whoring and carousing, but to do their laundry.
Passage from India: Krish Monan does stand-up about adjustment

My evening ended with another one-man show, this one in the familiar genre of stand-up comedy — a man and a microphone. Krish Mohan of Pittsburgh occupied the spotlight at another new Fringe venue, the Firefighters Union Hall. "An Indian Comedian: How Not to Fit In" promises cross-cultural adjustment stories, which Mohan supplies, in part. He skewers mainstream American ignorance: a nation of foreigners doesn't seem to know what to make of them.

Though his audience was responsive, I had a feeling a lot of intended laugh lines were falling flat. Mohan's style is crude enough to meet today's stand-up standards, but is also fast-talking and fairly cerebral. Maybe that explains it. I don't know why it's a stand-up convention to comment on how the show is going over with a particular audience, and fortunately Mohan didn't overdo it. But he seemed sensitive to it.

Coming from India and touching on racism he's encountered here, Mohan could have gone further. As a light-skinned Indian, he must be familiar with prejudice in his homeland against darker-skinned countrymen, but this show doesn't register the touchy problem. Here he is throwing in his lot with the darker brothers, which allows him to skewer racism from a victim's perspective.

The seams showed as Mohan darted from one topic to the next. Comics have their practiced pauses when they turn the page to a new chapter, as it were, and audiences expect that. But Mohan shifted gears often and abruptly, sometimes producing discrepancies: Family anecdotes dependent on conversational exchange didn't square with the comedian's later insistence that his family "never talked."

A big chunk of the monologue was devoted to sex, with germane references to the Kama Sutra, the illustrated Indian manual famous worldwide for its variety of positions. Mohan was thoroughly believable when he ended his show asserting that the one place he feels he really belongs is onstage talking about this kind of thing.

Program image, properly enigmatic, for "Mr. Boniface, the Wise"
In between (for me) came a clever play about an eccentric family and a science teacher who wants into it in the worst way. KT Peterson's "Mr. Boniface, the Wise" (Indy Fringe Basile Theatre) is a manic, though controlled, piece of engaging theater.

The teacher is a nerve-wracked Humbert Humbert with designs on a froward teenager named Angora, whose brilliance needs an alliance with the teacher for her intellectual development only. Their opposing motivations find common cause in a campaign to have Angora expelled from school and transformed into a scientist.

Her mother, Inga, wants to use the teacher's home visit to save her older daughter from the shame of expulsion. She sets the stage for this rescue with care: A Rubik's cube must be placed on the coffee table just so. And the sibling rivalry between Angora and her younger sister, who is told the future by Mr. Boniface, an invisible seer living in her bedroom wall, must be kept down to a dull roar.

Wednesday's performance was perky and well-knit, with all the eccentricities vigorously set forth. Despite its improbabilities, the story had tension and forward momentum. Its recurrent themes, such as Inga's narcolepsy, were neatly touched upon and developed without overemphasis. The hard-working cast romped about the shallow stage without a hitch or unplanned tumble.

Peterson has more than a bag of tricks to display; the humanity of all the characters came through the thickly applied impasto of caricature. "Mr. Boniface, the Wise" is full-throttle Fringe at its most ingenious.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Catching up with IndyFringe: Reviews of three Tuesday performances

Never having started Fringe Fest coverage this late, I decided to plunge in close to where I picked up my media badge, festival headquarters at 643 Mass Ave: "4.48 Psychosis" and "Ca-Ching" at Theatre on the Square, just down the street at 627.

It was a chilling double dip. And inevitably, my first Fringe shows also fell under the shadow of the light cast by a recent visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. When your week has opened with a radiant production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," you're likely to be blinking for a while. And when a few days before you took in an equally stunning performance of "Much Ado About Nothing," it's hard not to find even such a FringeFest tour de force as "Breakneck Hamlet" (the last of my three Tuesday shows) somewhat contrived.

All points of view in mental illness tend to approach gridlock.
Eugene O'Neill nonetheless came to mind usefully as my 2015 FringeFest opened with Savage at Last's production of "4.48 Psychosis" by Sarah Kane. The intense three-actor scrutiny of mental illness, directed insightfully by Bill Wilkison, focuses on suicide — its rationale, emotional and intellectual disorientation, and both the promise and futility of preventive treatment.

In "Strange Interlude," O'Neill goes as far as possible to erase the boundary between interior and exterior speech. The massive work must be challenging to take in in performance, hearing actors say aloud what would normally be unspoken. O'Neill takes on the prerogatives of the novelist, but with the difference that dramatic convention is repeatedly violated. All the beans are spilled: A character's self-definition becomes as important as his interaction with others, and intention and motive take on the substance of deeds and words.

Similarly, but in a deliberately less cohesive manner, Kane examines the mind of a young woman (played by Ann Marie Elliott) bent on self-destruction. As staged in "4.48 Psychosis," her illness knows no distinction between what she has done and what she plans to do. Her course of treatment is a pharmacopia of distractions, and yet distractedness is at the center of her life. Her attempts at controlling her destiny are fierce but hardly well founded. Diagnosis interferes, and the psychiatrist (Max Jones) dealing with her is himself compromised by the patient's projection of her reality upon him.

Much of this representation falls to the role of a second woman (Andrea Heiden), who is both friend and foe of the others. Kane cleverly suggests that in psychosis a second self emerges full-grown from the sufferer's tortured mind. How this second self interprets what is going on becomes just as important as the patient's fragmented grip on reality. Yet what this occasional truth-teller has to say cannot always be trusted; it is also sick.

Through their changing positions onstage, along with their involvement in front of, behind and through a framed sheet, the three characters create an embodiment of mental illness that amounts to a pathological trinity, "being of one substance" (to borrow a phrase from the Nicene Creed). Dramatic advancement is frustrated. Even at the end, the audience has to figure out there will be no more. There is no closure: lights remain the same, and the patient stands mute, partially in view through the torn sheet at center stage.

All that we've heard from this codependent trinity does not point the way forward. It has come from deep down without finding a way out. Resolution is a rigged game. Kane might very well subscribe to something O'Neill puts in Nina's mouth in "Strange Interlude": "How we poor monkeys hide from ourselves behind the sounds called words!"

The love of money is the root of all banality, too.
An echoing ring of words forms a kind of prelude to "Ca-Ching!" on TOTS' Stage One. When you enter, the cast is shifting among themselves a series of verbal counters about  shopping, corporations and money. These are the chips of a consumer society manipulated by a few big winners and put up with by the rest of us.

Nomads Collective of Brooklyn, N.Y., has put together a scarifying set of sketches, dotted with song and dance. The seven-member cast imposes continuity on rather disparate satirical thrusts thanks to recurring characters, ranging from a narcissistic high-roller to a resentful minimum-wage clerk. Everyone in the world of "Ca-Ching!" is forced to have a brand or tout one, to invent a new hustle or play a subservient part in an old one.

I liked the show's fervent struggles for individuality that thrust upward, like flowers through concrete, in cracks amid society's appalling lust for validation through material success. Vitality adheres to several portrayals, though the roles are shot through with shopworn licks and cliches. There are some vivid insights in Benjamin Claus' script, but it surprised me that such a show tries to get by with just a modicum of wit. Maybe we've arrived at a point where it's difficult to poke fun at something that wants to choke the life out of us.

No IndyFringe Festival is complete without a few astonishing one-person shows on the roster. Timothy Mooney's "Breakneck Hamlet" (at a new festival venue, the Musicians' Union Hall on Delaware Street) is one of this year's. With an energy belying the "melancholy Dane" stereotype, the black-clad actor-adapter weaves together narration and generous quotation to make of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" a concise cliff-hanger.

Timothy Mooney's Hamlet comes face to face with Yorick.
By necessity, the acted portions of "Breakneck Hamlet" share in the lecture-demonstration aura of the whole show. Gestures are precise, elaborate, and underlined by stark changes in vocal tone. Mooney recognizes this tendency in himself by doing a double take in Hamlet's "advice to the players" speech as he "saws the air" with hand and arm gestures that exemplify what the Prince has just said he abhors in acting.

You would not want to see a "Hamlet" in which each role were embodied with so much explicit detail, but in this format, it works: It helps link the play's action and text to narration and summary. And there are distinct acting triumphs: Mooney's portrayal of Polonius, particularly the old counselor's verbose account of his Hamlet observations, and the "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I" soliloquy.

Using only a small clock at the edge of a carpet to monitor his progress (and with just a throne and Yorick's skull as props), Mooney delivered an assured and lively adaptation of a play that still poses problems of interpretation. If his "To be or not to be" seemed to follow convention in being about suicide rather than the nature of action and free will, it's no distortion to see it as such. The question remains an open one, and "Breakneck Hamlet" deserves kudos for setting such questions before us once again — and in just under an hour.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Indy Reeds: Frank Glover joins the Sophie Faught team for a stellar exhibition at the Jazz Kitchen

Like many of us, I've sometimes imagined a cliche deathbed scene for myself. In this age of hooked-up hospital shutdowns, hardly anyone experiences this sort of exit: family and a few close friends gathered round, a time to dispense final thoughts with retrospective wisdom.

Frank Glover should come up from Brown County more often.
Including regrets, of course. (No, don't go there. They don't want to get you started, believe me. By the time you get to "I should have flossed more often" and "I wish I'd learned to identify birds by their song," they'll be looking around for a spare pillow. And it won't be to put under your head.)

Pipe down, Sensible Inner Voice! Here's one regret my loved ones would have to bend close to hear, because I'd be trying to call up what I'm talking about in my head as I say it: "I wish I had gone out to hear Frank Glover and Claude Sifferlen more often."

Sophie Faught made the most of her invitation to a musician she's long admired.
Sifferlen, a self-effacing giant of  the keyboard, a weaver of countless inviting mysteries, is long gone and much missed. And Glover is less active hereabouts, having moved to a home near Nashville in Brown County that he built himself.

Their partnership stands tall in my memory. For many years around town, chiefly at the Chatterbox, they were symbiotic music-makers without equal. (Among my many regrets is having got up on my PC high horse — a nag that has since been dispatched to the glue factory, fortunately — about the title and cover art of the fine Glover/Sifferlen CD "Siamese Twins." It's among a handful of reviews I'd like to obliterate.)

Glover was onstage at the Jazz Kitchen Saturday night playing his clarinet, the instrument with which he has made his strongest artistic impression. He has also shone on the more marketable tenor saxophone, a horn superbly handled by his bandstand host, Sophie Faught. She and her quartet —  a young, cohesive band also including Joel Tucker, guitar; Nick Tucker, bass, and Ben Lumsdaine, drums — shared the stage with Glover for an exciting first of two sets.

The bluesy "Locomotion," which opened the show, featured a patented Glover illustration of moving a solo from taciturn to loquacious without breaking stride. The quintet sounded super-compatible: the way the horn players traded short phrases, partially overlapping; Joel Tucker's placing of guitar chords behind his brother's solo; the ensemble diminuendo off the drums to a firm conclusion.

Lumsdaine quickly adjusted to the need for spaciousness behind Glover, whose laconic heat can tempt a rhythm section to become overemphatic. He accompanied the clarinet solo in Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" much more sensitively than he had the corresponding episode in Joe Henderson's "Serenity."

The band's "Footprints" was as momentous as the ones Robinson Crusoe discovered in the sand. The tune's signature ascending figure introducing the theme functioned like steady thunder in an ensemble storm. Soloing took place after an abrupt shift to a fast 4/4 tempo. The dreamy waltz of the theme became a distant memory.

Similar dismissal of a lulling original occurred from the start of "Summertime." The arrangement had much of the urgent character of the John Coltrane version on the benchmark album "My Favorite Things." I bought the LP more than 50 years ago, but haven't listened to it in years. Despite similar handling, there was nothing derivative about this quintet's version; any reminders were just fun to notice.

Faught evoked her great predecessor initially, but soloed in a more relaxed fashion; Glover dependably went his own way. As the only harmony instrument involved, Joel Tucker's guitar was much less conspicuous than McCoy Tyner's exotic piano figuration. Nick Tucker was both brooding and exuberant, and Lumsdaine spread the rhythm around a bit like Elvin Jones, but still seemed his own man. There was a similar focus on drums near the end, prodded by brief repeated figures from the rest of the band. I always get goosebumps when I think of Coltrane's arpeggio vaulting back into the melody; its return Saturday night was just as exciting, but particular to this band, in this moment.

"Monk's Dream" had an inspired opening, tension generated by the clarinetist's split tones, then just Sophie and Frank in dialogue for a long stretch. The Thelonious Monk tune arrived with dreamlike clarity. The saxophonist took a searching, well-crafted solo: if she tore a phrase to tatters, she would then make something of the tatters. The Tucker brothers' adjacent solos contrasted the guitarist's curlicues with the bassist's plain speaking.

I find it hard to talk about the set's one thoroughgoing ballad feature, "Body and Soul." The band neatly passed around the imperishable melody's "A" section and bridge. There was some delicate simultaneous improv by the horns, a tuneful Nick Tucker solo, and then some gorgeous, wispy Glover phrases to end it. You can't analyze pretty, so I'll quit trying. "Pretty is absolute," Duke Ellington recalled Billy Strayhorn telling him, and who am I to question the composer of "Chelsea Bridge"?

Speaking of Ellington, the first set ended with the bassist's hard-charging arrangement of "Caravan." It was a thoroughly galvanized performance, with as much exuberant group improvisation as the classic bands of jazz's origins a century ago. History may be cyclical, after all.

I may regret not having been present for more Sifferlen/Glover performances, but I'm happy to have been around for this Faught/Glover meeting.

As for deathbed speeches, I suspect that the most honest, most revealing one ever was set down by Robert Lowell in the last line of "Terminal Days at Beverly Farms."

 The poet's father's final words? "I feel awful."

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The image of Indianapolis jazz: Mark Sheldon mounts a major exhibition at Indiana Landmarks Center

Mark Sheldon's "3 Bass Hit": Frank Smith, Mingo Jones, Nick Tucker.
The look of jazz has had a century of photographic images to make its musicians nearly as indelible visually as they are in the music itself. Indianapolis is fortunate to have over recent years the sensitivity and technical acumen of Mark Sheldon applied to our jazz musicians.

On Friday night, Sheldon's expansive display, "The Naptown Scene," opened in the Rapp Family Gallery at Indiana Landmarks Center, 1201 Central Ave., where it will remain throughout August. Mostly black-and-white prints, framed and featuring text mainly from David Williams' book "Indianapolis Jazz: The Masters, Legends and Legacy of Indiana Avenue."

Sheldon is equally comfortable pointing his camera at jazz musicians performing and posed. His portraits are effective expressions of musicians in repose. You are invited to study what depth of character can bring out in original music night after night on the bandstand. Or you can simply share in musicians' moments of relaxation. Slide Hampton and Rob Dixon come to mind in the portrait category, effectively caught. Especially involving is a large (how could it be otherwise?) portrait taken at the Chatterbox Jazz Club of three generations of bassists with their instruments: Mingo Jones, Frank Smith, and Nick Tucker.
Guitarist Steve Weakley (left) and trumpeter  Clifford Ratliff,  from the exhibition publicty

Sheldon often shoots his portrait subjects against a deep-red wall in a room to one side of the stage at the Jazz Kitchen. The backdrop comes out thoroughly dark-toned in black-and-white photography, projecting the subject. The facial features, especially the eyes, seem to move forward with special focus toward the viewer.

His playing photos often choose an angle from slightly below, as if the bandstand's elevated position also works best for seeing as well as hearing the musicians. The intensity of engagement between musician and instrument is maximized from such a perspective. Everybody looks awe-inspiring.

One pauses particularly before images of those who are no longer with us. The mysterious sources of Claude Sifferlen's art are suggested in Sheldon's photo of the late pianist at work. The effervescence and zeal to entertain that everyone remembers from Virtue and Aletra Hampton are captured in playing shots of that inimitable team, part of a powerfully communicative family of musicians who adopted Indianapolis as their hometown in the 1930s. The look of the teacher and impresario he reliably was is reflected in a shot of Jack Gilfoy drumming, his spectacles professorially down on his nose.

It's not fair to single out a whole bunch of memorable photos from such a range of high-quality pictures..There are many for sale in several bins, too, and I like the idea of the music-stand display of smaller images in the middle of the room. (Sheldon can be contacted at

The best thing about this exhibition is that it inspires you to go back to the music with renewed vigor and interest. And for that ongoing adventure, Mark Sheldon continues to be the man to count off the visual tempo for us.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The better nature of our angels: Amy Schumer meets John Milton, with help from a couple of major literary critics

I'll say up front that I've been watching more "Daily Show" excerpts than ever in the past week, leading up to Jon Stewart's finale last night. One of the YouTube clips that popped up on my feed was Amy Schumer's appearance. I was curious about that because of the lamentable "Trainwreck" shooting last month in Louisiana. That was my unusually sobering introduction to Amy Schumer.

Amy Schumer: An unforgettable image
As YouTube helpfully does when you've finished clicking on a video, a list drops down full of related items. So, a gamy buffet of Amy Schumer monologues and other stuff was set before me. Today, despite my aversion to her brand of raunchy humor, I watched this one, titled "Slutty Friend." It was enthralling, but mostly with respect to one clever image that will haunt me for a long time.

I have to do a bit of set-up, in case you don't want to go to the monologue right away. The comedian was describing a good friend who became a different person after she moved to Connecticut. But for the sake of the old friendship, she invited Amy to a wedding shower in her upscale town. All the other guests were stuck-up young women, dressing differently from her, talking differently from her — generally polishing their poshness in Amy's face.

They all spoke in a near-whisper, for instance. A young woman named Bridget talked the softest: "Bridget talked," Schumer says, "like an angel was sleeping on her tongue."

You couldn't get more ridiculously status-conscious than Bridget, as Schumer describes her in that wonderful simile. The supposition that an angel was sleeping on the snob's tongue cuts two ways: This apprentice socialite was protective of the favor she had been shown by the presence of an angel that she had been charged with not disturbing. Alternatively, the angel itself was honored to have found a place of rest in such a worthy mouth here in the wicked sublunary world.

Bridget was thus exalted, either in her own mind or by a supernatural agency. But the angel, in Schumer's formulation, is irrevocably altered, reduced to miniature human scale. In a narrative, all attributes of God and His messengers are recast in human terms. While skewering Bridget, Schumer also managed to render an angel the unconscious agent of a satirical thrust in the comedian's story. Bridget's pretentiousness implodes, but a resident of heaven has had to be brought down.

John Milton couldn't help himself.
This point is made in a book I'm reading by Denis Donoghue, "Adam's Curse: Reflections on Religion & Literature." Donoghue is arguing against the critics of John Milton's "Paradise Lost" who find the poet unorthodox, possibly even heretical, in making characters out of two members of the Godhead, leaving the Holy Spirit high and dry, as well as giving human characteristics to some high-ranking angels. As narrative figures, how are they really different from Adam and Eve?

Donoghue defends Milton by citing the unavoidable truth: As soon as an entity of any kind talks, it becomes human. There is no way pure theology can survive the transformations of narrative. Everything God says in the Bible undercuts some aspect of faith in His transcendental nature, his absolute remoteness from his creatures.

"Language is a changer of nature, it changes every nature into human nature," Donoghue says, that comma splice indicating the urgency of his insight. "God has to put up with the indignity."

Thus, the nature of an angelic being in narrative — in this case, Schumer's story — is necessarily human, a tiny tongue-sleeper. The angel is real in some sense to both Bridget (though she doesn't know it) and Amy (who intuits it, and for that reason considers Bridget "the worst human I've ever met"). But the angel's reality is wholly absorbed into Bridget's character as interpreted by Schumer the storyteller.

Harold Bloom, a critic of a much different cast than Donoghue, says something apropos in his "Omens of Millennium," a stimulating, cluttered, repetitive treatise on "The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection" (the book's subtitle). He's also considering "Paradise Lost": "For Milton, " he writes, "angels were a mirror into which all of us gaze, and behold neither ourselves nor an absolute otherness, but a middle region where self and other mingle."

Bloom could have been talking about "Slutty Friend."  It is fitting that an angel is imagined to occupy this middle region between the opposite personalities of Bridget and Amy, and that it is resting on the body part that enables us to articulate the noises we send up from our vocal cords, creating a large part of who we think we are.

Everything Bridget says in this situation is helplessly mediated by an unarticulated certainty of her superiority. But because Schumer controls the narrative, Bridget might as well have been rendered as speechless as her sleeping angel.

 They will just have to put up with the indignity.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Both solid and surprising, the Tucker Brothers Quartet proves itself a fully achieved ensemble at the Jazz Kitchen

Some of the buzz about "the new standard" has faded since Herbie Hancock made a valiant effort to show how current pop could add to the repertoire of usable standards for jazz musicians. It's still a lively issue: Can you mine the Great American Songbook forever, particularly when vocal versions of songs more or less as they were written are far from the center of the musical marketplace?

So it's understandably rewarding for young jazz musicians to keep their ears open for adaptable material by popular artists now active.

Adept guitarist-composer Joel Tucker
When imagination is applied to give a jazz vibe to a pop tune, as in  Joel Tucker's arrangement of Imogen Heap's "Closing In," the effort justifies itself. Only after I returned home from the Tucker Brothers Quartet's first set Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen did I become acquainted with the original song, thanks to YouTube.

Thinking back from Heap's recorded performance of her song to what I'd heard at the Kitchen, I admired what guitarist Tucker had done to make the tune feasible for the group he fronts along with his bassist brother Nick. He takes its defining rhythmic underpinning and lets some air into it.

A difficulty for me with contemporary pop is the excessive production layering, an obsession with texture and atmosphere, an insistence on covering the whole musical canvas edge to edge. The procedure turns every song into a brand, or at least a subsidiary of the artist's brand.  Jazz — particularly small-group jazz that's mainly acoustic — benefits from loose textures and distinct lines, with room for self-expression in both solos and ensemble

Tucker's arrangement of "Closing In" gets rid of what I hear as clutter, firms up the phrasing, and the ostinato he alters from the original has a forward momentum that replaces that static Cuisinart quality I find so annoying in pop music, where everything kind of jiggles and thumps in a stationary froth.  Near the end of this band's performance of the tune, three-fourths of the quartet stated the repeated phrase as backdrop and energizer to a showcase for drummer Brian Yarde.

Nick Tucker is the new "everybody's bassist" around town.
Perfect —  and then it was back to taking care of old business: a set-ending jaunt through Wes Montgomery's "Road Song." After a Nick Tucker launch, saxophonist Sean Imboden and the guitarist shared the theme between them. Joel Tucker had picked up his hollow-body guitar again, played much of his solo in octaves, and really stretched out to pay tribute to Indianapolis' own guitar hero. Brother Nick's solo dug deep, getting fraternal support that punctuated the bassist's soulful thoughts.

This band consists of four individualists who seem thoroughly attuned to one another. They dealt imperturbably with the high level of audience noise throughout much of the set.  They didn't have to play everything loud, fortunately. A moody piece like "Nine Is the Magic Number" (also the title of the group's forthcoming CD, expected in time for Indy Jazz Fest) unfolded like somber processional music, ending in an effective diminuendo. For churning energy and a theme featuring a close-order arpeggio drill, there was an exciting Joel Tucker original, "Ouroboros," named for the mythical tail-biting snake that symbolizes the cyclical view of history.

The brothers know how to design a set for contrast and complementarity. "East of the Sun" was neatly troweled in between two of Joel Tucker's pieces. It included some elegant playing by Imboden, and when the guitar solo drifted for a while into dreamy triplets, Yarde was right with him.

This is a band that never seems to coast. Too often you'll hear the outchorus of a standard played in a routine manner, but this one had some imaginative new ideas. None of the members, including the drummer,  shies away from attention to melody. They are alive to the framework of each piece in the book, but they don't abdicate the responsibility of filling it with something tuneful and catchy.

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Two important American singers are the foundation of Dance Kaleidoscope's summer reprise

From "Night and Day" to "What'd I Say," Dance Kaleidoscope brings back this weekend another of its inspired interpretations of American popular music.

"Ray & Ella" pays tribute to Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald, 20th-century musical stars with devoted followings. It feels right at home at Butler University's Schrott Center, where I saw Saturday night the first of two performances of the revival.

Ella's "Tea for Two" serves four just fine in DK's show.
There might be some overlapping of the singers' fan bases, but while Charles ignited the burgeoning self-awareness of both black and white youth in the 1950s by infusing rock 'n' roll with soul, Fitzgerald remained a major representative of the Great American Songbook — the swingingest in that category of singing. Both were influenced by jazz and capable of drawing upon its freewheeling spirit.

That spirit roams freely throughout both halves of the current show, which will be repeated today. "Ella" features artistic director David Hochoy's choreography, typically rich in ideas smoothly linked and blended. After intermission, "Ray" is principally guest choreographer Nicholas Owens' work, with additions by Hochoy. (Going out on a limb, I'm guessing "Till There Was You," a quartet for DK men, was Hochoy's creation. If I'm wrong, congratulations to Hochoy and Owens on successfully melding their styles for "Ray.")

With Laura Glover's lighting and Guy Clark's costumes highlighting the emotional palette and vocal style of both singers,  each suite — set to durable recorded performances by the celebrated artists — will likely remain part of the audience's mental pictures of Fitzgerald and Charles for a long time to come.

Ella Fitzgerald knew how to set a romantic mood.
Hochoy's "Ella" had a pleasing rounded quality, beginning and ending lyrically. Fitzgerald's gift for setting a romantic mood was emphasized in the ballroom movement of "Night and Day" and furthered by the balletic expression of "Blue Moon." The women were in the full skirts and crinolines characteristic of the romantic repertoire.

That atmosphere was effectively interrupted by the blazing duo of Brandon Comer and Stuart Coleman in "Too Darn Hot." The piece was a fine illustration of Hochoy's gift for superimposing on a song a dizzying succession of ideas, never jerked into position but following one another coherently and delightfully. It was danced impeccably Saturday night. The artistic director's sense of humor bubbled up in a setting of "Tea for Two," delightfully cozy as danced by Noah Trulock and three women. The sculptural pose on the last note was all by itself a great tribute to Ella's vocal buoyancy.

Angular movement came fittingly to the fore with a women's trio, "Cry Me a River," picking up cues from the bluesy interplay of Fitzgerald's voice and a solo electric guitar. The thrusting and strutting vocabulary was expanded upon in Hochoy's inspired take on Ella's scatting talent, captured here in a concert version of her perennial vehicle for wordless improvisation, "Lady Be Good." The company was presented in lickety-split ecstasy before the calming finale, "With a Song in My Heart."

Ray Charles painted with a broad palette.
"Ray" had the troupe almost constantly evolved in huge expenditures of energy, ending with the long version of "What'd I Say." Beginning with some understated twitching and foot-tapping, the company moved into a crescendo of convulsive joy. Then, with an abrupt switch of lighting leaving not much more than the spandex glow of briefly inert bodies visible, the call-and-response resumption of the tune took over.

Owens' choreography sometimes strikes me as too busy, but in this piece, physical nuance would be beside the point. Still, it strikes me that "Ray" might have benefited from fewer full-ensemble numbers, despite Charles' rootedness in the communal exuberance of the black church. "Ray" could have used more pure charm on the order of the Caitlin Negron and Phillip Crawshaw duet to "Hallelujah, I Love Her So."

Emotional rescue: "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'"
"Eleanor Rigby" seemed cluttered, though the idea of representing "all the lonely people" by using a lot of them makes sense. In any case, Charles' version spoils the song by turning Father McKenzie into a kind of narrator confiding to the singer about the loneliness he sees all around him. The Lennon-McCartney original is pretty clear that the priest is among the victims.

For a better exposition of solitude's poignancy, "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'" took the palm, as danced by Comer, Mariel Greenlee, and Justin Sears-Watson. A sense of humor came through in "Mess Around," and some of that feeling would have been germane in "Hit the Road, Jack," especially to accompany Charles' fadeout pleading at the end. But perhaps I hear that song

That's the hazard of a show like this, when preconceptions of famous singers and their songs can be difficult even for expert choreography to dislodge. "Ray & Ella" nonetheless does a pretty good job of it, especially to the degree that it vigorously polishes the Charles and Fitzgerald icons.

[Production photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]