Sunday, July 22, 2018

In demand with such local colleagues as Steve Allee, Rob Dixon also partners with Charlie Hunter for "Coast to Crossroads"

Indianapolis jazz fans have listened to Rob Dixon in many musical contexts as he's made himself
Shoulders hunched, brow furrowed, eyes closed, Rob Dixon lets loose
indispensable on the local music scene.

His funky side gets an outing with the crucial boost of Charlie Hunter, a widely known guitarist who has invited Dixon to go on the road with him after welcoming him to the Jazz Kitchen bandstand on a swing through here not long ago.

Hunter produced "Coast to Crossroads," a title that exemplifies Dixon's reach (since he also has a New York sojourn on his resume). The guitarist has a crucial role introducing Dixon's original tunes (and three by others, about which more later) on this CD, along with drummer Mike Clark throughout and, on many tracks, trombonist Ernest Stuart.

The CD was available when Dixon was in the front line for a performance by the Steve Allee Quartet
Steve Allee Quartet plays to a full house at the Jazz Kitchen.
Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen. The pianist-bandleader gave it a plug from the bandstand. "Coast to Crossroads" presents Dixon in a style he is at home with, but he seemed equally comfortable in the mainstream repertoire Allee's group offered. To end the first of its two sets, the quartet adapted well to presenting the funk credentials of "Millions," a Dixon composition on the new CD.

Throughout the first set, seasoned rapport was evident among the four: besides Allee and Dixon, Nick Tucker on bass and Kenny Phelps on drums. "Without a Song," a nearly 90-year-old standard, got a winsome unaccompanied introduction from the piano. With the full band, it became a hearty swinger featuring a fluid Dixon solo. Phelps on brushes displayed the variety of intensity that eschewing the sticks allows when in good hands.

Other highlights included Tucker's lilting solo in another standard, the nearly as venerable "It's Easy to Remember," and Allee's wide-ranging inspirations in Thelonious Monk's "We See," varying from chordal passages to single-line flights. The group treated the piece with the wittiness it deserves. They were on the same page throughout Wayne Shorter's "Adam's Apple," playing it together for the first time, Allee told the impressed crowd.

Back to "Coast to Crossroads": "Memphis Bus Stop" is an amusing romp, with Hunter's contribution particularly setting the atmosphere. The piece starts with lots of shimmer from the guitar. Dixon shows off his typical mastery of making restlessness seem as if it's never far from finding points of rest. More well-applied guitar shimmer, feeling like the wooziness of a sleepless night in an unfamiliar place, brings the piece to an end.

On "Yo" and "Millions," Hunter's bass line is as juicy as any you might find from an electric bassist who's focusing only on laying down such a line. On top of that, he boosts Dixon's compositions up to a memorable plane, even though they rest upon a conventional idiom. Trombonist Stuart is always a worthy henchman, never failing to give the band's front line a well-controlled, crunchy quality.

The estimable Clark has a nice outing on brushes in "Wishing Well." With sticks, he shows off a crisp, unpredictable way of energizing his bandmates in the tradition of the Headhunters band he was part of. He can make the beat seem elusive and a tad complex while always sounding exactly placed, as on "San Leandro"; this is not a man given to cliches, coasting, or doing the obvious.

A little nitpicking now: The disc ends with an unaccompanied Dixon meditation on "It Could Happen to You." For some reason, the 1943 song isn't credited to Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke,  It's a nice performance, but the jacket ought to have indicated that it's one of three pieces here that are not by Dixon. And, for an even smaller nit, it's tiresome to see popular songs that jazz musicians happen to like described as "jazz standards," as Bill Milkowski does in the notes. "It Could Happen to You" is not a jazz standard; it's a Great American Songbook pop standard. "Woody 'n You," "Hi-Fly," and "Well, You Needn't" are examples of jazz standards. Got it?

[Photos by Mark Sheldon (Dixon solo), Rob Ambrose (Steve Allee Quartet)]

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Would or wouldn't it be nice? A song of retractable rhetoric

Would or Wouldn’t It Be Nice Would or wouldn’t it be nice if Russia Did or didn’t meddle in our stuff? Could or couldn’t we push back on Putin? Have or haven’t we just had enough? Now that he and Trump Had time together, Will or won’t we know it’s worse or better? Does or doesn’t Donald know the difference Between what isn’t and what is? Should or shouldn’t he know what he’s saying? Is or isn’t he a stable whiz? Since presidential words are consequential Knowing would from wouldn’t seems essential. Wouldn’t it be nice? Maybe if he thinks and wishes, gets things straight within his head He won’t have to say the opposite of what he clearly just said. Please or displease Putin? Make him glad or not? Time to toss the dice! We must study all his speeches to learn what each meant Till we find the grounds for Trump’s impeachment! Let’s talk about it! Oh, wouldn’t it be nice? Good night, no. 45! Sleep tight, no. 45! [repeat]

Monday, July 16, 2018

Ensemble Caprice's J.S. Bach cantatas set two spires atop the 2018 festival edifice

Concluding the 52nd annual Indianapolis Early Music Festival, Ensemble Caprice and guests from Echoing Air, an Indianapolis ensemble, and the Bach Society of Minnesota performed two cantatas
Matthias Maute conducted two Bach cantatas Sunday afternoon.
by J.S. Bach, "Wir danken dir, Gott" and "Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen," at the Indiana History Center Sunday afternoon.

Matthias Maute, who directed the program, also was featured as recorder virtuoso in two shorter Bach works, Solo per flauto, BWV 1013, and his arrangement of the Italian Concerto, BWV 971, a work familiar in the original to pianists and harpsichordists.

Maute brought to the former piece his ready command of tone, phrasing, and articulation. The interval skips in the Allemande were adroitly managed and the flow of sequences in the Corrente was poised. Expressively, the high point was the Sarabande, where just enough sostenuto lingering was evident at the slow tempo to strike the ear as more inviting than dawdling.

His choice of the Italian Concerto as a showpiece for a single-line instrument was inspired:  The keyboardist's right hand has most of the glory in the original, and thus the risk of imbalance in this arrangement was minimal. The slow movement is especially rich in flourishes in that topmost voice — the kind of display Maute revels in. The texture was more than adequately filled in by two violins, viola, cello, violone, and harpsichord. Coordination drifted slightly in the opening Allegro, though at the faster tempo (Presto) of the finale, the musicians seemed to have no trouble staying together.

As for the cantatas, four singers from Echoing Air supplemented the four Minnesota soloists in the choruses. The rapport was seamless. I enjoyed especially the brilliance of the opening chorus in "Lobet Gott," known as the Ascension Oratorio, for its vivid depiction of Christ's ascent into heaven, capped eventually by a musically depicted viewpoint from beyond. The twinkling bursts of soprano against a stately choral background captured a text focusing on God's splendor and praiseworthiness.

Further tone-painting came with the bass recitative (sturdily sung by Aaron Lawson) expressing the faithful's sorrow at Jesus' departure, as the flutes became teardrops rolling down pallid cheeks. Baroque flutes have a tone especially apt for such a depiction, whereas the modern flute would likely make those tears viscous. Trumpets, oboes, and timpani, supplementing the usual string complement, emphasized the sense of occasion that clings to both these scores.

In the Ascension Oratorio, tenor Nicholas Chalmers displayed the dignity and clarity needed for the Evangelist's narrative role. The most eloquent solos in that cantata fell to Nerea Barraondo, whose thrilling true-alto tone lent the right air of urgent entreaty to "Ah, stay with me, my dearest life thou" (to use the program insert's English translation). Soprano Linh Kauffman displayed a similar intensity and emotional commitment, but her negotiation of the aria "Jesus, thy dear mercy's glances" betrayed inconsistent projection and want of color.

The performance of "Wir danken dir" set a high standard for the assembled musicians, and revealed Maute's thoroughness and panache as a conductor. Special mention should be made of the superb mastery that Ilya Poletaev displayed in the organ obbligato to the assertive alto aria, "Hallelujah, strength and might to the name of God Almighty."

To go from particular to general, that was one of many moments in which Maute's learned familiarity with High Baroque style and its historical setting flowered in translating that learning from the printed page into heartening reality, with Indianapolis Early Music Festival patrons the beneficiaries.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Will the Mueller investigation ever break, ever break, ever break Roger Stone?

Early Music Festival enters final weekend with three-concert stint by Ensemble Caprice

Thematic programming is common at the Indianapolis Early Music Festival, and none of the guest artists handle it with more conviction than Ensemble Caprice. The 2015 festival had an alluring example of that when the group was joined by soprano Esteli Gomez in repertoire exploring the interplay of the Old and the New World.
Ensemble Caprice al fresco: Ziya Tabassian (from left), David Jacques, Susie Napper, Matthias Maute, Sophie Lariviere.

Based in Montreal, the 25-year-old Renaissance and Baroque band on this visit opened its three-day festival run Friday night with "Chaconne: Voices of Eternity."

The surprising program title alludes to the nature of the chaconne's cumulative structure. The form, based on a repeated bass figure or phrase, can go on indefinitely. There is no development; all the contrast has to be laid over the short basic line. Unlike the canon, overlapping of the generating phrase is not part of the structure, but similarly the chaconne implies infinity. Pachelbel's Canon in D is a feature of many weddings in part because it can be fitted to a desired length without distortion.

Anyway, Ensemble Caprice's leader Matthias Maute grouped this program's selections according to love relationships between composers and women. However subject to disruption and decay it may be in real life, in music love (we like to think) is eternal, especially if embodied in such a form as the chaconne.

After brief spoken introductions — a little unidiomatic, as if German were being fluently but awkwardly translated into English — a musical segment was presented. The divisions were marked by Maute's picking up a rose from the floor, then placing it in a vase after his narrative. The last rose, he said sweetly, was for the audience in the Basile Theater at the Indiana History Center.

This was carefully applied charm. Much more freedom as well as naturalness of execution was evident in Maute's recorder playing, where his virtuoso style was masterfully applied. A group of Czech folk songs and Tarquinio Merula's "Ciacona" displayed his maestro status especially well.

He is seconded in Ensemble Caprice by recorder player Sophie Lariviere in the group's "front line." It's evidently a seamless partnership. The expert filling-out of the instrumental texture lay in the hands of Susie Napper, cello; David Jacques, baroque guitar, and Ziya Tabassian, percussion. Balance and consistency were remarkable.

The group's repertoire naturally tends toward shorter pieces, which lend themselves to the thematic assemblage Ensemble Caprice is known for. This program's exception in terms of length was Maute's arrangement for two recorders and cello of Bach's Chaconne for unaccompanied violin. Though based on potentially endless material, the original work is a favorite with modern violinists (and audiences) because of its majesty and intimacy  — qualities distributed in dramatic fashion. Partly because of its recasting, this version had a lighter feeling throughout, emphasizing different attributes of the piece and its deceptively offhand ingenuity. The instrumental interlocking was smooth at every point.

Also distinguished by length and the eminence of its composer was Antonio Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in D minor ("La Follia"), which concluded the program. Based on a tune already well-known by the time Vivaldi used it (1739, according to Maute's oral program note), the work was fleshed out in this version so that the entire Ensemble Caprice was involved. The exuberance of the material was thus underlined, up to the point that the title's meaning ("craziness") was credibly evoked, especially in the judicious variety of Tabassian's percussion. The catchy piece ended the scheduled program with a flourish, provoking a standing ovation punctuated by whoops and bravos.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

William Tatge's 'General Cargo' carries its freight with distinction

Pianist William Tatge and his New York trio display their "General Cargo."
Another young jazz pianist, born abroad to American parents, steeped in classical music as well as jazz. Sound familiar? Indiana jazz fans had a chance to see the emergence of the Paris-born American Dan Tepfer as a result of his victory in the 2007 American Pianists Association jazz competition.

Now comes into view William Tatge, with a trio recording called "General Cargo," released last month on Brooklyn Jazz Underground records. The Italian-born Tatge is a few years older than Tepfer, and his European foreground is much larger than the APA winner's. But he is developing an American career that has resulted in his first CD with the trio he heads in New York City. Pablo Menares is on bass, Nick Anderson on drums.

"General Cargo," which represents a six-year compositional period, shows Tatge's focus on writing that eschews themes and "heads" in favor of amalgams of spontaneity and meticulousness. The pianist's temperament seems to be earnest, even brooding, in pieces ranging from about seven to nine minutes each.

He sets out material that sounds a bit tentative, but with a lyrical bent that allows him to expand naturally the circle of expression, boosted by his compatible sidemen. Like most jazz pianism since Bud Powell, Tatge's is quite right-hand-focused, though his style owes little to bebop.

That was the impression I got particularly from the second track, "The Lay of the Land." Just as tentativeness suits an effort to assess the lay of the land, so does "Illegal Machines" favor a hint of subversiveness in its use of mechanical figures. A disjunctive melodic line easily welcomes Bartokian accents. The layout is animated in the course of its exposition by the warmth of bluesy passages.

The trio can achieve a very full sound that doesn't become cluttered. Menares' solo in "Civilization" carries a sardonic message, punctuated effectively by piano and drums. The efficiency with which foreground and background are balanced is commendable in this, the album's best track.

There is little waste in the trio's playing on "General Cargo," which palls only when the material is weak, as on "Sentinel." "Mother of Nothing" also, despite its patient, soft-spoken character, seems
too unconcerned about where it is going. It had exhausted my interest by the end of its nine-minute run. Otherwise, this CD stands out impressively from the crowded pack of today's piano-trio recordings.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

This side of parodies: District Theatre hosts an uproarious guest, ATI's 'Forbidden Broadway'

The old Theatre on the Square, whose checkered but often distinguished history helped Mass Ave lay claim to being an authentic cultural district, has resurfaced to maintain the neighborhood's credentials, thanks to an association with IndyFringe and support from the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

To celebrate the delicate marriage, the new District Theatre has come up with a nuptial celebration bearing something old, something new, something borrowed, and something just a little bit blue: "Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits," a production of Actors Theatre of Indiana, a small professional company resident at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts.

The "greatest hits" addition to the familiar title indicates that ATI's show, directed and choreographed to a fare-thee-well by Billy Kimmel, is an anthology of sketches and songs from the much-revised 1982 original by Gerard Alessandrini.

A lot of the show's satire takes a viewpoint from the inside, though  observant fans and all kinds of ticket-buyers over the years will understand the "Saucy Fosse" send-up near the start. The segment puts the four-member cast into contortions both sexy and bizarre, and indicates the toll that Bob Fosse's choreography surely takes on dancers' physiques and stamina. Sometimes a production runs into financial trouble before the end of the run, and you might get a downsized "Beauty and the Beast," ending in miniature. There were also digs at the physical demands of "The Lion King," with the fabulous director Julie Taymor the target for burdening actors with vertebra-cracking headgear.

The cast takes the barricades on turntables for a "Les Miz" medley
Exhausted workhorses are skewered: Carol Channing is portrayed as a perpetual Carol Channing tribute artist. A doddering geezer tries to extend his career starring in "Man of La Mancha." A former Annie about to turn 40 finds her professional lifespan ready for the orphanage, or the glue factory, while hoping for one more bright tomorrow.

Of course, show biz presents more than solo burdens — entanglements that the public can only guess at: You probably can't take in even a touring version of "Wicked" without speculating that the two female stars are set up for rivalry that only the most studied professionalism can keep from bursting out onstage. It's a version of "Popular" from that show that has hard-working diva impersonators Cynthia Collins and Judy Fitzgerald sparring as Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.

That was among several set-tos staged in the most entertainingly speculative way Saturday night, when I saw the show. Fitzgerald and Collins also struck apt Latin-spitfire poses to represent the career slugfest of Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera, with "America" from "West Side Story" being the obvious vehicle: ("Nothing could be keena than to be the top Latina in the li-i-imelight" is how I might impertinently summarize the tussle of that particular competition in tribute to "Forbidden Broadway"'s infectious spirit.)

For the historically minded, the contrast between Broadway's miked and unmiked eras was captured when Logan Moore, as a vain, thin-voiced, amplified "Phantom of the Opera" star, was upbraided for his reliance on artificial boosting, then retrained, by the spirit of Ethel Merman. It was said that Ethel in her heyday could nail her vocals to the back wall — of the theater across the street. Like hers, careers are often mounted upon hammy pedestals. In this show, Moore creates a hilarious spoof on the overacting of Mandy Patinkin, with his aura derived from Al Jolson and ramped up for the late 20th century and beyond. And need we bring up Barbra, Miss Mannerism? To be sure, this show does.

Broadway lore has long been more than a matter of hits and flops, gold-plated vehicles and rustbuckets, high art and the circus. There is forever the jostling vanity of stars and wannabes. As "Tradition" is tweaked into "Ambition," that all-powerful factor was neatly summed up as we learned what makes thriving as an actor in New York as precarious as in "Fiddler on the Roof"'s Anatevka. In that number, the chameleon excellence of Don Farrell assumes a Tevye persona,
Broadway denizens tell how they  try to scratch out a living.
while his castmates take turns outlining the steps by which fledgling actors turn themselves into soaring raptors along the Great White Way.

Tunes and words are well-matched in the parodies, and all of them received all-out commitment from the cast Saturday night. Brent Marty is the indefatigable music director, spurring the performers on from the piano. Kimmel's choreography had the same dazzling variety and pinpoint aptness as the costumes of Terry Woods and Donna Jacobi. The rest of the crackerjack production team consists of P. Bernard Killian, scenic design/technical direction, and Quinten James, lighting designer and master electrician.

[Photos by Ed Stewart]


Friday, July 6, 2018

Cincinnati Opera's "Flying Dutchman" highlights hints of Wagner the maestro

Unlike his first big hit "Rienzi," "The Flying Dutchman" didn't seem to cause any later
The Dutchman comes ashore (left) and aboard a temporarily stranded vessel and its sleeping crew.
embarrassment for Richard Wagner as he advanced toward his ideal of "music drama" as the successor to the opera form he inherited. It is the earliest of his works to still hold the stage.

And Cincinnati Opera's current production of "The Flying Dutchman" looks forward to what Wagner was able to achieve in his full maturity. The set-pieces are less isolated and the odd blend of realism and the supernatural is adjusted to emphasize a symbolism that takes in the visual, dramatic, and musical integration that Wagner was working toward in the "Ring" cycle and "Tristan und Isolde."

The most gripping solo in the work comes early, when the accursed title character steps ashore and informs the audience of his plight by soliloquizing on his hopeless quest to be redeemed for a rash vow he made years before as he attempted to round the Cape of Good Hope in a storm. "Die Frist ist  um," he begins, referring to the period of seven years that must pass before he is allowed to seek a woman's true love to end his ceaseless wandering at sea.

The recitative and aria have been reconceived here as an elaborate scena, in which every pause in the vocal line shifts the stance and mood of the title character. The fragile, tormented hope of the mariner for relief from his suffering has been daringly divided in Brenna Corner's application of Tomer Zvulun's original production and staging. So the musical unit formed by the Dutchman's initial appearance more explicitly outlines the weird conditions he sails under and the relentless mental torment it causes him.

Nathan Berg was fully up to making this firm impression as the Dutchman's onshore entrance actually intrudes upon the sleeping crew of a Norwegian captain's homeward-bound ship. The Dutchman is haunting from the start, and his ghostly crew is suggested in figures that appear featureless high up in the set from time to time. A Dutchman gesture here and there summons supernatural powers, reaching a peak when his outstretched arm repulses Erik, the local huntsman wooing the woman the stranger intends to be his relief from the curse. It echoes Daland's keeping the unprosperous Erik at arm's length as the right man to marry his daughter, Senta.

Daland considers with great interest the Dutchman's proposal.
Wearing an eye patch that foreshadows Wotan the Wanderer in "Siegfried," Berg as the Dutchman is far from godlike, only distantly human, yet compelling. The production, with the projected outlines of his ship and the turmoil that surrounds it, totally embraces the uncanny.

The Dutchman is hospitably treated by Daland, the Norwegian captain who is gratefully at home after his off-course adventure. The stranger's negotiations to get access to his host's daughter have a distinctly comical tone. Some of Daland's lipsmacking interest in contracting Senta's marriage to a wealthy man comes through in Arthur Woodley's portrayal, though to be sure Wagner's sprightly music encourages it. As the ghost ship's crew encircles the captain in a parade of  gleaming treasure chests, you get the feeling you're hearing Daland's Jewel Song.

Marcy Stonikas proved to be a soprano fully capable of what Wagner seems to have intended in Senta.  She is not a ditsy ingenue smitten with a fantasy about a heart-wrenching legend. The story of the Dutchman perpetually at sea because of one foolish moment that provoked Satan's curse touches her heart, but not just with sentimental sympathy: A sense of her own destiny sets her apart from her frivolous peers. Stonikas sang like such a woman; plus, with uncommon prima donna daring, she climbed a ladder at the end toward the perch from which Senta would make her final sacrifice.

Senta's workmates are played with vigorous animation by an abundance of choral women. It was a little strange how their Spinning Chorus opening the second act had so little to do with homespun tasks, classically imitated in the music, and a lot to do with flapping and folding sheets. Admittedly, all that wavy action looked pretty as the chorus went on and on, properly annoying Senta.

Erik tries to dissuade Senta from marrying the Dutchman.
Just as "Die Frist ist um" in this production is staged as a dramatic spectacle, so is Senta's ballad made rich visually and dramatically. The portrait of the Dutchman that has fascinated the young woman changes before our eyes as she sings, making the sight of what should be evident to all more a projection of Senta's mental state. This was a risky production decision that mostly made sense, though the audience has to become aware quickly that Senta is seeing something much different in the picture from what the other girls see.

Elizabeth Bishop is Mary, Daland's housekeeper, who seems to be more a factory floor boss than Daland's housekeeper, so numerous are all the women. She captured a sense of both the danger and attraction of the Dutchman's story, and she also conveyed how both Senta's mooniness and her workmates' playfulness have her at her wit's end.

As for the cast's tenors: Jay Hunter Morris does his level best to give substance to  Erik, one of those plaintive tenor roles that skirt wimpiness, like Don Ottavio in Mozart's Don Giovanni. His actions in the last act represent the down-to-earth resistance of the practical world to the Dutchman's plight and Senta's obsession with it. His aria, feelingly projected though it was Thursday, is not among the opera's distinguished solo showcases. Frederick Ballentine Jr. was the lively, engaging Steersman, chief focus of the sometimes raucous but vocally secure Norwegian crew.

From the vivid, well-paced overture on, Christof Perick conducted smartly, and the orchestra — much more rewardingly projected into the room thanks to Music Hall's recent renovation — played brilliantly.  At times, the acoustical brightness favored the ensemble over the singers, whose clarity of diction was variable, making Jonathan Dean's supertitles more valuable than ever. Coordination slipped, perhaps inevitably, only during the tipsy shenanigans of the Norwegians at anchor. The staging made for an invigorating contrast with the long-delayed response of the ghost ship inmates to the celebration. The men's singing matched the women's for style and balanced energy; chorus master Henri Venanzi deserves kudos.

The use of projections was astute throughout, presenting a stormily gray, watery world at the outset and at other crucial points. Use of glowing color in the props suggested some of the livid emotions that drive the story. The transfiguration scene at the very end — which must always be an immense staging challenge — took the breath away. It alone accomplished everything the composer-librettist must have wanted his agonized redemption story to mean. And it was simply the crowning success in an astonishingly seaworthy production.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Monday, July 2, 2018

An Early Music Festival weekend indicates the field's wide range

For the infrequent visitor to what is categorized as classical music created in the 17th century and
Alkemie focused on vocal works featuring a special type of refrain.
earlier, early music can easily seem like a niche, rather than a vast collection of eras and styles. That becomes evident after you get to know it.

The Indianapolis Early Music Festival under Mark Cudek's direction offers a welcome refutation of a narrow view of the European musical heritage. In the weekend just ended, festival patrons at the Indiana History Center got to know medieval love songs, with Alkemie's program "Love to My Liking: Refrains of Desire in Gothic France," and, moving two and three centuries and two days in the festival schedule forward, "For Two Lutes: Virtuoso Duets from Italy and England," with well-established masters of the instrument Ronn McFarlane and Paul O'Dette.

Musicians at both concerts represent also the age spread of the field, indicating its future health and the continuity of the repertoire and the skills required to perform it.  The young musicians of Alkemie display a dizzying variety of musical connections in their program biographies, including such extra-musical interests as mycology and "bouldering," a verb previously out of my ken. 

Alkemie's concert last Friday had the five members variously engaged with the musical setting that unifies the program: northern France in the 12th through 14th centuries. "Gothic" is a term most commonly associated with church architecture; the music that falls under that description lies upon less familiar cultural terrain. The manuscripts that make it accessible allow for much filling out by performers today: tempo, dynamics, instrumentation, and harmonic support are areas left up to today's exponents.

The ensemble's music is complemented by two members' dancing, especially pertinent in bringing off the charm and vigor of the estampie dance form. Tracy Cowart and Elena Mullins carried out the rounded choreography and gestural formality of the trouvere favorite, sometimes accenting the characteristic rhythms with foot stomps. Floor diagrams of medieval dance not being available to modern research, printed verbal descriptions are the basis for the choreography, it was explained.

There were enchanting a cappella vocal trios by the ensemble's women: Mullins and Cowart joined by recorder player Sian Ricketts. Among the vivid solos was Cowart's "Por mon cuer a joie atraire," with a drone accompaniment by Niccolo Seligmann, playing the mechanically unique viola a chiavi.  Mullins showed herself to be a compelling singing actress with the program's conclusion, "L'autrier chevauchoie," an emotionally fraught narrative about love's pains and pleasures. David McCormick, the ensemble's other member is, like Seligmann, a vielle player.

With a distinct emphasis on the vocal art, Alkemie literally gave voice to our distant cultural forebears
Paul O'Dette and Ronn McFarlane played English and Italian lute duets.
and their struggles with the same passion of love that governs much of our behavior (and our music) today. When it comes to instrumental music solely, a different kind of resonance must be sought. It's a more subtle kind of reflection of national styles, at least as arranged in a delightful concert by O'Dette and McFarlane.

The first half of their program focused on 16th-century Italy, and the most famous name represented was Galilei — but probably because Vincenzo Galilei's son Galileo helped establish, with much controversy, an accurate understanding of heavenly bodies. Vincenzo achieved a more specialized fame, and three pieces by him were a significant part of the concert's first half. 

The turn away from polyphony that Vincenzo Galilei and some of his contemporaries achieved in fashioning the new form of opera was yet to come. Instrumental counterpoint and the influence of the madrigal tradition gave Italian composers an apparent predisposition to setting parallel lines against a melody, giving them an independence that puts the new material on an equal footing. 

There was lots to listen for Sunday in the exchange of materials, sometimes with echo effects, and the imitation of short phrases in different registers. That was evident not only in three pieces by Galilei but also in a selection of several by Francesco da Milano, and — ratcheting up the need for virtuosity — arrangements for two lutes by Giovanni Antonio Terzi of organ pieces by Claudio Merulo.

In contrast, English writers in the same period, as represented by the duo-recitalists, focused more on songs harmonized and dance forms like the pavane and the galliard. John Dowland, the foremost Elizabethan song composer and lute specialist, shows in his Fantasie no. 7 how the spirit of song can be elaborated in extended phrases while the bass line remains simple. This was a solo to treasure by O'Dette. 

And it was with Dowland that the duo ended their appearance after being called back for an encore. Managing the trick of two players on one lute, they played "My Lord Chamberlain's Galliard" with McFarlane standing close behind O'Dette and adding his two hands adjacent to O'Dette's.  It was a marvel to watch as well as to listen to. And it was brought off with the same flair and coordinated attention to detail that characterized the whole concert.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Rob Dixon introduces music from his new CD at the Jazz Kitchen

Rob Dixon has built a following over the past 15 years that is more than the product of hard work and
Rob Dixon talks to his public Saturday night.
a willingness to be present in all sorts of musical contexts. As important as those qualities are, he exhibits ceaseless creative energy when he plays. He gets through to people.

On soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones (chiefly tenor), his sound is always firmly centered, and he communicates directly in his compositions and solos. When improvising, Dixon can sometimes throw out a lot of notes, but he always eases back to a kind of simple urgency. He never seems to lose his feeling for the phrase, which makes his style accessible to jazz cognoscenti and casual fans alike.

With the impending release of "Coast to Crossroads,"  he seems poised to widen his fan base, helped by the advocacy of Charlie Hunter, the wizard of the seven-string guitar, who produced the recording and plays on it.

A preview of that disc was offered Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen. Joining Dixon in the front line, as on the CD, was trombonist Ernest Stuart. The contributions on "Coast to Crossroads" of Hunter and drummer Mike Clark are essential and clearly a boost to the recording's commercial prospects. But the rest of the local band that presented tunes from the new CD was fully up to the assignment of showcasing the music, mostly originals. They were Steven Jones, keyboard; Brandon Meeks, electric bass, and Richard "Sleepy" Floyd, drums.

The attributes of Dixon's sound mentioned above were fully evident. So was the fiery panache of Stuart's trombone, fully complementary to the leader's playing. Without the textural pervasiveness of Hunter's guitar, the wonderful "T 'n' T" combination of tenor and trombone was pushed to the forefront. Yet the local band functioned as a unit largely because its members are familiar to one another on the bandstand; Meeks and Floyd are anchors of the hip-hop band Native Sun. Jones is nearly as ubiquitous around town as Dixon.

The boogaloo feeling of "San Leandro," which opened the set, enjoyed the horns' splendor on the unison theme. Dixon laid out a coherent solo that set the pattern. Jones followed concisely, and Meeks offered fluency without clutter. Floyd had a way of sounding laid-back while never sacrificing exuberance in the groove.

To the degree that this band's music is derived imaginatively from the Headhunters' style (with Clark behind the drum kit), I found Meeks and Floyd more satisfying than the bassist and drummer Herbie Hancock brought with him Tuesday for a Hilbert Circle Theatre concert, which had such Headhunter references as "Actual Proof" on the set list. This sounds like local patriotism, maybe even narrow-mindedness, but I would place the partnership displayed by  Meeks and Floyd in "Dreams in Exosphere" (a tune not on the CD, Dixon told the audience) on the highest level of what such a duo can accomplish. There was no daylight between the pair's concept and execution; it was that tight.

"Black Mountain" furthermore displayed the quintet's special excellence. After a brief introduction by Jones, Dixon on alto showed his knack for establishing a reflective mood and not abandoning it after dialing up the volume. He's a rare soloist in never allowing the latter half of a solo to contradict the first part. Too often you hear some jazzmen  put variety into their playing in a rather slapdash manner, as if they were thinking: "Well, that's enough of that. How about some of this now?" Dixon always keeps his balance and sense of direction.

Stuart's trombone outing was effusive yet to the point; Jones' wah-wah or simulated vocal setting for  his solo had the same unerring sense of knowing what counts. Jones, always a sensitive accompanist, was the only other band member needed for Dixon's musings on the standard "It Could Happen to You," the last number before a vigorous encore that turned the band into a sextet, with the cool customer Marlin McKay stepping up on flugelhorn. Right to the end, I continued to be amazed by Floyd. Like the man on the forthcoming record, this drummer is a master of that crisp funk style, and can fold into his governing patterns deft arabesques and accents. He's not only in the pocket — he sews in whole new pockets.

This being labeled a CD release party, that  party feeling never let up. But it also indicated new vistas for the leader in material he is master of. Borderless fame and recognition? Rob Dixon, it could happen to you.

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]