Monday, April 26, 2021

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra returns to live concerts with all-American program

 Matthew Kraemer expressed gratitude and relief that the ensemble he directs, the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, was appearing Sunday evening before an in-person audience for the first time in 15 months.

 Rengel gave a stirring account of Barber's concerto.

But in other remarks to a socially distanced audience at Carmel's Palladium, the conductor lifted up the significance of bringing forward some of the achievements of American symphonic music in the 20th century. Four works made up the program, chief among them the much-loved Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber, with Rubén Rengel, a 2018 honoree of the Sphinx program, as soloist.

Given the finished 1949 version of Barber's opus 14, the concert was a snapshot of American composition in the 1940s. By that decade, buoyed by the contributions of European refugees, new classical music here had consolidated the gains made by 20th-century modernism before largely giving way to more difficult, abstruse styles that started to dominate the American academy in the 1950s. It was the decade of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and Third Symphony, among other landmarks, and the triumphs of, and occasional emergence from, "Americanist" styles by composers as diverse as Roy Harris and Elliott Carter. Kraemer was right to call attention to, and make this attempt to rectify, the unjustified obscurity of this music in today's repertoire.

Besides the Barber concerto, the concert comprised Howard Swanson's "Short Symphony," David Diamond's "Rounds for String Orchestra," and Walter Piston's "Sinfonietta." There was some scrambling to come up with a crisp account of Diamond's score in the first movement, but the ensemble jelled in the second, buoyed by the vivid string harmonies. A return to fast music in the third brought about better coordination, helped by more sharply defined accents and a wealth of shared material, rich in syncopation and imitative section entries.

The orchestra on its own also showed its wonted radiance in the program finale by Piston, whose achievements included a much-used textbook on orchestration. Though his music is reserved emotionally, it naturally features colorful orchestration. The first movement has rhythmic variety and an effective quiet ending. The balance Piston achieved between his Yankee roots and his Italian heritage was nicely displayed in the self-contained lyricism of the second movement, with much attractive wind writing well-executed in this concert. The finale put a nice cap on the intermissionless concert, with a strong steady pulse given extra energy by a fugato climax.

Piston's "Sinfonietta" made a welcome contrast with the Swanson piece that preceded it. The work by one of the lesser known African-American composers lives up to its title. Its brevity (like all the works on this concert, there are three movements) is made substantial by the tight variety of musical ideas the composer packed into its 11-minute frame. Sometimes it gives the impression of shortness of breath, but I liked the way Kraemer defined the music's internal variety, as the orchestra gave breathing room to the score.

The Venezuelan violinist, whose teachers have included Jaime Laredo, long the jury chairman of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, presented a richly inflected, emotionally engaging interpretation of the Barber concerto. From the first movement on, the unanimity of soloist and orchestra was evident, and Rengel displayed a deep-seated affinity for the music's lyrical import. 

The achingly tender slow movement, which by no means stands in the shadow of the unusually gentle first movement, featured good oboe and horn solos, reveling in the Palladium acoustics. The climaxes were stirring, hinting at the driven energy required for the perpetual-motion finale. There the coordination was mostly first-rate, with enough pinpoint precision to convey the shared exhilaration that Barber commanded in his durable neo-romantic manner. 

The orchestra looked and sounded good. The sight of musicians identically black-masked (except for winds)  kept reminding me of another worthy American composition, from an earlier decade, that wouldn't have been out of place in such a program in such an era as we're living through: Roger Sessions' "Black Maskers" Suite. But maybe the visual pun would have overridden everything else, and Sessions' score would require extra rehearsals. As it was, this concert properly put a good representation of 20th-century American symphonic music in the forefront.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Something to say about the Gardier-Buselli-Kaufman tribute show to a pioneering quartet

Josh Kaufman sings; Gardier and Buselli front the band.

Paraphrasing the title of a pianoless quartet record issued after Gerry Mulligan returned to the East Coast, I can answer the question "What Is There to Say?" in terms of what a band led by Amanda Gardier had to offer Friday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

First off, there is something positive to say about the saxophonist picking up the heavier, deeper baritone saxophone after she has established her reputation hereabouts with the alto. It was essential to exhibit her chops on the bari to evoke Mulligan as he made a splash in the early Fifties. 

Gardier scored well on that account, though there would be no point trying to replicate the uniquely light tone that her predecessor pioneered. But she had the idiomatic heft needed and plenty of ideas to dress it in. Her best solo in Friday's first set came in Mulligan's "Swinghouse," a jump tune based on "Sweet Georgia Brown." (Thelonious Monk's "Bright Mississippi" may be the best-known jazz number similarly founded.)

My preference for Mulligan's successful experiment in eschewing the keyboard is for the quartet with Art Farmer featured on the aforementioned Columbia LP. In his California years the lanky saxman made his mark in the combination of bari, trumpet, bass, and drums, with Chet Baker on the brass instrument. The JK tribute band opened the first set with Mulligan's call-and-response "Festive Minor" that I know from that album with Farmer.

Historically, Baker's wispy vocals added a dimension to his collaboration with Mulligan that the trumpeter later exploited when out on his own. Their plaintiveness was underlined as Baker declined physically and musically in the thrall of a heroin habit.

I'm guessing Josh Kaufman has no such monkey on his back, and the prize-winning singer was on hand to represent that part of the Mulligan-Baker legacy in four songs. "I've Never Been in Love Before" introduced his participation in the program. It was taken quite slowly with a really sweet instrumental arrangement as backdrop. Veteran trumpeter-flugelhornist Mark Buselli filled out the front line here and throughout the program; his manner was suitable to evoke Baker's nearly vibratoless tone.

Kaufman also offered a nicely phrased "But Not for Me," "I Remember You" (the horns tastefully synchronized in accompaniment and first-rate "walking" bass from Jesse Wittman), and the evergreen "My Funny Valentine." That became a signature song for Baker almost on the level of Judy Garland and "Over the Rainbow." On flugelhorn, Buselli's support of the vocal was exquisite, and the performance attained you-could-hear-a-pin-drop status among the normally effusive and presumably protocol-observant audience.

Mulligan brought to his innovation an uncanny ability to improvise counterpoint to suggest a song's harmonic structure while adding a melody of his own. His trumpeters did that as well, but Mulligan was the master. Some of that was evident Friday night, though I suppose such elements had been written out here and there. The arrangements had that bright, full quality Mulligan often displayed, making the absence of piano  irrelevant. True enough, you could detect in such a song as "I Remember April" places where some harmonic nuances had to be ignored, but if the original melody could still be represented with integrity in new garb, the loss was a small one.

Solos from Wittman, Buselli, and Gardier were topnotch in Mulligan's "Walkin' Shoes," with a slight dip toward cliche near the end of Gardier's. Wittman displayed a good mixture of longer and shorter notes in his spotlight turn.

Throughout the set, Chris Parker provided a steady, animated rhythmic foundation, using brushes —with a notable exception in the band's finale, where he helped the ensemble end this flavorful tribute in a stick-driven blaze of glory. 

Everyone involved put their own voice into the music while bringing it forward creditably sixty-some years after it wrote a new chapter in small-group modern jazz.

[Photos by Rob Ambrose]

Friday, April 23, 2021

Guitarist Perry Smith takes fresh but not showy approach to standards

Perry Smith ends this attractive disc (in release today) with three solo tracks that confirm his attraction to the standards that unify "Peace" (Smith Tone Records). Otherwise, he fronts his regular trio in a cohesive program.

Perry Smith, no showboat, looks toward the light.

Despite its flowering into large-scale electronic projection through the triumph of rock, the classical voice of the guitar is soft-spoken and introspective, and had been carried over into jazz by many players.

This is crucial to Smith's style, and he has support in two-thirds of the selections here of two like-minded sidemen: Sam Minaie, bass, and Dan Schnelle, drums. The Brooklyn resident's West Coast background may account for the appeal of risking understatement, insofar as the "cool school" deep in California jazz history may incline him toward banking his fires, inviting the listener to meet him halfway.

He mixes respectful nods to the Great American Songbook with interpretations of jazz hits, including Horace Silver's "Peace," which lends its name to this release. In this category, a fortunate choice is "U.M.M.G. (Upper Manhattan Medical Group)," a Billy Strayhorn piece I've loved for years as played by Dizzy Gillespie with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Smith's trio imparts a relaxed swing to the piece, which suits its long, well-draped phrases. There's a quiet swagger to the performance at this tempo.

The most high-profile piece from the jazz repertory is the oft-performed "A Child Is Born," by Thad Jones. Smith offers a fresh take on it, and also does well in closing the disc out unaccompanied in Victor Schertzinger's  "I Remember You" and Arthur Schwartz's "Alone Together," a standard much-covered by jazzmen.

Of the trio tracks, "Like Someone in Love" displays the subtle way the bassist can kick the theme along rhythmically, allowing Smith some freedom in elaborating the melody in waltz time. In return, the guitarist sets up Minaie's solo nicely before the ensemble returns to restate the tune. The bassist is also in fine fettle on the disc's title track. 

Smith's tone has a restrained resonance, with some ringing out on long notes. In "Darn That Dream," he's unaccompanied at first, with the ensemble meshing in the second chorus. There are judicious harmonies throughout, and an out-of-tempo coda for solo guitar rounds out the performance neatly. 

Going slightly to the outside, the performance of Sam Rivers' "Cyclic Episode" coheres elegantly over the wide-ranging theme. The bass line soon takes over, and Smith's comping has imaginative flair.  Despite his harmonic astuteness, Smith does not shy away from any tune he's interpreting; his solo in "This Nearly Was Mine" often paraphrases the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, and the bassist follows suit. The melody instruments in this trio never just run the changes, and the drummer seems to endorse their "singing" suggestions as well.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

When words fail us: IRT's 'Cyrano' proves to be tonic for these muted pandemic days

The Count eyes an apprehensive Roxane, while Cyrano conceals himself.
Few late-19th-century hits that continue to grace our stages have the same florid embrace of love's enduring dream as Edmund Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac." The triumvirate of Wilde, Ibsen, and Chekhov occupies distinct spots elsewhere on the dramatic spectrum.

Trimmed down in title and production alike to "Cyrano," a Belgian adaptation of the romantic drama is the latest production on Indiana Repertory Theatre's sensibly reduced season of virtual presentations. Up for nearly a week now, it can be viewed online via ticketed admission through May 9. 

With its three-actor cast directed by artistic director Janet Allen on a stately wooden courtyard set designed by Russell Metheny, the show has the severity and plain, almost allegorical appeal of love blocked, sublimated through romantic projection, and belatedly fulfilled only at a spiritual level. The characters are flesh-and-blood in portrayal, but also stand for perpetual human urges and obstacles about intimacy. WFYI cameras once again highlight the dramatic tension adroitly and employ just the right, slight amount of close-up views to sustain the theatrical illusion.

Modeled after a real-life figure in 17th-century France, Rostand's Cyrano is a master warrior and wordsmith, two roles that may seem oddly joined to us, but represented an ideal as set down in that Renaissance guide to male manners, Castiglione's "Courtier." The work is believed to have been well-known to Shakespeare and influenced his dramatic characterization of men of stature.

Cyrano and Christian discuss their wooing plot.

But the rewards of such a twin distinction are withheld from Cyrano because of his over-large nose. The disfigurement has proved as colossal in his imagination as it may be in real life, especially given his intense attraction to his cousin Roxane. Her infatuation with a new recruit to the cadet company he leads is the latest blow to his romantic quest, compounding his nasal self-consciousness. But Cyrano's regard for her leads him to promise to protect the handsome Christian, partly as a way to block the amorous drive toward her of a vain, foppish nobleman, the Count De Guiche.

Ryan Artzberger conveys the dashing quality of Rostand's hero, and, even more crucially, his vulnerability and crippling self-doubt when it comes to romance. Fitted with a prosthetic nose by Becky Scott for this role, Artzberger still draws on the charisma that often make his performances absorbing to watch. That's the case here: Confident swordsman and poet that he may be, Artzberger's Cyrano is at sea about dealing with his handicap, and seems desperately wounded by it. The actor's familiar command of a nervous giggle comes in handy here and there as his character struggles with barriers to fulfillment.

Perhaps the most moving scene is Cyrano's long, well-paced dialogue with Melisa Pereyra as Roxane, in which the cousins' mutual affection clearly has quite different orientations. Their emotional connection is indelible, while at the same time they are uncomfortably linked by Roxane's obsession with Christian. Pereyra's performance shows Roxane to be a strong-minded woman, a believable cynosure of all eyes, yet able to be fooled by the romantic imposture devised by Christian and Cyrano. The strength of character Pereyra's Roxane shows in the play's last scene is quite moving.

The dying Cyrano sees his beloved for the last time.

Christian is chief among the roles taken most competently by Jeb Burris, who is also required to project the scheming nobleman Antoine, pursuing his romantic designs upon Roxane from an accustomed position of privilege. Linda Pisano's costuming goes far to make Burris credible in both roles. Christian has to be genuinely inarticulate around Roxane while not seeming a dumb bunny; he's a model of naive valor that falls apart in matters of intimacy. Burris brought off the character's need for borrowed eloquence aptly, helping raise the poignancy of Cyrano's devotion to Roxane while he seems to speak for his awkward young rival. 

Despite the fancy flourishes of language, gesture, and clothing, IRT's "Cyrano" resembles a secular morality play, with staging that distantly evokes what traveling theater troupes once presented at court or in town squares after the fashion of the company that visits Elsinore in "Hamlet."  In this case, though the heart-piercing is intense at the play's end and the body count roughly proportional, the affirmation of love's durability is loftier and more zestful. Your home computer screen will radiate light more dependable and life-affirming than what the goaded King Claudius calls for in Shakespeare's tragedy.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Organ-trio bliss at the Jazz Kitchen: Tony Monaco teams with Haque and Phelps

 Jazz organ, rooted in rich, rollicking and sometimes even cheesy Hammond B-3 sonorities, boasts a

Heat treatment: Tony Monaco, Fareed Haque, Kenny Phelps

conventional combination with guitar and drums that almost always exhibits sterling rapport amid blazing energy.

But only the most fleet of foot, hands, and mind across three players can achieve the right teamwork. Three is never a crowd when the adept exponents are of the quality the Jazz Kitchen hosted this past weekend. Tony Monaco shared the bandstand with guitarist Fareed Haque and drummer Kenny Phelps to cap a two-night engagement.

I heard Saturday's second set only, and must assume that the first one also didn't delay hitting the ground running. The trio opened its latter session with a tour through "Besame Mucho," with the fire stoked particularly by Phelps in the second chorus of Haque's solo. More than the application of heat was involved, because from the first number on, the trio presented a united front.

Some of Haque's musical heritage came to the fore as the set moved on, as a brisk tempo was set and sustained by the guitarist's vocalism, which seems to be a kind of scat singing, more rhythnic than melodic, inspired by music that goes with bhangra dancing native to the Punjab. Haque is of Chilean and Pakistani ancestry, and has done much in his career to put a firm basis and virtuosity into the broad genre known as world music.

Accompanying chops from both  melody/harmony players proved to be topnotch, starting with the Theme from "Black Orpheus." Haque and Monaco paid each other the respect of supporting their colleague's solo, as Phelps drove the unit and made the most of exchanges with guitar and organ near the end; he had a  surplus of energy and ideas left for an unaccompanied flourish before the out-chorus.

After another fast standard tune, I was hoping for a slow blues, but a fast blues was more than acceptable. It was Haque's "Furry Slippers," with the composer stringing together long chains of rapid notes, all brilliantly articulated.  Phelps was once again on fire, and it was almost with relief to next get a ballad, the jazz evergreen "'Round Midnight," starting with a meditative guitar cadenza. Phelps applied soft mallets to the drums, and Monaco permitted himself an episode of skating-rink organ. Haque displayed his judicious way of contrasting slow-paced and note-thick phrases in a well-designed solo.

Another Hammond B-3 master, Joey DeFrancesco, once ended a brief chat to a Jazz Kitchen audience by saying "we've got more of this groovin' music for you." That's the most concise way to indicate what the organ trio does best. And so the Monaco-Haque-Phelps trio delivered another fast blues, funkier than the previous one, with the audience encouraged to contribute rhythmic hand claps. Eventually, a two-note riff punched out by guitar and organ gave the drummer another chance to illuminate the club, and a "churchy" coda by Monaco turned out to be a fully appropriate way to generate a standing ovation. It was "more of this groovin' music."

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]

Friday, April 16, 2021

Buoyant seasonal program presents Indianapolis Ballet from 'Grace to Grandeur'

 Still a rarity among local patronage of the performing arts, a carefully planned avenue to "the new normal" is opening this weekend with the Toby at Newfields' presentation of the Indianapolis Ballet.

Scene from IB's 2018 "Raymonda."

Offering a radiant "Grace to Grandeur," the company reports that the permitted 30 percent in-person capacity is close to being reached in four performances at the theater today through Sunday. But access to the show virtually will be available through April 30. 

Attending Thursday evening's dress rehearsal, I was struck by the largely polished execution of the four-work program. The 90-minute show is designed with the characteristic flair artistic director Victoria Lyras brings to her company's productions. Costumes and lighting for each of the pieces (to recorded musical accompaniment) had a distinctiveness that suited the choreographic spectrum.

To end with a seasoned production of "Raymonda" (Act III) rooted the program in the company's past history (it was on the IB season three years ago).  The ballet, a product of late 19th-century St. Petersburg, represents the height of Russian romanticism with Glazunov's music and Petipa's choreography. After a story involving challenges to young love defeated by magical and realistic martial prowess, a wedding is elaborately celebrated under the aegis of the Hungarian king; in the third act, the narrative comes to rest on a blissful summit. Raymonda (Jessica Miller) and Jean de Brienne (Shea Johnson) make a dazzling bridal couple.

The costumes and the clever appropriation of folk dancing animated the first part of the celebration. From there, adept staging spotlighted ensemble and more individualized dancing, ending in a finale reprising the showcased segments. It amounted to a blended climax that realized the promised grandeur of the program's title. 

I saw the Sunday cast in Thursday's dress rehearsal, which opened the program with the company's highly accomplished partnership of Yoshiko Kamikusa  and Chris Lingner in a Balanchine ballet to music of the foundational Russian composer Glinka. "Valse-Fantaisie," with the duo supported by four female dancers, brought forward the expansive, space-defining wealth of arm movements typical of Balanchine. The performers displayed a balanced feeling for the top-to-toe integration in the Russian master's choreography — its breadth and depth even when the mood is ebullient.

"Diana and Actaeon" featured another excellent partnership  — Rowan Allegra and Lucas Labrador — in a strenuous pas-de-deux by Agrippina Vaganova based on the myth of the Roman goddess of the hunt and her overmatched mortal admirer. The solo variations were carried out with panache.

An irresistible new work, by founding company member Kristin Toner Young, rounds out the current production. The choreographer made good use of two movements from Rachmaninoff's Sonata for Cello and Piano. The recording used came across as excessively bass-heavy, but that imbalance turned out to suit the darker passions hinted at in "Scherzo Passionato." 

With somber costumes by Lyras, the work for three men and three women presented a fluid scenario of relationships sometimes cooperative and positive, sometimes flecked with missed opportunities and suggestions of conflict. The music's energy inspires a choreographic vision that reinforces Rachmaninoff music's tendency to check its vigorous assertions with nostalgia and regret.



Saturday, April 10, 2021

In first concert in renovated Madam Walker Theatre, Time for Three raises the roof

 Indianapolis remembers the trio best for its decade-long residency under the Indianapolis Symphony

Charles Yang (left), Ranaan Meyer,  Nick Kendall

Orchestra aegis, but along the way Time for Three built a national reputation that it seeks to sustain after relative inactivity during the pandemic.

Yet Charles Yang, Nick Kendall, and Ranaan Meyer have exploited Zoom to come up to the mark creatively, as they told a sizable audience Friday night at Madam Walker Legacy Center. The theater retains its majestic Egyptian decor, and its lighting looked splendid for this live-streamed presentation. It was a treat to encounter musicians in three well-lit dimensions.

With their classical backgrounds steadily expanding into other genres, these adept string instrumentalists have in recent years added vocals to their virtuosity.  Yang, holder of two Juilliard degrees in violin, is the principal singer, with solidly rooted backup vocals provided by Kendall and Meyer.

There was an abundance of precisely timed cat-and-mouse exchanges among the group in the first two numbers: the J.S.Bach-centered "Chaconne in Winter" and the original salute to Tf3's Curtis Institute genesis in "Philly Phunk." The first vocal showcase came with "Vertigo," a song by the trio's repertoire shaper, Steve Hackman. It was the first example what became too much emphasis on songs for the classical series of which Time for Three was a highly anticipated part. Not that anyone should expect anything strictly classical about this group, but more concentration on violin/contrabass excellence would have been welcome in a concert for the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

And the trio has long exhibited such excellence, from the time best known to me, when co-founder Zach De Pue had the position now filled with an extra measure of showmanship by Yang. "Banjo Love" displayed some of the classic Time for Three country-music roots, as the fiddling in one branch of that genre has long been second nature to the group's violinists.

There was a further classical tribute in a pastel arrangement of a Chopin prelude, stuck in between the original "Learn to Love" (with Yang on guitar) and the exuberant "Joy" (with some passing reminders of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony).  Further adaptations of pop hits were dispatched with plenty of feeling in Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and Ben E. King's "Stand by Me." The sound system seemed adequate, but Yang's diction was much clearer when he spoke than when he sang. His falsetto was top-drawer, however.

There was another old hit, which is covered by everybody, it seems: an eloquent instrumental arrangement of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." One of the new pieces, indicating that Time for Three will never have to rely on such evergreen settings, is a Zoom-produced, self-described "loopy" joint creation called "Slim Jim Stinky Bee," which went over well as it concisely surveyed Time for Three's penchant for fun and pinpoint exuberance.


Thursday, April 8, 2021

Light yet substantial, Dance Kaleidoscope's 'Spring Soufflé' opens vistas of hope and renewal

Drawing obvious benefits from a new home of its own, Dance Kaleidoscope shows in "Spring Soufflé" how thriving despite global uncertainties can look when technical and imaginative prowess is brought to bear to extend a distinguished history.

Available via streaming through April 18, the program includes three world premieres and, in conclusion, a galvanized excerpt from one of the troupe's past hits, "Skin Walkers." 

Old favorite: "Skin Walkers' finale caps "Soufflé."

There is no let-up in the decades-long parade of impressive new works by DK artistic director David Hochoy. The show opens with the plainly titled "Ravel Piano Concerto (First Movement)." In setting this variegated excerpt from the French composer's Piano Concerto in G major, Hochoy takes delight in choreographing the interplay between solo instrument and orchestra. 

The dialogue is splashy and concise in the best manner of Ravel's maturity. Hochoy's insights into that are brightly executed by the company, with Emily Dyson, Paige Robinson, and Stuart Coleman in highlighted positions as Laura E. Glover's richly blue lighting emphasizes the composer's affinity for American jazz of nearly a century ago. 

When the piano part emphasizes florid figuration, the full company follows suit. I particularly enjoyed the way the troupe steps out delicately from offstage in a modest procession during the harp cadenza. All of this is sensitively shot on the Indiana Repertory Theatre stage, with unobtrusive visual changes in depth, by the WFYI Productions cameras. The final measures of Ravel's score are dazzlingly realized.

Emily Franks and Marie Kuhns in "Primavera"

For responsiveness to variety within a well-designed musical framework, Stuart Coleman's new work must be mentioned here. "Primavera" is set to Arcangelo Corelli concerti grossi, music of juxtaposed contrasts for string orchestra. Some of it is fleet and untroubled; elsewhere moodiness and emotional ambivalence take over for a while.  Coleman, DK artistic associate, takes that in stride and revels in how ornamentation cleverly inflects repeated phrases. 

His scenario seeks to bring out the contrasts between the facades people present to one another and how authenticity may emerge with various degrees of intention in social settings. There are representations of gossip and backbiting, self-consciousness as well as nonchalance. Costuming helps distinguish how people choose to decorate or expose their true natures. Lydia Tanji's lyrical costumes are essential to Coleman's concept.

"Primavera" reveals to me how self-presentation may mean presenting our best selves, not just the superficial impressions we often prefer to make. Once again, as he did so well in his 2020 Hochoy collaboration "Give My Regards to..." Coleman displays his astute sense of theater. He seems to have a gift for creating dances that pack a lot into them, but flow with vivid suggestions of humor and conflict, uncluttered and immediate. "Primavera" deserves repertory status as DK stretches into the future.

Hochoy's "Twinkle Twinkle," the program's other world premiere, also shines with a keen wit. It's

Marie Kuhns and Cody Miley in "Twinkle Twinkle"

typically presented in solo dances, with one particularly playful duet variation for Marie Kuhns and Cody Miley. Since the music is a Mozart set of variations on the tune known in French as "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman," Hochoy's manner of spotlighting his  troupe members individually is a  canny choice in this age of enforced isolation, with some restrictions on partnering (even with masking). The climax in a slow company variation, with Cheryl Sparks' costumes adding to the spectacle, raises the curtain on its brisk neighbor at the end. Both variations confirm that "we're all in this together," as the pandemic slogan goes.

The original Celtic-flavored score Hochoy commissioned in 1999 makes a fine setting for the finale, which is in fact the finale of a dance called "Skin Walkers." The piece delves into the folk myth of shape-shifters, beings whose reality is a matter of firm belief, even if each of their realities is a matter of mystery. The mystery is exploited for its joyful, liberating aspects in choreography that is as catchy as the music.

With such a seal placed upon it, the program is a palatable treat. This seasonal soufflé rises reliably.

[Photos by Freddie Kelvin]


Monday, April 5, 2021

Meditations on 'Mama' as a cry of need, love, and desperation

We are about to enter a second searing week of testimony in the trial of Derek Chauvin. Among other revelations, the thin reed of apparent

Derek Chauvin last May in the act for which he's on trial.

strategy supporting the defense has amazed me. One instance was when the ex-officer's attorney may have thought he had scored a point when he got George Floyd's girlfriend to admit he called her "Mama."

I infer the attorney imagined that would strike the jury as a revelation.  Assuming the dying man's repeated cries of "Mama," recorded on several videos, referred to George Floyd's deceased mother is questionable, Eric Nelson might have been implying.  An arrested man under duress, like a badly wounded soldier, might well evoke his most fundamental relationship. The victim's desperate appeals to "Mama" might have been directed toward Courteney Ross as much as to Floyd's mother.

Such a usage was not peculiar to George Floyd, however. Even from my limited knowledge of black culture, a man's calling his lover "Mama" goes back a long way. The first instance that came to mind was Elvis Presley's cover of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's song "That's All Right, Mama." This song started running in my head as soon as I saw that part of the Ross-Nelson exchange. 

The song directly mingles the two ways "Mama" can be used in black popular culture: the singer says he has been warned away from the girlfriend of the song's title by his parents, referred to as his Mama and Papa. I doubt there was any confusion among the song's intended audience; you have to reach pretty far to imagine this as an Oedipus-complex trope. Two different women are called "mama" in juxtaposition.

Louis Armstrong about the time he recorded "Save It, Pretty Mama."

A song I am somewhat more familiar with is Louis Armstrong's "Save It, Pretty Mama," one of the many gems in the treasure trove of Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings made in 1927 and 1928. The lyrics make it crystal-clear that what Louis wants saved is not a piece of his mother's apple pie. "Now save it, pretty Mama, day by day / Please, honey, don't give none away." The relationship is erotic, and the warning is a lover's plea.

Those two well-rooted examples should suffice. Floyd could very well have had both loved ones in mind when he repeatedly cried "Mama!" But the sentimentality of a dying call to one's mother lifts hearts in more than one culture, and I think Chauvin's attorney was attempting to deflate that balloon. 

Ernest Hemingway in Africa in the 1930s

Reporting for "Esquire" in 1936 on Italy's invasion of Ethiopia,  Ernest Hemingway
noted that a Mussolini foot soldier, if shot in the buttocks or thigh, was capable of mouthing patriotic slogans praising Mussolini and inclined to do so. If he was more grievously wounded, however, the cry was invariably "Oh mamma mia!" and "the Duce will be far from his thoughts."

Hemingway was clearly stirred by the contrast. In "A Farewell to Arms," he famously scorned all the language of patriotism linked to martial sacrifice. So he was dependably dismissive of the ordinary warrior's response to flesh wounds. But a bone-breaking or nerve-striking or belly-bursting shot would have him reflexively cry out to his mother. 

Now, Hemingway hated his mother (maybe the new Ken Burns documentary will go into that), but he clearly appreciated the significance of the Italian soldier's heart-rending cry as heard on the  Ethiopia "field of honor" (Hemingway's ironic term). The seasoned reporter goes on to write that a soldier so wounded, if lucky, should have been advised to shift into a prone position to discourage the vultures who could be expected to gather quickly around a dying man, plucking out his eyes and otherwise going about their scavenger duties.

In the conclusion of an amply sympathetic report about the common soldiers serving the fascist cause, Hemingway writes: "...when the birds come down...I hope when they are hit someone will have told them to roll over on their faces so they can say 'Mamma mia!' with their mouths against the earth they came from."

The vulture in George Floyd's case was of the human variety, representing the force of white supremacy scavenging the often doomed vitality of black lives in America. The earth against which his face was pressed was paved over, but it was the same earth, and the cry — whether addressed to a mother or a girlfriend or Mother Earth itself  — can be taken as a universal response to the surprise of painful, unexpected, and often unjustifiable death.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Family values, riffing on community support: Steve Allee & Friends celebrate Jazz Kitchen anniversary

Pianist Steve Allee guides a top-drawer quintet.

 A fortunate continuity linking business acumen and art can account for the Jazz Kitchen's survival since it opened its doors in 1994. 

In addition to the insight and doggedness of proprietor David Allee, the musical links that he built upon through the stature of his father, pianist-bandleader Steve Allee, has allowed the club to keep its head above water through a schedule combining touring acts and local performers, boosted regularly by Thursday Lain DJ nights.

The senior Allee was on hand again Friday night to light the candles on a Jazz Kitchen birthday cake. The pandemic probably made assembling the usual big band next to impossible. Instead, a stellar quintet was on hand to join the durable pianist-composer: Sophie Faught, tenor sax; John Raymond, trumpet and flugelhorn; Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums.

The first set consisted of flavorful Allee originals, with the pianist's solo turn reaching back to the Eubie Blake evergreen, "Memories of You." (There's an incidental local connection: Though that song was written with Andy Razaf, much of Blake's collaboration involved Indianapolis native Noble Sissle.) Allee's rendition was a deeply felt excursion in the penultimate spot, just before the band reassembled for "Fourth Street," opened assertively by Tucker and featuring a significant exhibition of Phelps' drumming with bass-drum bombs and cymbals galore.

Earlier in the set, Tucker picked up electric bass as Allee took a turn on electric piano behind Raymond's coruscating solo. Allee invited the capacity crowd to submit a suggested title for the captivating number on a 50-dollar bill. Being a little short of cash, I want to suggest "Herd Immunity," both for its topicality and its appropriateness in light of the piece's upbeat, let's-get-this-done feeling and a surprising chord pattern that signaled the adventures to come as we emerge from the pandemic. (A punning variation: "Heard Immunity," except that might connote an irrelevant commentary on the drummer J.C. Heard [1917-1988].)

As for the rest: Ever a canny program organizer, Allee opened with a catchy hard-bop update, "Midnight at the Sunset." He told the audience later this was a tribute to the heyday of the Indiana Avenue jazz scene, which flourished in the 1950s (about the time that hard bop made its mark). The follow-up, an evocation of an old Indianapolis neighborhood, was a more variegated tribute, fanning out from a ballad start into a lively stunner featuring some forceful eloquence by the saxophonist. 

In "Twisted Taffy," the horn solos were vivid and sounded fully at home in a sojourn to the funky side. With his deft manner of exploring all sides of the jazz spectrum, Allee guided the group through "A Prayer for All," in which every solo followed a common thread. That was a sure sign of the players' flexibility and their ability to convey a consistent sense of a new piece's atmosphere.

 "Shuffle Play" picked up on the randomness of its title by bringing out everyone's sense of fun. It was typical of this band's joy and sureness in its celebratory mission. Happy 27th birthday, Jazz Kitchen!

]Photo by Rob Ambrose]