Thursday, September 30, 2021

Hoosier violinist is vital to success of 'Within Us' by Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge

 In addition to the well-crafted band arrangements of "Within Us," the silver-anniversary recording (Mama Records) by Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge is welcome for the generous spotlight shone upon Sara Caswell, a violinist with a prominent Indiana University pedigree, trained early in classical music before she went through IU's renowned jazz curriculum created by David Baker.

Sara Caswell makes major contributions.

She gets several solo outings in the course of the eight pieces, some of them setting the stage for Owen's extensive ensemble thoughts. She introduces the deliberations of "Trail of the Ancients" with trenchant musings, and when a regular tempo is established and guitarist LaRue Nikelson sets a pattern, she supplements his recurring contributions in deft phrase endings. Later, Caswell soars, and the tasty voicings for the ensemble make a perfect setting.  After a guitar cadenza, there are exchanges between the two soloists to put a cap on a memorable performance. In sum, brevity as well as extrapolation are her soul of wit.

Solo distinction from others is a feature of the disc immediately, as soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson and first-rank vibraphonist Warren Wolf lead the charge through Chick Corea's "Chelsea Shuffle."

The tidiness and individuality of nearly every solo make up for what often struck me as a longwindedness in the arrangements that didn't always sustain interest. To my ears, "Apalachicola" and "The Better Claim" fall into this category. It's not that I can't pay attention for about 10 minutes to new music for big band, but that I felt here and in a few other places that Owen's exhilaration in the quality of his players got the better of his judgment. Gil Evans was the pioneer of this sort of thing several decades ago.

There's no doubt, however, that Owen has earned the loyalty of good players who appreciate when a well-designed ensemble shows them off at their best, and even when they take their places in the collective mix. Clay Jenkins' bright trumpet solo in "Milestones" manages to pay tribute to Miles Davis without imitation. It's set up by the band's fidgety romping through a riff until the familiar theme is nimbly laid out.

The band's rhythmic acuity is well displayed in "Sparks Fly," with closely aligned short phrases bursting out, punctuated by group glisses. The sparks are genuine. The title piece features a reflective piano solo from Per Danielsson, unaccompanied at first, then subtly reinforced by the band. The  ensemble sounds relaxed and probing at the same time. Rex Wertz's tenor-sax solo is rhapsodic. 

The performance aptly reinforces the note of hope Owen found in a quotation from Albert Camus that provides the title of both this piece and the disc, which was recorded last May. It says, in part: "In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm" — words worth applying to a project conceived and executed during the pandemic. Owen himself must be a kind of existentialist sage.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

A jazz club in Mexico City: Fausto Palma and Petra

Five days in Mexico City offered a chance, hosted by my son William, to visit Zinco Jazz Club in the central historic district. If you're a jazz fan in Mexico City with time to spend away from the many attractive tourist sites, check out the Zinco web site for its varied schedule of performers.

Fausto Palma covers a wide musical sweep.
Multi-instrumentalist Fausto Palma and Petra, a quintet, presented a varied opening set Saturday evening. The club's atmosphere embraces low lighting under a low ceiling, and the cozy vibe is inviting. Palma and his men played original music keyed to his mastery of several string instruments whose provenance is wide and cross-cultural.

The leader began by featuring the oud, a Turkish lute, and we also heard numbers focusing on a close relative of the Indian dilruba, called sarangi. Palma's virtuoso shredding of the electric guitar early in the set brought to mind the personal expansion of the Jimi Hendrix style that John McLaughlin achieved to great acclaim decades ago.

Beyond blues-inflected note-spinning, it's not hard also to see the influence of the British guitarist, who rose to fame as a key Miles Davis sideman, in another way: Palma fronts a quintet with the same instrumentation as McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, as heard on "Birds of Fire," for example. It consists of violin, keyboards, electric bass, and drums surrounding Palma.

Like McLaughlin's band, Petra's is centered on the leader, obviously to bring each of his several instruments to the forefront. That's all to the good, but at one point between numbers, I stage-whispered to my violinist son: "It's time to give the violinist some!" By a kind of banal telepathy, I suppose, the very next piece included a violin solo, which was zesty and cunningly phrased, drawing applause from the packed room. 

There were brief showcases for the other sidemen as well. Each of them had his role to play in supporting Palma with clarity and consistent rapport. Zinco's sound system was well-regulated, so that even the loud music never got blurred or deafening. The set offered an attractive vista of the multi-ethnic possibilities within the jazz world; such outlooks have become more common given the music's global outreach.



Monday, September 20, 2021

IU's season-opening production of 'The Magic Flute' brings forward Mozart's music with some dramatic shifts

Tamino and Pamina reach trial's final stage.

To begin with, Monostatos would need his comic villainy whitewashed. It was easy to assume this in advance of attending "The Magic Flute" in Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music production, which began a two-weekend run Friday night.

And so it was. The reigning Priest of the Sun's bad hire could no longer whine about his blackness or his ugliness, as the libretto to Mozart's masterpiece has it. In an era where it is controversial to darken the features of a white tenor singing Otello, there would be no way to adhere to the original in that respect. 

But more central to the story is the way it upholds patriarchy, albeit of an enlightened and ethical kind. There are hints of  IU's different direction well before the arch-villainess Queen of the Night and her adherents are symbolically embraced in the realm of her nemesis, Sarastro. That's the staged equality of this production's final scene, capping director Michael Shell's up-to-the-minute interpretation.

In 2021, clearly enlightenment needs to presume that higher levels of humanity are accessible to everyone. Even the undeniable musical contrast between the bass Sarastro, who sings the only music that could be imagined to come from the mouth of God (according to George Bernard Shaw), and the dazzling, vengeful coloratura flights of the Queen can't be allowed to resulting in her utter vanquishing at the final curtain. Resolution must be complete and supportive of a truly enlightened outlook, as I read Shell's version. Men and women need each other on equal terms — a swerve away from the opera's message that they need each other under the guidance of men.

'That woman': The Queen of the Night in her element

Confirmed by the surtitles, a priest's early warning to Tamino  against submitting to the wiles of women needed to be pinpointed as a demand to resist "that woman," the Queen of the Night. The production goes far to remove gender bias. In one of the choruses, the white-robed women protest against their exclusion with waving fists. The choral singing was splendid Friday night, by the way.

Fortunately, the vital thread on which the contemporary interpretation hangs is the authentic elevation of Pamina, the Queen's daughter, to worthy partnership with the prince Tamino as he seeks admission into Sarastro's order, motivated by his love for Pamina. That's in the original libretto,  part of impresario Emanuel Schikaneder's chock-a-block mixture of high-mindedness and buffoonery. The character is clearly special, and Tamino couldn't have come through his trials without her devotion; but in this production, she is also an avatar of powerful sisterhood.

Not surprisingly, then, this Sarastro combines nobility with — in the spoken English dialogue — an occasional offhandedness. When one of the priests questions why the amiable, loutish bird-catcher Pagageno is being allowed to undergo trials along with the idealistic Tamino, Sarastro says that's just for fun. And why not? The pair are just accidental companions, and life's variegated way of throwing people together is a major driver of the "Flute" plot. Hints of quasi-divine capriciousness are not out of place, as Jehovah illustrates time and again in the Old Testament.

The cast I saw set Yuntong Han and Ian Rucker as the unlikely partners-in-hazing to which Sarastro's order has assigned them. Stress at my late arrival caused by travel difficulties from Indianapolis was relieved by Han's smooth, ardent performance of "Dies Bildness ist bezaubernd schön," the first music I was able to hear after hasty seating at the Musical Arts Center. (Han would prove impressive both vocally and dramatically in each subsequent appearance.)

I'm sorry I missed Papageno's zesty song of self-introduction, "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja," which I suppose must have been captivating, based on how well Rucker threw himself into the role.  Of course, not hearing the expansive, deftly foreshadowing overture was also regrettable. If Arthur Fagen's sensitive handling of the orchestra subsequently was any indication, it was a kaleidoscopic delight as an introduction to the rites and revels.

Papageno and Pamina compare notes.

Rucker's portrayal included the most of several tweakings of the spoken dialogue toward modern colloquialisms. The Shickaneder spirit ruled in such revisions; Mozart's friend and collaborator always had his finger on the popular pulse. The theatrical Singspiel tradition that the composer enhanced when working with his native German meant he never disdained lowbrow stuff. Some of his letters are notoriously smutty. One can only write one great Requiem, after all, and Mozart's efforts toward a comedy embracing his Masonic values had to be interrupted by that mysterious, sacred commission. To the dying composer, one task was probably a welcome relief from the other. 

Visually, the production fills the capacious stage with authority; there's no doubt about the solidity of the Sarastronian infrastructure. Temple and vaulted hallway vistas are imposing along the back. Of the special effects, only the attraction of beasts and birds to Tamino's flute seemed wispy, as the projected birds flitting about looked more like wind-blown leaves. (Lighting, set and projection designs were the work of Mark F. Smith and Ken Phillips.)

In contrast, the Queen of the Night is treated to star-flaming dazzle, accompanied by a brilliant full moon, for her iconic aria in the second act. Elise Hurwitz handled its demands capably, and carried herself with authority in the spoken dialogue as well. When the Queen's realm collapses, the lighting design remarkably represents the impact  of its downfall. If she had to suffer such a spectacular defeat, she probably deserved the salvation that this production extends to her at the end.

IU's Three Spirits: Always good for a bit of intrusive wisdom

There was a "steampunk"  or graphic-novel flamboyance about some of the costuming. It vividly depicted Monostatos and his creepy, skittering henchmen, as well as the retro-urchin look of the original's Three Boys. They supply warnings and advice to the three adventurers, move about on a unique wagon cycle, and represent a kind of streetwise spirituality, delightfully sung by three sopranos and thus rechristened Three Spirits. More substantial trio work for sopranos (of which the Jacobs School has long had dozens at a time) was given well-blended assertiveness by Giuliana Bozza, Jessica Bittner, and Catarine Hancock as the Three Ladies.

Jenna Kreider's Pamina suited Shell's concept of a woman sure of her place in Tamino's progress, but her voice was a little less suited to project vulnerability and self-doubt. "Ach, ich fűhl's,"  the tenderest lament, had a steely core to it, which could be arguably defended as representative of this crucial character as she works her way out of victimhood with both natural and supernatural help. 

The height difference between Rucker and the Papagena he is cast with, Adriana N. Torres Diaz, is exploited amusingly in their reunion duet, which earned the opening night's biggest ovation until the final one. Another worthwhile episode of hilarity was the coordinated dancing of Monostatos and his men once the glockenspiel Pagageno carries cranks into operation and defuses their menace into a helplessly silly departure.

How seriously we are to take Sarastro's priests and hirelings, given that their boss is only intermittently lofty in demeanor, remained a question to me. As delivered, some of their spoken dialogue seemed sarcastic, some merely earnest. The Speaker (Edmund Brown) was rather neutral in his brief sung conversation with Tamino. The two Armored Men had their slight but aptly severe roles sung with coordinated fervor by Cody Boling and Drew Comer.

Here and there, slight coordination problems between stage and pit popped up, but on the whole action and music were well-integrated. "The Magic Flute" is in an odd way perpetually avant-garde, despite its Singspiel heritage. There's nothing like it in today's core opera repertoire, and IU's production really believes in "The Magic Flute"'s oddities as well as its majesty. It delivers an interpretation duly adjusted to modern tastes but respectful of the work's permanent brilliance as well. Two performances remain next weekend; the opening-night cast returns Saturday, with the September 18 cast reappearing Friday.





Indy Jazz Fest returns to its in-person, outdoor roots

Host Matthew Socey was right to proclaim from the stage of Garfield Park's MacAllister Amphitheater

Akiko Tsuruga shows Hammond B-3 mastery.

that events like the Indy Jazz Fest are permanently indebted to the pioneering example of George Wein, who died last week at the age of 95.

Wein founded the generating event, the Newport Jazz Festival, in 1954 and went on as impresario of many other music festivals around the world. In his marvelous memoir, "Myself Among Others: A Life in Music," a common theme of his signature jazz festivals was the mixture of musical artists only distantly related to jazz and exponents of the music celebrated in the label "jazz festival."

So it's not a departure from the Weinian model that the IJF has long followed suit, subtly thumbing its nose at the tendency of jazz fans to dig a moat around their favorite music. This year's event, a return to concert performances outdoors, is liberally populated with representatives of jazz's subgenres, as curator and prominent local drummer Richard "Sleepy" Floyd reminded the public in an interview by Kyle Long on WFYI-FM's "Cultural Manifesto."

A sub-genre may sound like something of a stepchild, but in this weekend's programming, it is not subject to the mistreatment of that stereotype. On the contrary, talents with good name recognition among the nonjazz-focused public are given prominence to attract the much-desired audience growth as twilight approaches. Sunday's schedule, which I was unable to experience, leans more heavily in this direction than Saturday's.

 Exhausted by more than six hours of Saturday's music, I left as the programming veered away from my interests after Moonchild, an ensemble of three multi-instrumentalists keyed to solo female vocals, had played two songs. Victor Wooten, a  favorite among aficionados of the electric bass, was yet to come. I was curious yet wary, having heard from two sources that the pandemic had idled him from public appearances for well over a year. It was time to go home. Here are some impressions of the bulk of Saturday's performances.

Kenny Banks Jr., a finalist in 2019 American Pianists Awards, opened the afternoon fronting a compatible trio that included Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums.  He exhibited a variety of strong, fleeting impressions in the set, in which his partners were fully alert to intricate arrangements. He favored unaccompanied, ruminative introductions that  could sometimes fool you into thinking he'd changed his mind about what he just announced: An original piece about an up-and-down relationship in his past opened with extensive quotation from Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark."  Banks has titled the piece "The Loony Tune," thus alluding to that old song with its line beginning "crazy as a loon" was not  far afield. 

Banks seemed happy to share his compositions with his mates and not overwhelm them with piano. For  "The Price of Dignity," a tribute to the "black Wall Street" of Tulsa, Okla., destroyed by a white mob a century ago, he gave space for Tucker to take a long, brooding solo before the piece attained  bustling speed, with a hint of indignation.

Veteran drummer Jeff Hamilton drives Tsuruga's set.

Sticking with the afternoon's other trio performance, let me celebrate the marvel of the Akiko Tsuruga's Organ Trio, in which this electrifying keyboard maestra enjoyed the partnership of drummer Jeff Hamilton, the pride of Richmond, Indiana, and the fluent and soulful young guitarist Graham Dechter.

 I just became acquainted with Dechter's playing through a new Capri Records release ("Major Influence") in which he and Hamilton are arm-in-arm partners along with customary Hamilton sidemen John Clayton, bass, and Tamir Hendelman, piano.

Their late-afternoon set was a joy from beginning to end, opening with an affectionately rueful, hard-swinging portrait of the organist's pet cat titled "So Cute, So Bad." I thought I picked up the mixture of blues and country influences a la Herb Ellis in Dechter's playing before he introduced the second piece, "Orange Coals," as a tribute to a couple of his heroes, fellow guitarist Ellis (1921-2010) and tenor saxophonist George Coleman. 

Tsuruga's variety of articulation and timbre on the Hammond B-3 offered constant pleasure. There was some witty quotation as she included a few phrases of "Let It Snow" in her "It's Easy to Remember, and So Hard to Forget" solo. Was that some sly climate-change commentary? Perhaps.  The arrangements put prismatic emphasis on all sides of the trio's rapport. Slide Hampton's "Frame for the Blues" started by featuring Hamilton on brushes, of which he's a supreme master, then went to a virtuoso turn from Dechter. Tsuruga's solo started out deep-toned and foreboding, then ascended and brightened. Before long, it took off in the sweeping, tidal-wave manner of most jazz organ maestros, just as I suspected it would.

An overeager emcee took that performance for the group's finale; the cutoff surprised everyone. Fortunately, he brought them back for Hamilton's wryly titled "Osaka Samba" (in honor of the organist's hometown), a "Mack the Knife" that brought from Tsuruga's protean organ the whispers, moans, sighs, and screams of the title character's victims, then segued directly into a set-closing blues. 

Larger groups filled the rest of the afternoon for me. I'm not sure that Rob Dixon's periodic expansion of his Triology focus on three players is always a good idea. As of Saturday, Triology Plus was up to seven at a time, and the pile-driving intensity of the ensemble could have used more relief, but it went over well with the audience. The textures tended to be thick, and even the ballad-like second number was subjected to the group's tendency to double down on everything. Dixon has done some catchy writing for these forces, dependent on ensemble riffs enunciated by the front line, in which the saxophonist was joined at the hip by trombonist Ernest Stuart, and flugelhornist/trumpeter Marlin McKay. 

He introduced his "Dreams in the Exosphere" as something he hoped might be picked up by technology space wizard Elon Musk. The composer-bandleader made a good impression with some heavy alto playing, and there was a stellar bass solo. The piece was worthy of its inspiration in seeming almost as protracted as human interplanetary travel is bound to be.

The afternoon's second set was a revealing exhibition of what Premium Blend has been up to. Jared Thompson and Ryan Taylor are responsible for about half the book each of this fine quartet, which also includes Brian Yarde, drums, and Brandon Meeks, bass.  The group got some sympathetic assistance from Louisville's Kendall "Keyz" Carter, a keyboardist both graceful and funky. Carter worked especially well with Yarde in the course of Thompson's tribute to his mother, "Teresa." 

The program was well-designed, with a highlight at midpoint  being an excerpt from the suite "38th and Postmodernism,"  Previously heard only virtually, the suite adds three musicians in tasty arrangements by the flutist, Amanda Gardier; the other two guests were Ethan Hodes, flugelhorn, and Rich Dole, trombone.

The featured excerpt, "The Hustler," showed off the firmness and swing of the ensemble. That piece moved directly into Thompson's "Torment," with  flute leading the way, more good ensemble, and a captivating piano solo  by Carter. I like how well the arrangements worked with patterns that explore every channel into which the composers pour inspiration, allowing free play for concise solos as well. Some of the best, here and elsewhere in Premium Blend's set, happened when the band's twin creative forces took the spotlight. Saxophonist Thompson and guitarist Taylor always carried off their solos with lyrical warmth and a firm sense of direction. 

They and their sidemen are among the indications that Indianapolis jazz will be in good hands before audiences to come, whether at festivals or in clubs, in schools or other institutions, as the scene returns to something approaching normal.

Normal, take another chorus or two, please!

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Having been somewhat submerged by pandemic constraints, Dance Kaleidoscope celebrates 'Breaking the Surface'

Returning to its home stage for live performances, Dance Kaleidoscope is prepared again to bring its virtuosity to the main stage of Indiana Repertory Theatre as the troupe makes a season-opening splash with "Breaking the Surface."

Seen at a dress rehearsal Wednesday night, the program struck me as a gathering of choreographic responses to music that treats repetition as both idiom and structure in the first half and as a polarity worth challenging in the second. Performances run tonight through Sunday.

Coincidentally reading a book of essays by Thornton Wilder, I'm struck by his robust defense of Gertrude Stein, an avatar of linguistic modernism. That literary iconoclast is still remembered for "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" and for her consistent, often harder-to-unpack opposition to prose conventions. Literature had become overburdened with description, she warned us, and written language was stifling how to represent ways we really think and behave, instead refurbishing direct experience to suit rhetorical norms. We need to be brought back to how life-giving seeming to repeat ourselves may be.

Light and dark and mystery: "Sneaky Pete"

"Now listen!" Stein once thundered when asked about that "rose"  line. "I'm no fool. I know that in daily life we don't go around saying 'is a....'" I think the music and movement of both "Chairman Dances" and "Sneaky Pete" serve to amplify Stein's "conviction that repetition is a form of insistence and emphasis that is characteristic of all life, of history, and of nature itself," as Wilder put it.

What Hochoy does in this  revision of his 1998 "Chairman Dances" (to John Adams' outtake from the opera "Nixon in China") is to ceremonialize repetition. "If a thing is really existing there can be no repetition," Stein wrote in her signature cryptic manner, nailed down by her spare punctuation. "Then we have insistence insistence that in its emphasis can never be repeating, because insistence is always alive and if it is alive it is never saying anything in the same way because emphasis can never be the same...."

"Chairman Dances" is an indisputably alive work. In Wednesday's performance, its insistence was as pure as its chaste costuming, light and white (or close to it). The bearing of the dancers at the start presents them as avatars of repetition raised to a Steinian level of insistence:  Heads raised slightly, each arm up and out to the side and bent at the elbow, held back so that the torso is steadily thrust forward.

Like Adams' music, typically less strict about the minimalism with which it was associated, Hochoy's choreography varies the emphasis alluringly. Adams shifts his insistence/repetition through episodes that for a while suggest ballroom dancing (Adams subtitled his work "Foxtrot for Orchestra"). Hochoy follows suit with one couple offering sweeping contrast to the other dancers' variations on the initial ceremoniousness. There is a breathtaking processional, climaxed by a group  lift and supported  drop for one of the women, ending in a tableau burst of radiance, a typically effective touch in Laura E. Glover's lighting design. The work still maintains its formal "is a..." stature — with the helpful caveat that dance is inherently other than how we go around moving "in daily life."

Natalie Clevenger is hands-down Sneaky Pete.

Guest choreographer Clawson's "Sneaky Pete," originally created for Giordano Dance Chicago,  carries staging credits for Joshua Blake Carter and Ethan Kirschbaum. The music runs in a deeper, more intense channel than Adams', but its peculiar insistence is keyed to the drive of the choreography's witty narrative. One black-clad dancer opens the work soundlessly skulking down an aisle shining a flashlight. Natalie Clevenger plays the title character, and a determined search, soon focused on a woman in red (Emily Dyson), plays out among a turbulent ensemble.

 Like Sneaky Pete, crouching and hiding their lower faces into the crook of their elbows, the dancers delightfully blur the distinction between the sought and the searching. Who is after whom gradually becomes clear, and eventually the title character is trapped in the center.  The costumes seem to enfold various degrees of shadow within them. The lighting, adapted by Glover from the original, imitates the effect of streetlights shining through Venetian blinds. The film-noir atmosphere is an indelible treat for the eyes as Clawson's restless scenario plays out like a case for a private eye. But our own eyes solve the case under the choreography's savvy encouragement.

Stingy-brim fedoras cap a zesty part of "Feeling Good."

After intermission comes a welcome contrast to the Steinian insistence. "Feeling Good" is a suite set to Michael Bublé recorded performances. An interpreter of protean range, from romantic balladeer to sophisticated man-about-town, Bublé  has a zest and flow to his interpretations that put him in line with the great crooners of the past. Choreography to seven of his songs by Hochoy and associate artistic director Stuart Coleman covers the full range of the company's skills, including its adeptness in solos, duos, and trios. 

The choreographers share a vivid sense of humor and a love of happy endings that both surprise and satisfy. The latter gift couldn't have been better illustrated than by the partnership of Marie Kuhns and Cody Miley in "You Don't Know Me." The  dancers concisely convey the tension of misunderstandings and misinterpretations between lovers, right down to a final break that turns out not to be final after all. Singleness of mind among lovers is impersonated by the nobility of Paige Robinson's portrayal of promising oneself only the best in "When I Fall in Love": "It will be forever," as the song's next phrase declares, and the piece delivers on that promise for all involved.

Contrasting love's satisfaction with loneliness in "Young at Heart" pitted  Coleman's thoughtful embodiment of isolation against the bliss of couples. The finale, "Feeling Good," encapsulates the verve of Dance Kaleidoscope in the aggregate, with the current young company extending a legacy that has always been well advanced by its predecessors. 

Elaborate stagings with a touch of spectacle have long been a way to climax a DK show and shed light in retrospect on deeper, more narrowly focused work, all brought off with the same panache. "Breaking the Surface" is a three-part demonstration of the virtues of insistence, whether repetition is at the core or not.

[Photos by Lora Olive]


Monday, September 13, 2021

Sowerby's jazzy side: An early 20th-century force in Chicago music gets multifaceted display

Posed for success: Paul Whiteman (center) and his men

 Some of the earliest peeks into the workshop of early jazz were made by European composers, but countrymen of the jazz pioneers here also tried their hands. Encouragement came from the visionary Paul Whiteman, a giant Westerner who "formed his own 'jazz' orchestra in Los Angeles and hit upon the idea of writing out parts for his musicians instead of the usual improvisation."

The concise quotation comes from the program notes of  Francis Corciata, president of the Leo Sowerby Foundation, accompanying Cedille Records' release of "Leo Sowerby: Paul Whiteman Commissions & Other Early Music." 

The scare quotes around "jazz" are called for, but not in disparagement of Whiteman's musical vision,

The young Leo Sowerby was a rising force in Chicago music.

which was respectful of what jazz brought to orchestral music. Even so, he headed in a different direction, picking up the innovative genre's danceable qualities and its melodic cheekiness for middle-class delectation. Furthermore, it's been said that any misrepresentation of the authentic jazz may have been enough to save jazz from being buried under an all-out attack from the musical establishment.

After the success of the concert that gave the world Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," Whiteman extended his search for more fully notated jazz-influenced works, commissioning from Sowerby "Synconata," a one-movement orchestral sonata, and a year later a Symphony for Jazz Orchestra, which originally carried the unfortunate title of "Monotony" because it was written to synchronize an orchestra with a metronome.

The music is played by the Andy Baker Orchestra and the Avalon String Quartet.  The former ensemble sounds adept at realizing a score that incorporates Whiteman's love of unusual instrumentation and musicians' versatility. Sowerby's take on modernism relies less on radicalism of the harmonic language than on embracing a pop sensibility and widening the scope of "legitimate" musical meaning. 

The fuller terrain explored in the four-movement "Monotony" (Symphony for Jazz Orchestra and Metronome) also reaches into new programmatic areas: specifically, an evocation of Sinclair Lewis' fictional philistine businessman Babbitt, subjecting the limited hero to being cajoled into an evening on the town, adjusting to the end of the work week Friday afternoon, sitting through sermons on Sunday mornings and, finally, trying to understand what he should get from classical music by reading the critics.

The last in this series allowed Sowerby to caricature music critics without naming them, and tempted him to draw more detailed portraits of newspaper reviewers than Babbitt could have been aware of, especially given his small-town experience. The critics are described in headings, and as I interpret them, we have the stubbornly resistant, the dismissive, the indecisive and hedging, and the sentimental types. Those were the most evident to me, though there are six in all.

"Monotony" is great fun, and even chamber music was a vehicle for Sowerby's lighter side. "Tramping Tune for Piano and Strings" is a lark for piano and string quartet plus double bass. (Winston Choi and Alexander Hanna are the guest players here.) More settled music is capably represented by the 1917 Serenade for String Quartet, persuasively played by the Avalon Quartet, as is the more substantial, more expressively expansive String Quartet in D minor.

Nearly a half-hour of the disc is taken up with that serious work. The movement headings are generously descriptive, though all three have substantial episodes of relaxation. Even at cruising speed, Sowerby is a mostly comfortable composer. The listener immediately understands why he went over so well in his heyday. He conveys what he's about readily. In the finale of the string quartet ("Fast and with passionate urge"), he rather overworks his material: You feel that the catchy quality of his melodies and rhythms is a feature he never wants to depart from; re-emphasis is the key. 

This well-crafted habit makes for what's generally covered by the cliche "accessibility." But it doesn't detract much from the long-range charm of music that is so well represented on this disc, covering the range of a developing American composer's output as a young man making an impact jn the Windy City.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Fringe Festival's third weekend was almost the charm

 Leading up to Labor Day, my miscellany of 2021 Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival events spread over three days suggests I might as well go for the laughs first. (I took a breather Sept. 4; what follows are some impressions from shows I saw Sept. 3 and 5. )

The spirit of spontaneity is uppermost in the Fringe tradition, so that a high priority is not put on polished performances. Encountering rough-around-the-edges shows can be welcome, and the muse of comedy typically gives an inviting nod to presentations that embody human foibles in addition to pointing them out.

At the Indy Fringe Basile Theatre Sept. 3, I took in an old Fringe favorite, the locally based troupe of young black comedians known as Act a Foo Improv Crew. The company was dependably bonded internally, with Daniel A. Martin the master of the revels, calling out the improv games and selecting from among the five-man crew assembled onstage, all on the edge of their seats when not assigned to cavort. 
The troupe thrives on taking chances

Practiced in zany verbal and gestural games over its 10-year lifespan, Act a Foo again played up to enthusiastic audience response, as Martin fielded shouted suggestions that were sometimes off-the-wall, thus inspiring off-the-wall realizations. The instantaneousness of crew's short-form creativity forced members to come up with something plausible, relying on mother wit and group rapport.

Given the wildness of the genre, plausibility is an all-accommodating notion. An individual failure to mimic kabuki theater or to adopt a French accent was readily acknowledged and made part of the fun. What counts is the relentless application of instant comic response in an atmosphere of trust in the process. Act a Foo delivered, folding in both hits and misses as if both ends of the spectrum could add up to success.

My other hour of amusement last weekend was "Deadpan Jan: My

Jan's near-smile

Life Is Not a Sex Party, Or Is It?' which was presented in the Indy Eleven Theatre that's part of the same Fringe building. Jan Gudaitis truly markets herself with that rhyming title. Apart from being outfitted distinctively, the comedienne's appearance came across as nondescript, along with her voice.

Jan's stream of observations about her life, including some rather severe assessments of her skinflint husband, reached out into fantasies about a Netflix special and dishing with Oprah. Dating misadventures from early adulthood were mixed in with Carlinesque reflections on language oddities. 

An interesting advantage of her deadpan style, nearly devoid of changes in facial expression or vocal tone, is that the jokes that fall flat do so with the same nonchalance as the guffaw generators. There is no arc to a deadpan delivery that cues the audience as to what's the set-up and what's the punchline. Furthermore, I found myself laughing quasi-genuinely but somewhat by the power of suggestion, with a note of self-assertion, as if to say, "Yes, I got that one!"  The audience likewise seemed to be making up for the lack of rise and fall in Jan's delivery by indicating amused sympathy with her outlook on life. 

The rough-around-the-edges aspect showed up in her sporadic glances at notes on a table, with the incidence of blackout cues seeming a little random. Also, though she asked if the microphone was on when she started, failing to get a clear answer she conducted the whole monologue unamplified. The audience went along with it; her softspokenness was part of the point, after all.

My Sunday afternoon began with a vigorously imaginative production of "The Old Man and the Old Moon," a play with music created by the Pig Pen Theatre Co., and presented here by a group out of Carmel High School, directed by Maggie Cassidy.  The show has a narrative of fey fantasy that was pretty well realized by performers working under the disadvantage of being away from their technically well-equipped home theater. 

The cavernous environment of the Athenaeum stage did not flatter the young voices individually, but the illusion of a charming myth about how the moon might have gone from always full to new to the waxing-waning satellite we've always known and loved — that well-designed story — stayed intact through an array of production challenges. With considerable help from the audience's imagination, the show provided enough encouragement to be rather engaging.

I wish I had been as charmed by an original musical comedy at the District Theatre, titled "Rocket in Your Pocket! Father Ned in Space, The Musical." With a book by Kate Duffy and music by a team of four, the Clerical Errors production also required considerable effort to make an admittedly fantastic illusion work even provisionally. It did so somewhat, but a show without a realistic bone in its body needs to be thoroughly grounded.

A lot of the humor is based on inoffensive Irish Catholic stereotypes (except for an alcoholic character). Jon Lindley, the one member of the cast whose local theater presence I'm most familiar with, appears in the title role as an anxious priest on Perpendicular Island near Ireland. He mentors a younger priest aspirant who has an out-of-this-world connection that shapes the whimsical sci-fi plot. A pair of Jesuits act ambitiously as the show's villains; their society's historically rooted drive is used here to demonize Lutherans and otherwise seek control within universal Catholicism. 

The songs drop into place with variable ease: smooth transitions from dialogue to song and back are always a challenge in musical theater. The projection of the solo voices varied as well, with loud recorded accompaniment sometimes obscuring the lyrics. The seven songs are placed well among the sometimes confusing dialogue and needed to be put across more consistently. 

The workshopping sometimes unapologetically present in Fringe shows was fully on view in "Oak Island, In Concert," which American Lives Theatre billed for Fringe as the preview of a show intended for full presentation presumably in the near future. The singing of the four-person cast was well-prepared and blended well. Music carried the show better than the dialogue, as the drama suffered certainly by the fragmentary presentation of a work-in-progress. A couple of songs were added to the finished portion to crown the Fringe performance, including a rousing drinking song that easily brought the audience into the picture. 

The story is based on the legend of a buried treasure on the island of the title near Halifax, Nova Scotia. A father's determination to dig down to the buried hoard has ended in his death by heart attack. It's left to his two sons, who have never gotten along, to figure out a way to carry on the project and repair fraternal rifts. "Oak Island" as a show remains to be evaluated when it can be appreciated for its balance of words and music.

Thus ends the first "post-pandemic" Indy Fringe Theatre Festival. Though my coverage was not at blitz level, what I saw indicated that the annual event may have suffered in its usual wide reach and thoroughness of preparation, show for show. Some decline was probably predictable, given the interruption all the performing arts have suffered recently. With COVID-19 threats diminished, the 2022 event can be expected to share in the arts' revival.


Sunday, September 5, 2021

With substandard audio clarified, 2005 Scott Reeves Quintet recording resurfaces attractively

Bandleader Scott Reeves with his two mellow horns.

A faculty jazz outing from 2005 at City College of New York receives a welcome first issue, thanks to trombonist-composer Scott Reeves' work with Brian Montgomery, a Grammy-winning recording/mixing engineer, who isolated the instruments and remixed them.

"The Alchemist" (Origin Records) is a title that could well be applied to the blend of science and magic that produced this resurrected version of music performed in concert 16 years ago. Some of the slightly off-kilter chemistry within the band is front and center in the churning boogaloo piece that gives its name to the recording.

The leader's devotion to two instruments with mellow, mid-range timbres — alto valve trombone and alto flugelhorn — is enhanced by his choice of simpatico sidemen: guitarist Russ Spiegel, pianist Mike Holober, bassist Howard Britz, and drummer Andy Watson.

Reeves acts as his own duo partner, with one horn overlaid on the other, in the slightly exotic opener, "New Bamboo," as well as in "Without a Trace," also notable for its thoughtful Reeves solo. The arrangements always enhance a coming-together of the five instruments, especially toward the end of a ballad such as "Remembrances."

Horn-guitar voices appear often in unison, as in the tricky "Shapeshifter," with the mutual support especially well-integrated when Holober turns to electric piano. A drum solo undergirded by a repetitive acoustic piano pattern provides the imaginative shift suggested by the title, yielding to a pungent piano solo. A supernaturally tinged ensemble passage ensues, recalling to me the moment in "Das Rheingold" when the Nibelung Alberich transforms himself into a toad. 

The original compositions are well-designed,  and there's a fresh take on the disc's one standard, "All or Nothing at All," with crunchy piano punctuation in the theme reflecting the resolution conveyed by the song title. When the bridge comes up, everything moves toward relaxation and simply glides. Spiegel sets down fleet, long phrases in his solo, which seems to inspire some of Reeves' best solo work. 

All told, this is a notable reclamation project. No barriers are broken, but rather, a band notably in touch with the material gets some well-deserved permanence with the release of this document.