Saturday, September 28, 2019

Indianapolis Ballet opens its second full season with a program of Balanchine

George Balanchine had such an affinity for music that he often thought of composers as his collaborators in an almost mystical sense. He spoke of how a work might suddenly come together after rehearsal and production travails. "All of a sudden everything looks wonderful. That's his doing," he told his biographer Bernard Taper, who then adds the choreographer's explanation: "He points to the heavens, 'Tchaikovsky's.'"
George Balanchine, revered father of American ballet.

The anecdote might allude to the wholeness the Russian-born choreographer lent to the Russian composer's failed third piano concerto, which in Balanchine's hands became "Allegro Brillante."  The work opened Indianapolis Ballet's "Evening of Balanchine" Friday night in the Tobias Theater at Newfields.

Even lacking the common ground of the same homeland, Balanchine probably found that Gershwin spoke to him as well from beyond the grave. In fact, the Gershwins came from Russia, but the New York-born songwriter of genius shaped much of what is today regarded as authentically American popular song for modern times. So there was some need for Balanchine to blend the balletic tradition that was his birthright with a fresh response to one of the most characteristic figures of the New World, Balanchine's adopted home.

Balanchine set his sights on choreographing Gershwin while the composer was still alive, but his premature death short-circuited that plan. By the time the choreographer had iconic status in American ballet, Balanchine managed to close the circle with the magnificent "Who Cares?" in 1970.

This almost 40-minute response to a wealth of Gershwinia  was the centerpiece of an enchanting program, which will be repeated here today and Sunday and will then travel to the University of Notre Dame on the company's first tour.  With recorded orchestrations by Hershy Kay and against a backdrop of a Manhattan skyline at night, the company showed its collective sparkle and precision in the opening and closing ensemble pieces, "Strike Up the Band" and "I Got Rhythm."

There the syncretism Balanchine fashioned of tradition and innovation bears particular fruit. Movement that might not seem to have much connection separately is unerringly blended in this ballet. The vocabulary of turns and leg beats is expressed at ease with aspects of vernacular dance: flat-footed pizazz, syncopated twists, openly flung arms, and underlining of Gershwin's liberally accented tunes with brief patterns of forward hops on one foot.

Technical aplomb is forged with a nod to song lyrics as well as the music itself. The solos, duets, and small-scale ensembles succeeded one another to amazing effect, and the lyrics (where I remembered them) never seemed irrelevant to what the choreography was about. Kristin Toner's stunning virtuosity in "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" evoked the song's second line, which is repeated at the end: "with a new step every day." There are plenty of "new steps" in Balanchine's setting of this song, and Toner seemed to exult in bringing them off.

One of the Gershwin brothers' most heartwarming ballads, "The Man I Love," pits repetition of a rising figure in
 Kristin Toner (from left), Yoshiko Kamikusa, and Camila Ferrera
the melody against a chromatic downward slide in the accompaniment. It's a perfect representation of yearning checked by caution and second thoughts. As danced by Yoshiko Kamikusa and Chris Lingner Friday evening, the danseuse's lingering advance on a diagonal across the floor toward the danseur amounted to a slow-motion portrait of attraction and hesitation. The ardor that eventually overtakes the couple was exquisitely represented. It will be hard to think of this familiar song from now on without calling to mind the way Kamikusa and Lingner put its meaning into dance a la Balanchine.

There were also brilliant solos reflecting the songs by Kamikusa ("Fascinatin' Rhythm"), Camila Ferrera ("My One and Only") and Lingner ("Liza").  The men in ensemble created a nice tableau of informal chumminess and coordinated bravado in "Bidin' My Time."  Several women brought "Somebody Loves Me" up to a plane of rhapsodic assertion and exuberance.

Gershwin once advised pianists to play his songbook with minimal use of the sustaining pedal. His rationale? "The rhythms of the American popular song are more or less brittle — they should be made to snap." Balanchine caught that characteristic in his "Who Cares?" choreography, but he also applied the sustaining pedal of continuity in expression and movement inherited from the Russian classical tradition.

That tradition is at the center of "Allegro Brillante," in which a focused energy is lent to music of Tchaikovsky that lacks it somewhat in the original. On Friday, Kristin Toner and Riley Horton provided the central focus in his piece, with an echoing radiance from four couples. The lines were immaculate, and the interaction of the couples avoided stultifying predictability.

Bringing the program up to intermission was "Sonatine," Balanchine's sensitive treatment of Maurice Ravel's piece for solo piano of the same title. Former Butler University faculty member Panayis Lyras, the distinguished brother of the company's founding artistic director Victoria Lyras, was on hand to offer an idiomatic reading of the classically minded but idiosyncratic Ravel as accompaniment.

The Friday performance offered the evening's first chance to admire the superb partnership of Kamikusa and Lingner. The music's somewhat restrained emotion is loosened admirably by the choreography, which includes unconventional elements (the male dancer's thigh slaps) amid a flexible updating of pas de deux tradition. That tradition was well-sustained and supplemented by these performers, who are scheduled to repeat the accomplishment in Sunday's concert.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Pretending to be a gun nut, I adapt a Jerome Kern evergreen to contemporary 2nd Amendment absolutism

Throwing off preconceptions: Earprint (a pianoless quartet) has 'Easy Listening' coming up

The frontiers of cutting-edge jazz can be a larky playground in the post-modernist landscape.
Members of Earprint ponder a contraption foreign to their music.

For Earprint, a quartet whose very name reconciles nature and technology, its claim to a place on that terrain rests on sometimes laconic original tunes, whimsically titled, that are displayed in an all-acoustic format.

The album title (a forthcoming release credited to Endectomorph Music) is a thumb in the eye to a whole genre of music marketed to our parents and grandparents as soothing background. That's because any music worth paying attention to does not fall into that category as commonly understood. On Earprint's terms, "Easy Listening" in part means a quartet concept in which the  two horns don't attempt to fill in harmonies in the manner of pianoless groups of the past mid-century.

Instead, trumpeter Tree Palmedo and reedman Kevin Sun set out rigorous melodic parallelism, with bassist Simon Willson and Dor Herskovits establishing the rhythmic parameters. There's a go-your-own-way consistency that oddly never feels too diffuse.

Easy-to-assimilate counterpoint is the procedure in eleven compositions that avoid the simplistic, despite the concise duration of each. Nothing tasks the listener for more than five-and-a-half minutes. Within that span, variety of tempo and mood is sufficient to avoid the impression of terseness. Even the playful, one-minute "Suchness" doesn't feel truncated.

The breadth of the drummer's sound palette contributes impressively to evocations of free jazz. But there is little out-of-tempo playing and next to no extended techniques. None of the players "goes outside," except for some strangulated outbursts from Sun's saxophone in "Don't Look at the Pot" (advice from the worlds of cooking or poker?). "Gallimaufry," the fetching tune that follows, departs as much as anything else from how Earprint usually presents itself: Palmedo's horn is muted to match Sun's clarinet; the rhythmic layout is complex, a reflection of the miscellaneous message of the title.

"Big Bear" is outgoing, even aggressive  — one of the few pieces whose title seems entirely fitting. There's a high degree of simpatico interaction, even if all four men go out on their own like grizzlies roaming Yellowstone.
The title track is the most obvious indication of outreach to popular styles, with its rock beat underneath a catchy melody that could almost have lyrics set to it. But here as elsewhere, nothing is missing — neither vocals nor (heaven help us!) piano. Earprint is the real deal when it comes to music that feels new without the need to turn bizarre.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Music for strings brings two early-music ensembles together at the Propylaeum

Philip Spray, emcee and violone player
Under the auspices of Bloomington Early Music, a collaboration of two ensembles on Sunday afternoon played the second of two performances of its "Time's Up...Stop Fretting" program in the charming, historical setting of the Carriage House at Indianapolis Propylaeum. The first was in the organization's hometown the day before.

By Indianapolis standards, the setting was ancient. Its original function was served from 1890 on until the triumph of the automobile (a history memorably traced in fictional form here by Booth Tarkington's "The Magnificent Ambersons"). The music reached back much further.

The concert title, an inspiration of the program's pun-loving director, Philip Spray, alludes to the interplay of string instruments with fretted fingerboards and those without frets (strips across the fingerboard) that triumphed in concert music eventually. The guitar is the best-known fretted instrument today, allowing each note to have resonance similar to those struck on open strings.

The program lived up to its self-conscious emphasis on the passage of time as it comprised the Vivaldi Project and Alchymy Viols in music written over a crucial period of change: the 18th century High Baroque on into the early 19th.  That expansiveness into the latter era brought to the forefront two instruments not generally showcased together and a composer not often included in early-music concerts. Yet duos for violin and guitar bulk large in Niccolo Paganini's output. Violinist Alison Nyquist and guest guitarist Brandon Acker played his Centone di Sonate, Sonata I, with the right sort of flashiness, properly balanced. The music has the flamboyance commonly associated with its composer, the first internationally known violinist of superstar status.

The duo, chiefly through the violin, played up its operatic nature, starting with a recitative-and-aria structure and moving on to a spirited march. The openness of its emotional profile made its next-to-last position on the program a great set-up for the finale, a Concerto for Violin and Violoncello by Antonio Vivaldi,  featuring Elizabeth Field and Erica Rubis as soloists, accompanied by an ensemble of five. The slow movement was especially attractive. The well-situated, delicately balanced accompanying forces supporting the soloists, with their outbursts of virtuosity placed in context, consisted of violinist Nyquist, violist Martie Perry, cellist Stephanie Vial, violone player Spray, and harpsichordist Tom Gerber.

Rubis was the viola da gamba soloist in Carl Friedrich Abel's Concerto in A major, an exhibition of his advocacy of the viol family as it was undergoing replacement by the violin family. Abel's influence as a teacher assured the survival of the viol on English concert stages well past his death in 1787. He collaborated with "the London Bach," Johann Christian, on London concert series. That eminent Bach was represented in this program by his Sonata in G major, a string trio given a sprightly, conversational account by the Vivaldi Project: Field, Nyquist, and Vial.

Acker, besides his mastery of period guitars, offered a rare solo outing by the gallichone, a kind of bass lute that was usually used in ensemble playing.  He put together a Suite in G minor of anonymous short pieces that seemed to have a kind of narrative integrity as a group. The ornamentation was deftly brought off, especially in the Bouree and the Lamento, which introduced the concluding Menuet, lifting the mood. The martial Paysanne was nicely placed in the middle, with a lovely aria on either side. 

To open the concert, Acker was also featured as guitar soloist in a concerto originally for lute and strings by Vivaldi. It was distinguished for a plaintive slow movement that followed an Allegro notable for the way short minor episodes set off its major-mode flair. 

To justify the concert's title, no fretting could be countenanced when it came to the elegance and well-managed variety of this program.

Dystopian for the MAGA crowd, including the one at the top: Here's Subterranean Impeachment Blues

Subterranean Impeachment Blues

Donnie’s in his bedroom, looking for some head room,
There’s homeless on the pavement thinkin’ ‘bout the government
President gloats about next year’s votes
He’s taking frantic notes, can he nail Dan Coats?
Muttering about Sleepy Joe Biden
Gaffe prone, all alone, what’s he hidin’?
No norms, no forms, Trump follows no laws
What he does is free of flaws.

Let him explain to the president of Ukraine
See if he can help with the next campaign
Get loose, got the juice, tweet about fake news
Don’t need a guitar to make up some new blues.
Look out Trump, your polling’s in a slump
God knows when, but you’re doing it again.

Oh, get sick, get well, does impeachment ring a bell?
Keep your base in place, hope the Wall is gonna sell.
Get Barr, go far, set sail, don’t fail
E-mails, Dem wails,
Adam Schiff is on your tail.

Look out Trump, you’re gonna get dumped
By losers, voters, Constitution users
Personnel pools have run out of fools
GOP leaders watch the tea-leaf readers.

What seems to be real is just what you suppose
When you’re the emperor who loves his new clothes
Piece of toilet paper sticking to your sole.
Your art of the deal just fell down a hole.
You can’t firehose what nature grows
You’re led by the nose in reality shows,
Don’t need a whistleblower to know which way the wind blows

Look out Trump, you heading for a slump
Asking for a friend, could this be the end?

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Farewell to the 2019 Indy Jazz Fest: The Block Party

Amanda Gardier and her group buoyed up the schedule
The party atmosphere at the annual Indy Jazz Fest finale rolls like a tsunami over the southeast corner of 54th and College as the day wanes. I skipped away from the wave earlier than I had expected, beaten down a bit from an intense self-imposed schedule over the last few days.

The Block Party is a good way to end such a festival for those up to sticking it out for a wealth of music (a dozen bands on two stages), with plenty of opportunity for food and drink along the way. Yats, the Cajun-style restaurant that's long been the Jazz Kitchen's next-door neighbor, was on hand with some of its offerings supplementing the Jazz Kitchen buffet, while the club's bar attracted a crowd shifting almost as adroitly as a band playing "Giant Steps."

Thinking that my best bet was to hit the ground running at 4 o'clock, I took in the tight modern acoustic quartet led by Rich Cohen and Chris Rutkowski. This powerful ensemble has a tasty variety of post-bop originals, most of them written by keyboardist Rutkowski. Cohen, the band's public spokesman, exhibited a commanding presence on alto and tenor saxes.

From the grinding blues "Slow Train to Chicago" to the easygoing, Monkish "Double Barrel Rhythm Thing," the book of this adept small group (competently filled out for this gig by Brandon Meeks, bass, and Dorian Phelps, drums) opens attractively to all comers.

When venturing one time outside the leaders' works, they displayed a knack for making the choice all their own. The Beatles' "Blackbird," this set's example, incorporated a Caribbean feeling that felt authentic, including a quote from Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" in the piano solo. Cohen's solo was passionate and well-directed. There were bits of propulsive Phelps in both solo and exchange form.

An inspiration for another original, "NOLA," allowed the New Orleans link to emerge immediately as Phelps laid down a shuffle rhythm. After that introduction, the theme itself bore a friendly relationship to Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance," with Cohen floating on alto and meaty solos by bass and drums. The set closed with a Cohen/Rutkowski joint composition, slyly titled "Around the Bend," an allusion to the bypass around South Bend. Cohen was driving on the loop, he recounted, when the seed for this breezy traveling piece sprouted in his head. When you're creative, apparently, you can keep road rage at bay.

My first outdoor set was spent listening to the Amanda Gardier band, billed as a quartet but numbering five participants. The alto saxophonist sported a nicely rounded tone, unmarred by overblowing, in the course of several originals that properly flatter her approach to the instrument. Her manner is complemented by the guitar playing of Charlie Ballantine; in a musical extension of newlywed compatibility, he displayed an easy melodic flow in his own style. This was particularly evident from both players in Gardier's "Two Sided," which concluded the set.

The band opened with the standard "You and the Night and the Music," a number that many small groups use to become comfortably airborne. Everyone was fully on board, including drummer Carrington Clinton, bassist Brendan Keller-Tuberg, and keyboardist Ellie Pruneau. Filling out the attractive set were Gardier pieces called "Forty Tattoos" and "Pure."

My visits to late afternoon shows were too fragmentary and interrupted to allow for detailed impressions here. Outside, the way Owl Studios Music Group has grown to take in a range of rock, fusion and r&b influences got extensive display. Abundant vocals added to the festival's heavy presentation of singers, including a Block Party showcase inside the Jazz Kitchen. Instrumentally focused, the whirlwind muse of Cathy Morris, the go-to exponent of the electric violin hereabouts for many years, caught up a smooth-working ensemble that featured Bloomington guests (another musical couple of distinction) Monika Herzig, piano, and Peter Kienle, guitar.

There was more to come that on paper whetted my musical appetite, but I was physically and mentally sated from what I'd heard  over the past ten days at the 2019 Indy Jazz Fest. Thus, I'm keeping my outchorus brief,  without withholding kudos from this annual September treat under the auspices of the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, September 21, 2019

ISO's Mendelssohn and Mussorgsky/Ravel: What's wrong with a warhorse (if it's still got noble fighting spirit left in it)?

Most frequently played works for orchestra justify that frequency by dint of a number of durable qualities. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra opened its Classical Series Friday night with three of them.

Krzysztof Urbanski, music director of the ISO in his next-to-last season, has shown insights into oft-heard pieces many times in his nine-year tenure. I remember how much Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings benefited from his conscientiousness many seasons ago.
ISO guest soloist Julian Rachlin also has extensive experience on the podium.

It showed up again in what he managed to do at Hilbert Circle Theatre with Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an
Exhibition" in the familiar orchestration by Maurice Ravel. It animated his suave presentation, sporting some excellent solos, of Jacques Offenbach's Overture to "Orpheus in the Underworld." And it took place as a result of a superb meeting of the minds with soloist Julian Rachlin in Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor.

The Lithuanian-born Rachlin took a serious, reflective approach to the Mendelssohn concerto. The violin enters after a few seconds of orchestral murmur, and usually the upward-reaching theme is introduced with buoyant assertion. Many performers have accustomed us to regarding the work, despite its being embedded in the minor mode, as music declaring its source in the composer of the "Midsummer Night's Dream" music.

But Rachlin found the buoyancy under the guardianship of an earnestness that Mendelssohn was often capable of, but chiefly in his oratorios, "Elijah" and "Paulus,"  and his "Reformation" Symphony. His understated opening still had gravitas, a mood that was seconded by the orchestra in the first big tutti. The second theme, tenderly introduced by woodwinds, found the serious demeanor of the composition undisturbed.

Of the cadenza Rachlin made something like an operatic scena,  in which the heroine expresses a range of emotion pertinent to her dramatic plight. It was a quite deliberate interpretation, with a carefully controlled acceleration leading into the re-introduction of the orchestra. There was a sturdy spine behind Rachlin's playing, such that the smoothly linked phrases in the second movement remained firmly focused. His interpretation amounted to  a psychological whole, seconded by the orchestra. In the finale, Rachlin's staccato playing was exemplary, and the interplay of violin and orchestra mastered great swells and dips in the texture.

For an encore, he switched gears from the straightforwardness of Mendelssohn to one of the unaccompanied sonatas of Eugene Ysaye, a composer with a knottier way of proceeding. Again, the performance was well-knit from first to last. It struck me as the maturest of interpretations of a work that has been heard many times in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

As a curtain-raiser, Urbanski led the orchestra in a core light classic, Jacques Offenbach's Overture to "Orpheus in the Underworld." The many-splendored episodes leading up to the famous can-can were radiant in all respects. A series of brief solos — clarinet, oboe and cello — were surmounted by an ardent cadenza and aria performed by this week's guest concertmastesr, Kevin Lin. The familiar fast music sped by with panache.

After intermission came a piece that probably would have remained relatively obscure if not for Maurice Ravel's genius for orchestration. Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" is still offered to the public in solo piano recitals. But it's an eccentric landmark of pictorialism that doesn't suit the esthetic priorities of many concert artists. It lives for the appreciation of the larger symphony-orchestra public.

The first statement of the Promenade, which represents the exhibition visitor passing from one picture to the next, sounded thoroughly inviting as first trumpet Conrad Jones played it. On each reappearance, the Promenade set the scene for transition well, except for the iteration between "Gnome" and "The Old Castle," where there was puzzling unsteadiness in the horn statement.

"The Old Castle" settled things down, thanks in large part to the nostalgic mastery evident in Mark Ortwein's alto saxophone solo. Urbanski placed Ortwein in one of the side boxes, which made the saxophone solo conspicuous in all respects.  Much later, Urbanski suggested the wide expanse of a civic celebration by placing two sets of tubular bells remotely for "The Great Gate of Kiev," where they contributed extra majesty and clangor to the suite's finale. Clearly devoted to taking advantage of having well-known music at his fingertips, Urbanski did his utmost to draw from the orchestra an impression of Russian grandeur and the readiness of well-known music to confirm its place in people's hearts.

Friday, September 20, 2019

In an Indy Jazz Fest spectacular, Arturo Sandoval displays his outsized personality at the Schrott Center

The entertainment aspect of jazz has been subject to considerable scorn for many years, so I'm reluctant to add to the chorus of disdain for the flamboyance and sense of fun that's typical of Arturo Sandoval, whose trumpet
In his main claim to fame, Arturo Sandoval can pin your ears back.
predecessors include such fun-loving legends as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.

But what the Cuban native offered for Indy Jazz Fest at Schrott Center for the Arts Thursday evening needs to be put in context. It may not be dismissive to label it a kind of jazz vaudeville. There was comedy, comic banter, a serious speech, and head-spinning stylistic variety. And you never had to wait long for the music to change course.

The showmanship was pervasive, maybe a little too insistent. Musically, it was summed up early by the whole band in a whirlwind tour through "Cherokee," although the "head" may have been one of a wealth of its contrafacts (tunes built on the same chord progression). Later, the local favorite "(Back Home in) Indiana" was briefly represented by its best-known contrafact, "Donna Lee."

There was no glitz in his costuming, but it was a show with a kind of Las Vegas vibe. Part of it stems from the variety within the music itself, as a musician known mainly for his trumpet prowess also exhibited his piano chops, turned to conspicuous accompaniment outings on synthesizer and timbales, and offered two types of vocals — as a romantic balladeer ("When I Fall in Love") and a scat singer with the virtuosity of Clark Terry's "Mumbles" persona.

He was correct to tease the pre-show feature — the awarding of Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame memberships to trumpeter Virgil Jones (posthumous), photographer Mark Sheldon, and guitarist/club manager Frank Steans — for excessive length. "They told us to come on at 7:50," Sandoval said, before turning to the band and collecting a consensus that they had not taken the stage until 8:10. From now on, this worthy celebration under the auspices of the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation needs to have its talking diplomatically trimmed.

Yet Sandoval himself went on too long at one point with a paean to American freedom that became a lecture. His escape from Castro's Cuba to eminence in the United States was capped by his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013), a distinct honor that has been generously distributed for more than a half-century. It's a justifiable source of pride, but the bandleader used it as an excuse to urge greater patriotism upon us.

I can only hit some of the identifiable musical highlights here. The adept band tended to puree everything, but at least Sandoval didn't allow any of the sidemen to be overshadowed. Near the end, percussionist Tiki Pasillas was given a chance to shine during "Besame Mucho" with intricate maracas patterns and in a rattling solo turn on timbales. Pianist Max Haymer had several hard-digging, well-defined solos. Tenor saxophonist Mike Tucker held his own as Sandoval's front-line partner.  I unfortunately missed the name of the first-class guitarist, who took an eloquent solo after Sandoval evoked the muted Miles Davis version of "My Funny Valentine." Drummer Johnny Friday was indefatigable at full force in the tradition of Jack DeJohnette. Bassist John Belzaguy got the least amount of solo display, but his solid support never faded into the background.

Though famed for his blistering facility and penetrating tone in all registers, Sandoval may have a love-hate relationship with the trumpet. That might explain his readiness to turn to other ways of making music. In one of his remarks to the Schrott audience, he looked askance at his horn on its stand. After noting that he'd been playing the instrument for six decades, he added: "Try it for six minutes, and you're going to hate it as much as I do." OK, he was kidding, but still...

Thursday, September 19, 2019

APA Cole Porter Fellow Emmet Cohen shows his staying power at the Jazz Kitchen

Emmet Cohen brings loads of personality and chops to the keyboard.
The winning ways of Emmet Cohen, as linked to his local trio buddies (bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps), were in full cry Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen. Cohen has a big reputation here not just for the quality of his performances, but for his persistence in pursuing the American Pianists Association's Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz, which he won last April. He had made two previous attempts that put him in the finalist position.

"The young man has a vast expressive range and seems to be able to put to use every technique remotely suitable to jazz pianism," I wrote about Cohen's daytime solo gig at Eskenazi Health several years ago, when he was vying for the big award a second time. That remains true, and he has added the Hammond B3 organ to his arsenal.

The instrument was placed at a right angle to the piano Wednesday night for this Indy Jazz Fest event, and provided a complex flavor to the trio's performance of Ellington's "Such Sweet Thunder" and a brace of gospel-inflected favorites, "Amazing Grace" and "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free." Cohen commanded both instruments together, having piano and organ speak unanimously as he stretched his arms out to either side and delivered rollicking accounts.

For the second set, the trio seemed primed to hit the ground running.  I would be surprised if they had to take much time to get adjusted at the first set, though. Cohen, Tucker, and Phelps thrived on maximizing their rapport out of the gate. They started with Tadd Dameron's "Our Delight" at full blaze, then made a smooth segue into a slightly less intense swinger, Cedar Walton's "Holy Land," which showcased the unfailing note selection in Tucker's command of the walking bass. "Distant Hallow," an unconventional Cohen original, featured oblique harmonies and quasi-gamelan inside-the-piano playing. Afterwards, that justified Cohen's initial words to the crowd: "Welcome to the weird set!"

The audience didn't have to wait long for Cohen to salute the Hoosier songwriter whose name will be attached to his for a few years — and in resume form, perhaps for a lifetime. The Cole Porter medley opened with "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," which displayed Tucker as a master of melody, then moved energetically into "It's All Right With Me," which featured incandescent duo work between piano and drums.

The medley concluded with the ballad "Every Time We Say Goodbye," with extensive decorative display by the pianist. But the core of it took your breath away for its wealth of tender feeling amid the filigree. (It also revealed that the top two octaves of the piano weren't quite in tune.)

From there, the magisterial blend of two songs associated with the black church and black liberation led up to a finale Cohen has played here before to honor his Jewish heritage, "Hotsy Kaddish." The rendition started with Phelps applying his hands to the kit, reinforcing the piece's folk legacy. He moved smoothly to brushes and sticks as the account heated up in fervor. The crowd went wild, and the trio came back for a ballad encore and a ragtime evocation that naturally incorporated the pianist's mastery of the demanding "stride" style. There's nothing that Cohen can't do in embracing the whole spectrum, and his Indianapolis associates were with him every step of the way.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A pillar of modern jazz guitar: Bill Frisell plays a solo gig for Indy Jazz Fest at the Jazz Kitchen

Not many jazz musicians can carry off a concert unaccompanied. Success alone is more likely to come to players
Bill Frisell gets down to business on the bandstand.
of a harmony instrument, chiefly the piano. But the guitar has a long history of more than one line at a time, and the advent of sophisticated electronics over the past half-century has given this "people's instrument" legitimate currency in jazz soloing among adventurous players.

Perhaps no one has expanded the guitar's vocabulary more persistently and with more variety than Bill Frisell. With a solid-body electric guitar on one side, supplemented by a row of foot pedals and finger-operated switches in front of him, and an acoustic instrument to his left, Frisell offered ample proof of his range in two Indy Jazz Fest sets Tuesday evening at the Jazz Kitchen.

I attended the second set, also played to a full room.  Starting out, Frisell seemed to be exploring new harmonies on a couple of standards, Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now" (if memory serves, though at the age I turned yesterday, it often swerves instead) and Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." The melodic line was broken up, sometimes adhering to an exploratory manner a little more than it should have. The crunchiness of the result, and the certainty that we were not just listening to a student guitarist feeling his way, promised good things to come.

Blues took over in a segue to a third theme, in which Frisell introduced loops to thicken the texture and set different lines in playful opposition. There was an episode in octaves that tempted me to think he was paying explicit tribute to Indianapolis' favorite son on the guitar, Wes Montgomery. But who knows for sure? There was also more than a hint of country pickin' before Frisell settled into the Beatles' "In My Life." The soloist really got the counterpoint going, channeling the baroque-flavored harpsichord chorus in the original.

Holding the audience spellbound, Frisell picked up the acoustic guitar to etch an effective personalization of "My Man's Gone Now" from "Porgy and Bess." Without overstating it, he captured a true feeling of lamentation. The mood continued in that classic of regretful waste, "Days of Wine and Roses." It was an effective pairing.

A long excursion on electric guitar brought the set to its official end. He enunciated a strong tenor melody and brought in lots of loops and so many different colors in different registers that theater or pipe organists might well be jealous. The grandiose nature of this section made the emergence of the anthemic "This Land Is Your Land" seem  like the inevitable choice, complete with a brief sojourn through "What the World Needs Now."

Frisell's encore put a cap on a heart-warming performance as it referenced "Blowin' in the Wind" as support for a lengthy, solemn interpretation of "We Shall Overcome." In times like these, especially when you hear versions of much-loved tunes that are free of cliche and rich in thoughtful variation, how can an audience be anything but impressed enough to roar its approval?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

ISO's gala opening-night guest raises the "child prodigy" designation to a whole new level

Her media profile has been impressive on its own terms in print and broadcast, and helps account for the household-name sort of
Alma at home, from one of the latest media features (New York Times, June)
reception Alma Deutscher got Saturday night as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presented its annual gala opening concert. Cheers, whoops, repeated standing ovations, and a few lusty shouts on the order of "We love you, Alma!" punctuated the atmosphere.

But the 14-year-old musician has a well-grounded reason for being subject to the kind of exposure, vastly expanded in the digital age, that has accompanied extraordinarily gifted artists from the 18th-century birth of public concerts up to the present.

Music director Krzysztof Urbanski is among many eminent musicians who have expressed open astonishment at Deutscher's violin and piano playing and the facility and charm she displays in her compositions, which include a full-length opera.

Urbanski engaged in some entertaining chat midway with the young phenomenon from the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage, whose decor echoed that in the lobby in the amount of healthy shrubbery sparkling with strings of tiny lights.

The conductor seemed almost tongue-tied marveling at Deutscher's precocious accomplishments. The brief interview brought out matters that the prodigy has elaborated upon in interviews, including her affinity for melody, explicit rejection of "ugly music" to match our times, and her attraction to Vienna — where she and her family now live and whose cultural pinnacle as an imperial capital is forever tied to the waltz.

The waltz bulked large in the program, familiarly in the case of the Waltz King, Johann Strauss Jr., whose "Fledermaus" Overture and "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" were hearty bookends. It also linked specifically to the creative side of Alma Deutscher: Her freshly minted "Siren Sounds Waltz" received its American premiere.

The composer was not onstage for that performance, but it proved to be quite the appetizer for the main course: a movement each from her Violin Concerto in G minor and her Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, with the composer as soloist in both.

"Siren Sounds Waltz" opens with a well-managed urban cacophony keyed to the brief pattern of police sirens in Vienna. The thick melange of sound impressions offers as much dissonance as you're likely to hear in a Deutscher work, and was justifiably linked to the music of Richard Strauss by Urbanski during their conversation. The influence could be detected even after the texture thinned out and the waltz idiom came to the fore.

That Strauss, no relation to the Waltz King but also no mean composer of waltzes (as his operatic masterpiece "Der Rosenkavalier" confirms), seems less an influence on most of her music than another precocious composer in the Austro-German mainstream, Felix Mendelssohn. I thought of that particularly at the most fetching moment in the violin concerto excerpt — the re-entry of the orchestra as the solo cadenza ended. It had the gentle savoir-faire of the North German composer in how he re-introduces the orchestra after the cadenza in his Violin Concerto in E minor (which will be heard next weekend as the ISO begins its Classical Series).

Deutscher's singing tone fitted hand-in-glove with her compositional manner in the Allegro vivace e scherzando  movement of her violin concerto. As both performer and composer, there is a directness about her music-making that doesn't eschew sugary content and even a kind of cheerful banality. I was more moved by the slow movement of her piano concerto; at the start, the solo oboe (tenderly played by Jennifer Christen) was attractive against the bare accompaniment pattern Deutscher offered at the keyboard.

She had told Urbanski that she developed the music out of sadness at her grandmother's death, and the poignancy became pronounced as the movement took a serious turn. It was another evocation, at least in mood, of the way seriousness takes over the corresponding slow movement of that Mendelssohn violin concerto.  I also felt that his "Songs Without Words" may be a ghostly ancestor and companion of the Deutscher muse.

The way music flows out of her was illustrated when Urbanski presided over an improvisational challenge. The names of four notes were drawn out of a top hat individually by three volunteers and the conductor: C-sharp, E, C, and F-sharp. After musing silently for a few minutes, Alma-as-pianist came up with another waltz inspiration based on a set of notes that probably didn't seem congenial at first. She made them so, however, and it was shrewd of her to arrange the four-note motif in an ascending sequence. It allowed her to incorporate her temperamental uplift into the spontaneous creation. There were also touches of the sense of humor that are reflected unabashedly elsewhere in her music.

The concert's delights, keyed to what will probably be the soloist's eternally youthful spirit, were nicely capped by the ISO's encore. Conventional though it is in Viennese-themed concerts, it was entirely fitting here for this gala crowd to be sent on its merry way with Johann Strauss Sr.'s "Radetzky March."

Friday, September 13, 2019

Indy Jazz Fest 2019 opens with a salute to a specialty genre — the bossa nova

The tributary of bossa nova, an import from Brazil, contributed some much-needed fresh water to the jazz mainstream about six decades ago. This year's Indy Jazz Fest got off to an ingratiating start Thursday night at the University of Indianapolis with a salute to the popular genre.
Bossa nova highlight: Julie Houston and Rebecca Rafla sang together with the band a couple of times.

Overlaying jazz phrasing on samba rhythms, bossa nova (Portuguese for "new wave") enjoyed a vogue as the turbulent 1960s plowed their course through American culture.

The originators of the genre — songwriters, guitarists, and singers — became known here, and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz enjoyed a significant boost to his stature as an American bop and post-bop master through his creative association with them. The blend of silk and strength in his tone and his natural lyricism flourished under the bossa nova sway.

Rob Dixon, a saxophonist with stature all his own and a ubiquitous performer and bandleader hereabouts, led the concert. He assembled a band that worked through ten tunes smoothly. Besides Dixon, the ensemble consisted of Sandy Williams, guitar; Scott Routenberg, piano; Brandon Meeks, bass, and Richard "Sleepy" Floyd, drums. All are known for their consummate professionalism in other jazz precincts, and it was fun to enjoy their compatibility in this music.

Rob Dixon, jazz mayor of Indianapolis, presided.
In my view, bossa nova was a godsend to jazz vocalism. I have a notable lack of enthusiasm for most jazz singers. What the Brazilian import allowed was a stylistic lift, a new approach to phrasing over the eighth-note pulse with an unconventional pattern of accents. With wistful, often sad lyrics emphasizing the less "belting" manner of jazz singing, the voice was able to enjoy a new playground, free of show-biz aspirations. True, being comfortable with Portuguese (with English versions interpolated in most bossa nova performances) was a new challenge; otherwise, the rewards were manifold for American singers sympathetic to the genre.

I can't judge the authenticity of their Portuguese, but singers Julie Houston and Rebecca Rafla exuded charm and lyrical warmth in their performances Thursday. Two of the songs — the megahit "The Girl from Ipanema" and an audience-participation finale — brought them together in front of the band. There were ample chances to savor their solo enchantments as well: Houston's "Manha de Carnival" (the theme from "Black Orpheus") expressed an individuality and emotional involvement that Dixon nearly equaled in his florid soprano-sax solo. Rafla's opening pair of songs, "Agua de Marco" and "Corcovado," exhibited comparable expressiveness as well as a freedom in her phrasing that avoided anything unidiomatic.

As the singers took a break, the men played a favorite of jazz musicians, Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Triste." There were excellent solos all around, with Routenberg introducing bluesy hints that received ensemble confirmation in the coda.

The performance was typical of every song's shapeliness in execution, with the endings sounding both fresh and well-coordinated. The singers deserve much of the credit for this effect. Kudos to the protean musicianship of Rob Dixon for inspiring the pleasurable effect of the show, with crucial assistance from two singers (with Houston's estimable flute-playing to boot) who knew what they were doing and clearly believed in it.

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, September 7, 2019

'Twelve Angry Men' kicks off Indiana Repertory Theatre's 48th season

The jury gathers under a guard's watchful eye to begin deliberations.
Part of the satisfaction in detective fiction is that matters not obvious from the apparent facts of a crime will become glaringly clear, thanks to clever sleuthing.

When putting together the puzzle is a collective matter sanctioned by the rule of law, anyone taking in the story gets a double satisfaction: the revelations amount to a happy resolution plus our faith in the judicial system gets reinvigorated. When ratiocinative justice meets official justice, what could be better for our civic health? Our emotions are put into balance with our reasoning, and the result becomes part of the civilized legacy we profess to admire.

In "Twelve Angry Men," Reginald Rose takes us into a jury room to reveal how one of a dozen seated jurors turns around his peers, all strangers to him and to each other, from a guilty to a not-guilty verdict in the trial of a 16-year-old teen from an unspecified racial/ethnic minority. Indiana Repertory Theatre on Friday night opened its 48th season with a production of the drama. Known initially as a television show, then a popular movie, "Twelve Angry Men" works onstage so well because it's the type of play that plunges us into real-world conundrums: What do we believe is true? And how are we sure?

James Still directs thirteen astute actors over a 100-minute span. Junghyun Georgia Lee's set is a drab, basically furnished Manhattan jury room subdued to the point of no-nonsense seriousness. The large, dirty windows are stubborn to open in the hope of fresh air. Embedding the show in the reality of 1957 not only makes sense in there being no air conditioning, which is the occasion for much mopping of brows and necks as summer stress levels rise. It also explains how a jury in a capital case was impaneled consisting of only white men, with one exception in this cast. Gender balance, and other kinds, too, would be the norm today, even though that never guarantees a just result, either.

The men learn only a bit about each other as they attend to the task at hand. These are '50s men — outwardly sure of themselves to a fault, not inclined to intimacy, and perhaps too ready to let their superficial responses to the case they've just sat through dominate their judgment. Rose is stingy with the exchange of personal information; it's only through how they define themselves in considering the case that their personalities take on three dimensions.

Todd Mack Reischman's sound design pours a thin layer of street sounds over the animated, often feisty dialogue. Sparely scored music is another judiciously used accompaniment. Even the thunderstorm is not overdone, though its occurrence late in the jury's deliberations is essential. What continuously captures the attention are the dynamics and maneuvering of the jurors. They respond initially to the outlier among them Juror Eight, played with steady conviction and well-disguised compassion by Chris Amos. The initial surprise his fellow jurors
Stunned and irritated, the jury turns on the resistance of Juror Eight.
express that their verdict is not to be a unanimous "guilty" gradually becomes the slow but inexorable progress of the standard of "reasonable doubt" that the teen stabbed his father to death, according to the charge.

The action is varied not only by Still's control of the mood in the room — from quiet deliberation to burgeoning fisticuffs, with lots of yelling in between — but also by the subtle reorientation of the visual perspective. That's the work of a turntable occasionally turning beneath the table and chairs where the jury is seated. Further variety is contributed by Still's interruptions of a truly "seated" jury, as the men get up, argue, or mill about, sometimes repairing in ones, twos and threes to an adjoining restroom to freshen up and blow off a little steam to whoever among their colleagues happens to be there at the same time.

Particularly exciting was the way the men moved when stirred by Juror Eight's pacing off the route of one of the witnesses while another juror times Eight's studied imitation of an old man whose testimony accordingly seems unreliable. Timing is crucial, Juror Eight teaches his fellows. Everything the prosecution had put forward, in addition to Juror Eight's suggestion that the accused's defense was neither robust nor thorough, starts to weigh heavily upon the men's readiness to deliver their verdict.

The most vociferous proponents of what promised to be the original verdict were played with astonishing passion and insight by Craig Spidle and Robert Ierardi.  Their characters' deep-grained prejudices remind us how current nativism and racism remain in American thought. Resonance with today's equivalent viewpoints are strong, just as they are when readers (or theater audiences) encounter Tom Buchanan's thunderings about the decline of white hegemony in the nearly century-old "The Great Gatsby."

The rest of the juror portrayals benefited from vivid accounts by Seth Andrew Bridges, Scot Greenwell, Henry Woronicz, Demetrios Troy, Casey Hoekstra, Michael Stewart Allen, Mark Goetzinger, Patrick Clear and Charles Goad. In a slight role that necessarily represents the official court world, Adam O. Crowe plays the Guard.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Ortwein Jazztet and guests: Father-son, New Orleans-Indianapolis blend at the Jazz Kitchen

Mark Ortwein with his regular axe.
A defining duo from Maid of Orleans stepped in to fill out the bandstand for a gig hosted by Mark Ortwein and representatives of his Jazztet, drawing an enthusastic midweek crowd to the Jazz Kitchen.

The saxophonist-bassoonist was joined by his Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra colleague Craig Hetrick on drums and guitarist John Fell — both Jazztet regulars. The guests were his son, electric bassist Olas Ortwein and his duo partner, hornist-vocalist Amber Renee Mouton, Maid of Orleans bandmates up from the Crescent City. They had played a duo gig in Cincinnati on Tuesday, preceding the father-son musical reunion at Indianapolis' storied northside club, enjoying continued success in its silver-anniversary year.

The blend was predictably compatible, even though the musical range encompassed genres not usually heard in the same set: retro-inspired originals with forward-thinking aspects as well as jazz and popular standards. The French horn in small groups is also unusual, and characteristics of the orchestral instrument were sometimes brought to the fore to complement the vocals.

There was the soaring lyricism of the horn in "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." In the ensemble, it took a while for the front line to match harmony and melody well. But, in addition to her horn solo, Mouton made up for it with a vocal that, thankfully, stayed close to the original tune. The other standard from that era, "On the Sunny Side of Street," found her more in the mold of Betty Carter, the extreme example of jazz vocalists who seem bored with the melody and impose idiosyncratic interpretations from the first phrase on.

The bandleader displayed his composing sideline with a couple of passionate originals — one of them a tribute to his wife, Carrie; the other, called "No More Butterflies," a somber ballad that led off with a father-son duet. The composer introduced the piece by noting he composed it after a visit to Auschwitz. That affecting performance preceded a prematurely scheduled break required by a problem with Fell's guitar that forced a change of instruments.

The music resumed with a heavy, slow-grinding version of Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild," which featured some sly interplay between Fell's guitar and Mouton's singing. The guitarist's solo marked a ripping return to full capacity and energy. A fierce Mouton original, "I Am a Woman," gave Ortwein the opportunity to turn to one of his deep-voiced instruments, the baritone sax; alto, tenor, and soprano came into play elsewhere. In the center of a grove of reed instruments, the set-up brought to mind the legendary Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Ortwein plays them one at a time, though. His bread-and-butter instrument, the bassoon, when modified electronically, brings extra power and timbral complexity to the jazz-rock fusion side of his artistry. That was heard just once, in a stormy Mouton piece titled "Take," "a troubled-youth song" in which she told me she had aimed for a '60s surf-rock sound.

I got to the Jazz Kitchen late, having missed the set's first quarter-hour. After my mixed feelings during "On the  Sunny Side of the Street," I was thrilled to hear a splendid version of Duke Ellington's "Caravan." The two-beat emphasis imparted to the performance by Hetrick's drumming, its spirit taken up by his colleagues, gave the piece a genuine N'awlins flavor.

Fell's guitar solo featured fleet, glowing octaves, with some exotic turns of phrase perhaps intended to evoke the gumbo variety of the city where Olas lives and where his father went to school. Olas' solo was a showcase of his rhythmic acumen. And the bassist's catchy original "The World Keeps Turnin'" brought to mind an updated New Orleans tradition that must have influenced him: the brass-band, funk-infused sound of the likes of Dirty Dozen or Rebirth. Some of those Mardi Gras beads one saw around a few necks at Monday's Labor Day Street Fair would have looked right at home Wednesday night.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Minnesota Orchestra puts a recorded Mahler One in the top rank

By happenstance, Krista Tippett rebroadcast a conversation with Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist, as I was wrapping up my impressions of the Minnesota Orchestra's new recording of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major (BIS).

Music director Osmo Vänskä adds to a fine discography with the Minnesota Orchestra.
I heard the "On Being" interview, which I don't think I caught on its original broadcast in 2012,  Sunday morning on WFYI-FM. I had been looking for some way to capture the marvels I found in how Osmo Vänskä shaped the first movement. The performance, beautifully recorded, struck me as closer to the reality of untrammeled nature than others I could recall.

Hempton says such things as "each habitat has a characteristic sense of space" and "a quiet place is the think tank of the soul." Lots of composers, particularly in the 19th century, paid tribute to the natural world. It was so much easier to experience directly then. This accounts of

for the fog of nostalgia through which we must process such music today. We find it so much harder to be "in nature's realm," to borrow an Antonin Dvorak title.

Mahler intends not to merely salute nature in another medium, but astonishingly to set us in the deep woods via symphonic means. The low dynamic level of the opening measures and the patience with which the orchestra shapes the introductory material as well as the full orchestra glory that emerges are extraordinary.  The composer brings us into a world of near silence, yet one that seems to anticipate Hempton's assertion that "wildlife are as busy communicating as we are." Mahler stipulates that, against sustained strings, the brief figures that tune our ears to natural sounds must be "deutlich" (clear) even at pianissimo. This performance follows through on that difficult requirement.

All dynamics in the meticulous Mahler score seem to be followed.  As to pacing: where appropriate, a subtly managed rubato, in which, say, the horn is poised against strings, adds to the songfulness so characteristic of the composer. Normally, of course, rhythms are exact and steady where they need to be, as in the second-movement scherzo.

The only slightly puzzling thing about the performance is that the initial statement of the third movement's theme ("Frere Jacques" in the minor mode) seems to be played by more than a solo double bass. The isolation of that melody when first heard seems an important part of the movement's poignancy, and it's marked as a solo. Maybe something about how the muted solo comes across in this recording gives the impression that at least a couple of players are involved. A small matter, but it's a benchmark of excellence when well played by the principal, as it was many years ago when the New Yorker's Alex Ross toured the country and lavished praise for it on Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Ju-Fang Liu.

In the new recording, the storm that breaks out in the fourth movement is predictably hair-raising. The lyrical contrasts in the course of the work's longest movement are fully exploited.  Every effect is rendered with utmost patience and security by the Minnesotans. You would have to believe Mahler's triumphant mode inherently tawdry (I do not) to find the settled and honorably achieved emergence of that triumph in any sense false or forced in this performance.

There are loads of Mahler Firsts out there, but this one has a special quality from the very first, back when  Vänskä and Minnesota Orchestra initially welcome us to that "quiet place (which) is the think tank of the soul."