Sunday, November 28, 2021

Misty in the trailer park: What art has to do with it in 'Bakersfield Mist'

You open your program for Phoenix Theatre's "Bakersfield Mist," and on facing pages are a statement from the playwright, Stephen Sachs, and opposite it the conventional page of complete credits, production history, and setting information.

Two different views of a modernist painting will be set against each other by drastically dissimilar characters, you learn, while awaiting the production's debut. When you see one of the credits is "fight choreographer" (Scott Russell), you are justified in concluding there is more than aesthetics at stake in the uninterrupted span of time ahead. Authenticity, on the other hand, is worth fighting over. And that's the terrain on which a pitched battle will ensue.

Maude (Jolene Mentink Moffat) puts her case to Lionel (Joshua Coomer).

Authenticity is what Maude Gutman, an ex-bartender in a trailer home under California desert sun, and Lionel Percy, a New York art expert whose help she solicits in assessing a painting she owns, have to come to terms with.  

On the surface, authentication brings them together, but it's focused only on a work of art Maude has acquired on the cheap and has reason to believe came from the hand, and the dripping paint cans, of Jackson Pollock. The questionable painting turns out to be a window through which both of them find out who they are. Achingly sincere in how they present themselves, one has been wounded by the art world; the other, by the real world.

"At the behest of the criterion of authenticity," wrote the literary critic Lionel Trilling, who flourished during the mid-20th-century heyday of Pollock's life and reputation and wrote a whole book called "Sincerity and Authenticity," "much that was once thought to make up the very fabric of culture has come to seem of little account, mere fantasy or ritual, or downright falsification. Conversely much that culture traditionally condemned and sought to exclude is accorded a considerable moral authority by reason of the authenticity claimed for it, for example disorder, violence, unreason."

F-bombs bursting in air open the play, as Jolene Mentink Moffat's voice of Mermanesque heft screams at Maude's neighbor's dogs menacing a rare visitor, another stuffy Lionel, played by Joshua Coomer. Mr. Percy, formerly highly placed in the art world, is attempting to coast on his reputation by working for a foundation on call to assess the value of artworks. Under the direction of Constance Macy, the actors negotiate their characters' mutual strangeness with amusing flair and a prickly combativeness that will burst into flame so oddly, yet naturally, that it would be an unforgivable spoiler for me to disclose what triggers the conflagration.

The setting, reduced to shambles eventually, begins as a scene of riotous yet almost orderly miscellany characteristic of the pack rat Maude admits to being. There's a row of bowling pins, some decorated and as large as Indian clubs, bordering the kitchen area, with various smaller gewgaws and mementos distributed elsewhere. Zac Hunter's set design is something you want to drink in responsibly. Personality flaunts itself at the expense of good taste, and that's sincere Maude on the way to becoming authentic Maude. Though she hates the style, she needs the artwork in question for contemplation on her life's ruins, and she's desperate for it to be accorded the stature she claims for it. That's where Percy comes in.

The purported Pollock painting, of which the audience gets merely momentary glimpses, may be on the order of his breakthrough work called "Lavender Mist."  Maude believes her brother and an amateur art detective of their acquaintance have sufficient evidence to attribute her prize possession to Pollock. Percy's initial scrutiny of the work results in a thumbs-down vote that he never departs from. In one of the premiere performance's funniest scenes, Coomer wordlessly examines the painting, contorting his body into various positions, stepping back and forth, as he trains his gimlet eye on the canvas. I was reminded of the purported practice of Clement Greenberg, a crucial champion of Pollock's work, to scrutinize new paintings by squinting and even putting fingers under his eyelids (ouch!) as he looked.

What Pollock actually represented is crucial to "Bakersfield Mist." The "problem of surface," in the critic Harold Rosenberg's phrase, became central in "action painting" (Rosenberg again)— abstract expressionism and many of its subsequent American offshoots. In "The Painted Word," Tom Wolfe mocked the problem of surface as an obsession with "flatness." Under critical prodding, Wolfe contended, artists adopted the orthodoxy that painting is an arrangement of forms and colors on a surface, and perspective is such an obvious illusion that it became morally questionable and artistically void in the 20th century. 

Randall Jarrell, another critic of the time, whose specialty was literature, amplified the point, stacking Pollock up negatively against the sacred monster, Pablo Picasso. "Pollock's anger at things is greater than Picasso's, but his appetite for them is small, is neurotically restricted," Jarrell wrote in "Against Abstract Expressionism," an essay published a year after Pollock's death in a drunk-driving crash. "Much of the inaccessible to Pollock. It has been made inaccessible by the provincialism that is one of the marks of our age." Near the end of his essay, Jarrell asks plaintively: "Doesn't the world need the painter's praise any more?"

Maude is trapped in that provincialism and an inability to praise the world, except in distortion by collecting its junk. Lionel Percy, blocked and frustrated by the commodification of art at its hub,  comes to realize that he is trapped in a provincialism of his own as well. They need the world's praise, perhaps, but none of us is entitled to that.

"Bakersfield Mist" is an uproarious piece of work that doesn't ask the audience to adopt a position vis-a-vis  abstract art. On the contrary, it reinforces art as a possible pathway toward getting at personal authenticity. Genuineness is a matter of belief, then of finding what that faith rests upon. What your deepest self brings to art is decisive, even if only for you. And this production comes at Sachs' play with a passionate variety of attack and insight. It holds out a certificate of authentication to be signed by anyone.

[Photo by Dragon's Eye Photography]

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Longtime friends get together to deliver core clarinet-piano repertoire, plus a brief pandemic response

Most of the music on "Here With You" occupies such a high place in the estimation of clarinet players that they use it to refute joking expressions of pity from violinists and pianists about their repertoire. They have the Opus 120 Brahms sonatas, after all.

McGill is principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic.
Anthony McGill chuckles about it in a podcast interview with James Ginsburg, founder and director of Cedille Records, which this month issued "Here With You,"  a recital disc the clarinetist performs with pianist Gloria Chien.  He's referring to the two late sonatas for clarinet and piano by Johannes Brahms. In length, they occupy two-thirds of the CD, which is completed by Carl Maria von Weber's "Grand Duo Concertant" and Jessie Montgomery's "Peace."

The partnership is so solid and inspiring that the CD title is justified by the McGill-Chien bond itself, as well as its indication of the value of getting together as musicians and friends after the dread year of 2020, then publishing the result. Signs that the pandemic is receding, while undercut by the threat of new variants, have allowed new ways of addressing the long-running health crisis through the arts. This disc is part of a widespread affirmation of that progress.

The McGill-Chien rapport can be traced back to the 2006 Music@Menlo Festival, where they discovered a mutual affinity for Brahms. On this recording, the launch of the second sonata (in E-flat, Op. 120, No. 2) seems to move the listener into an ongoing conversation between the performers. The decorative effect of triplets stands against assertive off-beat rhythms, mainly in the piano. But the compatibility is unfailing.

There's mutual attentiveness to dynamics, especially at the "sotto voce" level. McGill's tone tempts one to make tactile analogies to silk or velvet. His phrasing merits praise throughout both sonatas. I was first struck by it at the very start of Sonata No. 1 in F minor. The initial "paragraph" on the first page diminishes exquisitely with no weakening of tonal integrity. Accents and rhetorical vigor in the Vivace finale of that sonata never carry any hint of stridency. The cliché of labeling late Brahms as autumnal is not out of place as applied to these performances. But this duo helps us remember that fall is a season of transition, always promising that the cycle of life and its inevitable renewal remain strong.

Gloria Chien is a simpatico partner.
The Chicago label can lay claim to McGill as a native son, as well as touting the recent appointment of Montgomery as composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In the interview with Ginsburg, the clarinetist calls her 2020 work "Peace" "a beacon into the space that we were in that year." Despite its under-five-minute length, it "was not something we decided to throw in there" between the giants of Brahms and Weber, but a hallmark of the emotional and musical connections of "Here With You."

The slightly thorny piano introduction suggests the stress of last year's Covid-19 restrictions, upon which the clarinet melody sheds balm. The wind instrument becomes the protagonist as the piano toggles between understated chords in response. This seemed to capture the wariness and even emotional paralysis of 2020, but over "Peace"'s efficient length, the two instruments come into a kind of pacific adjustment to new circumstances. Chien shows herself to be a full-spectrum player, always setting the partnership on a solid foundation, with inspiration coming from her side as well as McGill's throughout the program.

The showpiece by Weber amounts to an exercise in virtuosic spectacle, starting with the Allegro con fuoco. The honesty of the "duo" label is quickly substantiated by the piano, which becomes a vehicle for operatic display in the second movement, Andante con moto. The finale, Rondo: Allegro, sets up a fine gallop in tandem, rising to exhilarating heights in a brilliant coda. The security of both performers and their joy in collaboration are never in doubt.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Jared Schonig's 'Two Takes': An experiment in contrasting perspectives on the same music

Jazz drumming ranges from a service position in the music to a magnetic force generating everything from

Jared Schonig earns a living mainly on Broadway.

creation to execution. In "Two Takes" (Anzic Records), Jared Schonig spreads the more activist role widely by presenting original compositions in two forms: big band and quintet. Each has its own CD covering the same material set in a different order.

The small group honors the combo tradition in the way it maximizes solo space. Yet Schonig's choice of sidemen doesn't parade its individuality as much as the musicians honor the new material; as an ensemble, the quintet works well. Driven by the creator/boss, they are Marquis Hill, trumpet; Luis Perdomo, piano and Rhodes electric piano; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone, and Matt Clohesy, bass. 

To emphasize the solo contributions, Schonig inserts three solo drum interludes within the program of his nine compositions, and starts things off with a brief introduction to the first tune, "White Out." The ensemble quality shows tight rapport, and the solos take off from a high-energy background, as Hill's trumpet does in "Eight Twenty," following Louis' buoyant alto solo. Everyone sounds at home in the setting. Colors are slightly varied from piece to piece, with "Sound Evidence" standing out for its muted trumpet and foundational Clohesy solo. The relaxed but sometimes driving essence of the pieces is further varied by the brooding "Tig Mack," on which pianist Perdomo is remarkably eloquent, and the blues-based "Sabotage." 

The defining character of such pieces is carried over in the big-band recording, where Schonig has entrusted his compositions to a roster of skillful arrangers. Alan Ferber handles "Sabotage" imaginatively, distinguishing the band's instrumental choirs in contrast with unison passages. Big accents dot this arrangement and others, with precisely timed outbursts. The estimable Jim McNeely handled "White Out" with subtlety in the way ensemble statements are spread out. Trumpet soloist Scott Wendholt has lots to say, but like all the soloists on the big-band disc, he says it succinctly.

Other standout solos include Marshall Gilkes' wide-ranging trombone and Nir Felder's bluesy guitar in "Sound Evidence," characterized by brief phrases, with the ensemble statements spread out. Muted trumpet and flute sonorities color the theme, which Schonig underlines on brushes. 

The dour "Gibbs St." ends both discs, moody and urbanely reflective. Donny McCaslin is ideal for characterizing the big-band version with his sax solo. In the quintet version, the interplay between Hill and Louis is just as appropriate in its blend of rumination and intensity. 

All told, this project exerts hypnotizing power in both settings, and the leader — without overshadowing his colleagues — never settles for the routine service role. He's front and center on drums, while remaining fully attentive to the collegiality that helps represent him as a composer, a function he justly considers equally important.




Sunday, November 21, 2021

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra: Celebration of an imperiled planet through music

 "Celebrating Mother Earth" is an old-fashioned title for a program very much focused on the present.

Reinaldo Moya, commissioned composer
The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra put together a couple of modern pieces to represent attitudes toward the nature that we are called to be familiar with, and anchored the unfamiliar in the familiar with a classic covering a basic fact of the natural world: seasonal change. It was "The Four Seasons," the durable set of violin concertos by the Italian baroque master Antonio Vivaldi.

Saturday night's concert at Butler University's Schrott Center opened with a commissioned work, "Dark Earth: Anthropogenic Amazon," by Reinaldo Moya, a 36-year-old native of Venezuela, US-trained as a composer and now living in Minnesota. It's a shame the composer's program notes were not in the printed program; nor was there any talk about the work from the stage. You can read about the piece's significance and the procedure Moya followed in creating the piece with a video artist, Mike Halerz, here.

Moya's music cleverly mixes human cultural expression through Brazilian music against the challenge nature faces as the Amazon rain forest diminishes with overdevelopment. It takes the form of ranching that involves removing great swaths of the Amazon for the sake of pasture. The huge natural phenomenon of what nature has provided there has led to its being called "the world's lungs." The balance against decline in the global atmosphere is maintained by the Amazon rain forest, and its shrinkage is much more than a Brazilian problem. 

Moya drew upon three styles of Brazilian music to stand for the expansive human culture that challenges the purity of the rain forest. The music was accompanied by a coordinated riot of abstract and occasionally "magic-realist" imagery, projected on a screen above the orchestra as Matthew Kraemer conducted the piece. Incompatible elements in the music are boldly juxtaposed as a deliberate way of addressing the crisis of anthropogenic change and what humanity inherited as essential to life. Hearing the work was an adventure into all of our future through a part of the present that is easy to overlook.

A more pristine part of the natural world is saluted in "Canticus Arcticus" (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra), by the late Einojuhani Rautavaara. The orchestra's role in the three-movement work seems to take cues from the bird calls recorded near the Arctic Circle town of Liminka, Finland. The most conventional imitation of songbirds is the flute, so it's natural that a flute duet gets things started in "Canticus Arcticus." The partnership is further exploited in the second movement, titled "Melancholy," and the real opening of Rautavaara's vision comes in the finale, based on swan migration. In the collective majesty of massive bird movement, it's not surprising that a tumult eventually emerges in the music. It was well represented in Saturday's performance: it was a man-nature confrontation thoroughly in the mood of celebration, and took the listener to a corner of the settled world that still seems dominated by nonhuman presence.

For all its familiarity, "The Four Seasons" tends to bring out personal characteristics of the violin soloist. Richard Lin, gold medalist in the 2018 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, came back to town for an incandescent performance of Vivaldi's concerto set. 

Richard Lin showed his gold-medalist status.

In relation to the concert's theme, it's clear that this is a view of Mother Earth that's generally accommodating. Cold temperatures cause shivers, it's true, and the rising mercury enervates. The fall harvest encourages dancing and a tendency to tipsiness; winter brings chances to lose your footing on the ice, no matter how gingerly you step. All this is colorfully, sometimes comically, depicted in Vivaldi's magnum opus. 

Most notably, there is the summer thunderstorm. It was rendered with torrential impact in Saturday's performance, tempting me to start the applause, as the "Summer" concerto had thus concluded. I think applause should have been actively encouraged at the end of each "Four Seasons" concerto, and I'm not among the advocates of applause between movements. But the four concertos each have integrity as units, and some acknowledgment seemed warranted three times before the final ovation. Instead, the near-capacity audience sat soberly still, as if between sections of the Mass in B minor.

The coordination between the soloist and the accompaniment, scrupulously guided and with equal enthusiasm by Kraemer, was first-rate, with hardly an unsynchronized jiggle. This was a "Seasons" for all seasons, it seemed to me. It had character and variety, some of it imparted by the soloist's deft feeling for ornamentation. Much of the credit for the performance's full-bodiedness must go the harpsichordist, Thomas Gerber, unacknowledged in the program book but at the end given a solo bow at Lin's instigation.

The guest soloist responded to the ovation with "Polish Capriccio," a solo-violin piece previously unknown to me by the Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969). Its fitfully lyrical, sometimes ferocious progress made it an unconventional but somehow fitting follow-up to Vivaldi's year-spanning concerto set.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Sean Chen brings his insightful gifts to Palladium recital

Sean Chen showed nuance and insight.

 Many listeners to classical music, not all of them unsophisticated, find themselves conjuring visual images not only as accompaniment to what they hear, but also as ways to invest what might otherwise remain abstract with concrete meaning.

When a composer explicitly writes two sets of pieces called "Images" (which works equally well as French or English), the permission to think visually seems foreordained, even required. Of course, the drawback is that there's no way of controlling that. 

And what Debussy said about "Images," which Sean Chen played Friday night in recital at the Palladium, indicates some freedom in allowing his special language of harmonies and phrases to go beyond the image suggested by each title. Why does "Reflets dans l'eau" (Reflections on the water) ever get tumultuous, for instance? Debussy must have felt impelled to go with his musical ideas and to some extent leave the reflectiveness behind for a while.

I think I was hearing what he had in mind in "Et la lune descends sur le temple qui fut" (And the moon goes down over the temple of old), though that very title brings up abstract notions of decayed architecture and an expansive sense of endings that invite the listener to drift elsewhere. It may have been a distraction that my most striking moon image, conveyed 13 hours earlier, was that of the lunar eclipse I saw near its end Friday morning, with a curved "bite" out of the full moon visible over Indianapolis shortly before the cloud cover moved in. "That's us!" I thought of Earth's shadow, in the inevitable way we have of placing ourselves at the center of the cosmos. Maybe human vanity is the "old temple" over which the moon regularly goes down.

With such a historic sight receding in my memory, I felt more in sync with the formality and detail of "Hommage a Rameau," a tribute to the composer's illustrious 18th-century predecessor, and to the etude-like focus of "Mouvement." It was almost a nuisance that the buzzing energy of the writing, over which a brief, insistent melody announces itself, got me wondering if Igor Stravinsky had this piece in mind when he wrote the "Shrovetide Fair" episode for the ballet "Petrushka."

Chen's performance paid scrupulous attention to color and texture throughout the six pieces. Everything served the concept, whether symbolic or literal, behind them all. Articulation of each fragmentary voice in "Et la lune..." was well balanced, and the Asian scale implications near the end were decisive. 

My guess is that for most listeners, "Poissons d'or" (Goldfish), makes a literal interpretation for listeners comfortable; a dashing sequence of darting or flashing movement parades before the listener. The movement celebrated abstractly in "Mouvement" is here given a seemingly improvisatory realization, drawn from the natural world. One of the fascinating things about other animals is how differently from human beings they characteristically move about; fish are perhaps the most different, even insects analogize human movement in our imaginations. This is the watery mystery that Debussy gave original form to and that Chen re-created Friday night at the Palladium. 

The recitalist, 2013 winner of the American Pianists Awards, is also a composer. A piece he wrote on commission from the sponsoring American Pianists Association to honor CEO/artistic director Joel Harrison upon his retirement last summer opened the second half of the program. "Daydream No. 1 - Steps" benefits from Chen's thorough knowledge of the keyboard and his performing facility. But the style seems too patly an outgrowth of the landmark Debussy innovations just sampled before intermission. The material has a New Age patina, in that melody is in the foreground, fashioned after the mellow, easy-listening manner associated with Windham Hill records.

The recital opened with a fully romantic way of depicting something from life — this time fashioned through a saint's legend, Liszt's "St. Francois de Paule marchant sure les flots" (from "2 Legendes").  Water imagery is also a generating force, as it often was with the French impressionists. Waves and the sheer volume of a strait in the Mediterranean are substantially represented to set up the miracle of St. Francis de Paul walking on water to his destination after a ferryman refused to transport him when he couldn't pay the fare. As fired by his subject as Liszt could be, his procedure typically made the piano the true subject of the stories that got his creative juices flowing. 

Chen responded to the forcefulness of the music: sweeping waves of sound and, in left-hand tremolos, the ominous suggestions of peril. The balances were firm, and the deliverance of the saint through his Christ-imitating miracle of water-walking was effectively celebrated as the tremolos moved to the right hand and a hymn of praise poured forth.

The crowning work of Chen's appearance was his insightful interpretation of Schumann's Fantasy in C major, op. 17. The mercurial nature of Schumann's temperament, especially in long works, holds no terrors for him. It may not be reading too much into the composer's mind to understand that his charm often derives from indecisiveness, not being very sure which way he should go. I think especially the first movement shows the composer's ambivalence and a willingness to commit only in bursts. Chen takes these changes of direction seriously; there was considerable honoring of the music's pauses and dynamic shifts.

I put on Facebook early Friday an admission of my goosebump reaction to a passage of heightened feeling in the last movement. The trouble with experiencing a good kind of chill when listening to music is that it can make the listener take for granted the music that surrounds the goosebump moment and makes it work. In the slow movement that ends the Schumann Fantasy, the connectedness of everything is exemplary, and Chen's performance displayed that unity. 

The tension was built conscientiously, and the way the music slows as it calms down from the zenith that always excites me was well-defined by the pianist. His acceleration on the last page was bold, headlong and thoroughly in keeping with the genius of this troubled, but often quite effective, composer.  Perhaps the Fantasy's quiet ending militated against audience demand for an encore, but Chen had already been generous with exhibiting his prowess. What we heard was sufficient in both amount and ability.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

'Absence' doesn't make the heart grow fonder: My second try to get with the 'new' Terence Blanchard

Terence Blanchard in full cry in return to the Kitchen

To honor jazz elder statesman Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard turns to his long-running E-Collective band and, more recently, the Turtle Island String Quartet on a tour that came to the Jazz Kitchen Tuesday night.

As ever, Blanchard is relaxed and inviting in his commentary from the stage. His music also seemed to connect with most of the capacity audience in the first set of a two-night stand at the club. In his chat, he showed ample respect to his sidemen and veneration for Shorter, the veteran saxophonist-composer who is actively nearing 90. Credit to Blanchard for building on his local history of audience rapport, though it can't possibly go back as far as he said: the trumpeter couldn't have been with Art Blakey when he first played the Kitchen, which has been in business since 1994; the drummer died in 1990.

Blanchard is fresh enough creatively that "Absence," the recording project that he's now representing onstage, never collapses into a reflexive tribute mode. But the plugged-in sound of the band and the meandering oversaturation of the material didn't alter my skepticism about his recent art. I first waxed skeptical on this blog more than six years ago; I avoided revisiting that post until this morning, not wanting to direct my impressions of last night in advance of hearing what Blanchard is up to.

The major difference, besides some changes in the E-Collective personnel, is the addition of the Turtle Island  Quartet. That ensemble has been active for years in opening up new vistas for the combination of two violins, viola, and cello. They are folded into the complex tapestry of "Absence," though when the ensemble was going full force — in that piece and in Shorter's "The Elders" — you could hardly hear them Tuesday night.  The band was further unbalanced by the excessive force Oscar Seaton applied to the drum set. 

Founder-leader David Balakrishnan introduced an isolated feature for the innovative string quartet as E-Collective took a break. It was his composition "Second Wave," and it swung like mad — like nothing else in the set. I don't know if it's the pervasive effect of all his film scoring or his recent, generally well-received forays into opera, but there are signs Blanchard may have forgotten how to swing. Laying out some wholehearted ideas with plenty of brassy power isn't enough.

And his choice of electronic boosting of his trumpet made it sound as if two or three trumpets were playing at once, in perfect unison. What's the point of that? It may have the advantage of bringing the horn's projection up to the level of the two guitars and the drums, but it also grays out the beauty of the trumpet's tone. It's an old modification by now, thanks to Miles Davis' protracted late period. I'm not sure why plugged-in trumpet ever deserved imitation, certainly not for decades on end.

Let's give some kudos to the sidemen anyway (apart from Seaton): Taylor Eigsti is the relative newcomer, a pianistic prodigy who came into his own as a teenager. He sounded fully adaptable to the E-Collective manner, though fuller solo display was accorded wizardly guitarist Charles Altura, especially in his own "Dark Horse." Seaton's too-loud drumming couldn't ruin that showcase, though it marred it. David Ginyard was the stalwart electric bassist, who helped Blanchard draw deep on his funky side. 

That emerged forcefully on the set-closer, "Chaos," which lived up to its title as it went on; bass-drum depth charges were pervasive. With allusions to the racial violence that exploded last year (specified by Blanchard in his introduction), the piece showed the perils of importing social commentary into instrumental music. You are supposed to like it because it's on the right side of history. Its significance tends to found itself mostly on the message. (To head off any outburst of whataboutism, I will admit John Coltrane's "Alabama" as an admirable exception.) 

In the long run, Blanchard might abandon the editorializing and get back to making music of greater clarity, swing, nuance, and concentrated focus on the fine, personalized trumpet sound he is capable of. 

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Highly regarded Indianapolis drummer Kenny Phelps gets center stage as 'The Artisan'

Kenny Phelps: Symbol (of Indianapolis jazz) with cymbal

 As much as I've heard Kenny Phelps play drums around town since starting this blog eight-and-a-half years ago, I was amazed to discover after typing his name into my search window that 40 articles came up.

Nearly all of them were reviews of bands in which he was the drummer of choice. If I'd been even more active, and if this were exclusively a jazz blog, I'm sure the count would be higher. Of course, before May 2013, there were countless times when his contributions to Indianapolis jazz appeared under my byline in the Indianapolis Star.

So I was just as steeped in Phelps' music as many others who gathered at Madam C.J. Walker Theater Friday night to appreciate his response to a commission from the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation in a program called "Kenny Phelps presents...The Artisan."

His outreach to younger players through his "Beyond the Stage" program and leadership of the Owl Music Group  was displayed in his inclusion of trumpeter Tyler Floe,  drummer Dorian Phelps, trombonist Andrew Danforth, and guitarist Graham Helft.   Dorian is the star's son, and, sitting behind his own kit next to Kenny,  displayed his own style in an early number in the program. He has touches of his father's technique, a lot of energy, and a style that needs seasoning, but is already quite exciting. 

The opportunity to focus on Kenny Phelps at center stage over nearly two hours brought home to me a new impression: He is incredibly relaxed. Unless my eyes and ears deceive me, he applies only as much energy as he needs. Whether he's playing loud or soft, the shoulders and upper arms don't move much. Everyone who's seen him is familiar with his metronomic head-bobbing, but that's another matter. What's producing all that sound proceeds from a calm center. Musicians of all styles — unless their genre or their chosen stage persona requires extra muscle involvement (not advisable for career longevity) — could learn a lot from him by observing his apparent freedom from tension. I think that enables the astonishing technique and musicianship to come forth so freely, relatively free of stress. 

As musical director and a keyboardist and alto saxophonist of considerable fluency and drive, Hamilton Hardin of Columbus, Ohio, who was especially vital to projecting Phelps' love for and experience with church music. With three backup singers and Helft remaining onstage in the background, Hardin sang and played three originals, one of them based on Psalm 13, plus "Just Wanna Say" and "He Orders Every Step." Phelps's contentment in laying down a steady percussion background, with no jazz flourishes or attention-getting ornamentation, was evident throughout this part of the program as contemporary gospel took over. .

In between the showcase for the young people and the section starring Hardin came a set focused on Kenny Banks Jr., a 2019 finalist in the American Pianists Awards. The irrepressible pianist, both  imaginative and rootsy in his approach, took the chief guest spot in three pieces. His cheekiness was matched by some of the Phelps' boldest, most varied and most responsive playing. "American Canvas," a typically broad exercise in jazz landscape painting, was succeeded by the whimsical "Balloon Tune," which yielded to the announced "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," which came at the spiritual from a distant but charming angle. 

The program fulfilled its purpose of presenting a musical autobiography of sorts, showcasing the drummer as an expert collaborator immersed in a variety of musical styles. Phelps' superior artisanship continues to be well-maintained, and his name will doubtless make many more appearances in this blog.



Friday, November 12, 2021

The 2021 10-Minute Play Festival debuts with rewards for adventurous short attention spans

The task of playwrights to get something dramatic started and finished in under ten minutes must be to have audiences quickly focused on characters and a situation with a minimum of exposition. Back stories must be cryptic. Very little context-setting dialogue can be afforded. What can be put across that won't seem like merely an idea for a play, rather than an actual play, complete in itself?

'Two Yards of Satan': Devil is in seamstress' details.

The form seems more limiting than the short story, because you need actors to mediate concisely between words on the page and stage presentation. Seven of this year's submissions to the 10-Minute Play Festival debuted on Indy Fringe's Basile stage Thursday night, and they met the shrunk genre's difficulties with a range of ambition and success. They have different directors and emerge from different creative niches.

The annual festival is coordinated by Megan Ann Jacobs, who wrote one of the seven plays: "Karma Cop," a wry comedy about law enforcement as a kind of social work, complete with supernatural stop-start powers. The festival is presented with support from the Indiana Playwrights Circle under the aegis of Indiana Writers Center. There are three more festival performances; the run ends Sunday afternoon.

On opening night, the performance level was generally high, though sometimes the direction seemed to take for granted that the audience would catch on about 15 seconds in. The concentration required by the time limit made a few performances feel rushed. Several shows were clearly pandemic-shadowed. The virtual world, in and out of COVID-19, has become part of today's subject matter. Technology we're still getting used to (just as we're getting used to the virus) blurs the line between realism and fantasy/sci-fi.

A common theme of how we get to know each other these days — though I will defer to younger generations in first-hand knowledge — comes up a few times. Characters learning about each other used to have their relationships charged and developed by guesswork, intuition, and secondary characters; now there are tempting shortcuts. 

Even real-life catalysts to human relationships can feel artificial: In "Scavengers," by Marcia Eppich-Harris, a man and a woman getting acquainted at a restaurant after having made initial contact online are thrown into pretend intimacy in response to a couple of pushy teens. The title hints at what the somewhat bullying youngsters are up to: they need to photograph two people in love as part of a church scavenger hunt. The wary couple moves closer, at first under duress, then relief. Accidents drive intimacy — 'twas ever so.

Artificially generated pushbacks against our conventional distance from strangers are central to the mystery of "Terms and Conditions," by Mary Karty. There a world slightly in advance of ours gets lonely people hooked up with life-like robots who are programmed to be exact matches to the human clients through a dating site called Sirilicious, OKCupid on AI steroids. Or is it the young man and others like him who are programmed to be rejected by war-weary robots who are really in charge? The answer is both subtler and crueler than Tinder's swipe left.

'Dog Park': Pet brings to two strangers together.

There are a couple of plays that could be taken as "single-issue," with a narrowness that suits the 10-minute format. One is funny, the other disturbing. They are "Two Yards of Satan" by Kelly Andronicos and "Echoes" by Garret Schneider. 

The former draws heavily on the conventions of sketch comedy, with a sole  stretched joke — a typo that has a woman making a First Communion dress ordering a six-foot-tall Satan instead of the two yards of satin she needs. Old Nick is a nicely bundled caricature in the performance of David Molloy. A cop called to check out the confrontation is given lines of a post-modernist sort near the end: the character muses aloud on a whim of the playwright's to throw in some impertinent topical commentary. Groan! 

"Echoes" deals with a mother and daughter searching for a family member who's an avid spelunker gone missing. The separated sounds signaled by the play's title are played for both repetition and variation remotely. The auditory phenomenon of cave echoes is put to simple but striking dramatic purposes here.

Close pet relationships throw two strangers together in "Dog Park," by Rosie Gingrich. But they know what they are getting into, thanks to social media. The heart-tug of pet ownership during a period of social isolation was sweetly laid out in Maggie Sebald's and Kaitlynn Nailon's performances. 

The modern growth of personnel departments into virtual encyclopedias of personal information makes "Nice Knowing You" by Lou Harry a tidy exercise in peeling the human-resources onion back layer by layer. The piece itself is nicely layered, as the two characters are an HR professional and the man she replaced, feeling their way on an awkward retrospective date. They are trying to get past resentment on the one hand, guilt on the other.

Their professionally honed curiosity has given them loads of information about each other. The dialogue takes on the intricacy of a chess match, ending in stalemate. The piece conveys quite a bit about Carla and Don, as played shrewdly by Kelsey Leigh Miller and Bryan Ball Carvajal. The universal lack of privacy is exposed with devastating irony. TMI might someday be inscribed on all our tombstones.

[Photos by Rob Slaven]

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Ensemble Music Society's delayed celebration of the 19th-amendment centennial worth waiting for

The fight for women's suffrage in the United States stretched out over decades, so it was fitting, if inconvenient, for there to have been a one-year delay in Ensemble Music Society's carefully planned centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment.

The right to vote for women, constitutionally guaranteed in 1920, had certifiable, if oblique, justification in the achievements of 19th-century American women in many fields. Among them was the prolific Amy Beach (1867-1944).  Long known as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach in deference to her husband, she had established a prodigious reputation in her youth as composer and pianist. A tireless advocate for publication and performance of her music in a male-dominated culture, she "leaned in" long before Sheryl Sandberg came up with the female self-help slogan. Beach's Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor, op. 67, was the summit of Wednesday evening's thematic program, titled "19th Amendment Centennial Plus One," at the Indiana History Center .

With Lydia Artymiw at the piano, the  Cassatt String Quartet performed the work with mighty rapport and relentless commitment to its kaleidoscopic demands. Romantic effusiveness, solidly constructed a la Brahms, quickly characterizes the first movement, whose quiet ending makes an effective contrast. Beach's familiarity with French romanticism also seems evident, but the total escapes derivative dead ends.

Named for an American impressionist: Cassatt String Quartet

The performers matched dynamics and phrasing outstandingly in the second movement, which featured a glorious outburst from the piano at the climax, setting up a lengthy denouement. All sorts of riches were scattered about the finale, starting with Ah Ling Leu's lovely playing of a viola melody and quickly flowering into a propulsively energetic ensemble, which ascended toward a fugal episode introducing a brilliant, sometimes suspenseful ending. The performance's rapturous reception by the large audience was both predictable and well-deserved.

The distinctive voices of the Cassatt got displayed in the first half, especially in the late Mozart string quartet, K. 559 in B-flat.  The group's attractive way of easing into the first movement was soon fused seamlessly into the more emotionally vivid body of the music. Elizabeth Anderson made the most of the cello's prominence in the Larghetto movement. Capricious independence of the instruments produced a unified effect in the third, with the slight exception of some challenging string-crossing passages for first violinist Muneko Otani. All four voices (the second violinist is Jennifer Leshnower) made sturdy contributions to the finale, in which the writing carries hints of an operatic vocal ensemble and even the kind of individuation found in madrigals. 

Composer Victoria Bond was on hand to lift the special quality of the women-focused program as her "Blue and Green Music" (2020) was performed. In remarks to the audience, Bond made it clear that Georgia O'Keeffe's painting of the same title was not only an inspiration but a kind of shaping force for her string quartet, a commission from Chamber Music America. The musical motifs identified with the two colors of the title are laid out in tandem in the opening movement. The middle movements take up each color in turn: "Green" is rambunctious, with dotted rhythms prevailing. Its spirit is turned into a different kind of drive in the finale, "Dancing Color," featuring lots of sprightly pizzicato and syncopation. I was unable to detect any traces in Bond of "Blue in Green," a beautiful number on Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," an all-time jazz bestseller. So color coordination between the works must be pure coincidence.

Georgia O'Keeffe, "Blue and Green Music" (1921)

"Blue" is the slow movement, a kind of respite except for its gathering intensity. Its overlapping phrases  wove an impressive tapestry, hinting at the way painters organize shades on their palettes. Particularly for this movement, I wished that a slide projection of the O'Keeffe painting had remained on the hall's lowered screen. It was distracting enough to sit through the hum of the screen being raised before the Cassatt could start playing. Normally I'm suspicious of any kind of visual accompaniment competing for attention with music, but in this case, it would have been an aid to understanding and enjoyment. 

That aside, a kind of joy in the contributions — both creative and performing — of women to art music was evident both in what we heard and what we saw in this final Ensemble Music presentation of 2021. When the season resumes in January, may it already be evident that the pandemic has become no more than endemic — something to be cautious about but no longer able to severely hobble artistic activity around the world.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Indy Bard Fest sets a crown upon its 2021 season with 'Elizabeth Rex'

Putting the chief titan of world theater onstage as a character is nervy in itself. And it's a key to Indy Bard Fest's daring in ending its current season with "Elizabeth Rex," in which the festival's namesake figure interacts with the title character, Queen Elizabeth I.

The need of either Shakespeare or the Virgin Queen to carry all the dramatic weight themselves is cleverly

Holly Hathaway Thompson in "Elizabeth Rex."

elided by Timothy Findley in making a fictional figure, actor Ned Lowenscroft, the chief provocateur of the action.  He is a principal actor in the Lord Chamberlain's troupe, members of which are housed temporarily in a royal barn because of a curfew imposed on the nation the night before the 1601 execution of an accused traitor, the Earl of Essex. 

After a command performance of "Much Ado About Nothing," the barn-bound actors, the playwright, and their wardrobe mistress receive a surprise visit from the Queen, conflicted about the death sentence she has imposed. Ned is wasting away from venereal disease, his bitterness compounded by the need to hide his sexual orientation and base his onstage stature on his excellence at playing women.

"Elizabeth Rex," as presented at the Theater at the Fort through Sunday, is an adaptation of Findley's play by director Glenn L. Dobbs and two others.  Not knowing the original, I can only assume the adaptation was undertaken to suit the director's feeling for what is most essential about the play, which received its premiere at the 2000 Stratford Festival, and its suitability to Indy Bard Fest's resources.

What is most crucial to the production is the look and sound — really, everything — of the Queen herself, played to a royal turn by Holly Hathaway Thompson. Problems of identity are central to the portrayal, as Elizabeth, unmarried and the daughter of the willful serial monogamist Henry VIII, is forced to support her rule with pretensions to masculinity and all its conventional baggage of power and warrior elan. (It's a deliberate irony that the play is called "Elizabeth Rex," as the Latin word designates a male monarch.) What's worse, smallpox has deprived her of any female allure: her face is disfigured and she's lost most of her hair. The cosmetically whitened face and auburn wig are iconic. 

Both Elizabeth's situation in life and her appearance make any stage presentation of her inherently operatic, as was her arts patronage. Indeed, Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) composed three operas with Elizabeth as central, or at least crucial, character. The trilogy was revived decades ago with great success for Beverly Sills, the American diva, playing the Queen. One part of the trilogy, "Roberto Devereux," specifically deals with her relationship with the Earl of Essex.  

Ned Lowescroft (Jay C. Hemphill) is nursed by a colleague.

Elizabeth had both personal and political reasons for disappointment with her putative lover. The personal regrets loom larger in "Elizabeth Rex," and are enmeshed in her thwarted sense of female identity.

Given a tortured vitality in Jay C. Hemphill's performance, Ned draws out of her an almost therapeutic realization of who she is and the need to come to terms with her hidden love.  But the wheels set in motion by her death sentence on Essex cannot be stopped.

The operatic breadth of this production is creditably represented. The acting brims with larger-than-life energy, given highly stylized hyperbole down to some of the minor roles. There is music and a variety of offstage sound, and the lighting has deft chiaroscuro touches. The costuming is detailed and occasionally grandiose; compromises with period practice are understandable, especially among the men.

With its bales of hay strewn about and its rustic appearance, the set reinforces the irony of a powerful monarch's coming to terms with who she is among wandering, low-status, patron-dependent theater folks. Even though it's her barn, Elizabeth's initial appearance there (delightfully staged) and much of her subsequent behavior indicate she's out of her element.

Eric Bryant plays William Shakespeare, conceived  by Findley as a scrupulous observer of whatever scenes play before him. What else would Shakespeare be? And of course he's working on his next play, currently looking for clues to shaping the character of a certain Egyptian  queen. He's involved at a few crucial points in his own sovereign's dark night of the soul, but Findley and this production adhere to the enigmatic aspects of Shakespeare's personality insofar as it's known. His religious and political views are rather obscure, except that he wisely sided with the Tudor narrative on English history.

Character roles are boisterously and endearingly  played by Matthew Socey as Luddy, Alan Cloe as the past-his-prime thespian Perry Gower, and Susan Yeaw as a near-blind wardrobe mistress whose Cockney candor and garrulousness had me thinking of Angela Lansbury in "Sweeney Todd." Nikki Lynch had the requisite dignity and self-possession as Lady Mary Stanley, the Queen's attendant. Matthew Walls displayed the right suggestion of Irish feistiness as Jack Edmund, the actor playing Benedick in  the comedy just presented to the Queen. 

In the first scene of "Elizabeth Rex," he puts up with a hissy fit from Ned over an onstage mistake. The show is off to the races immediately: the successes and failures of the sock-and-buskin life turn out to reflect life's vicissitudes as well, even if on a different level of consequentiality. "Elizabeth Rex" is a costume drama that manages to insist that how we play the hands we're dealt is a character-defining task faced by life in all eras and at every level, from monarchs to commoners. It's a truism the Bard never failed to find new ways to explore.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

More openly a multi-instrumentalist, Joey DeFranceso sizzles with variety at the Jazz Kitchen

While his Hammond B-3 awaited at center stage, Joey DeFrancesco began the first of two sets Saturday

Joey DeFrancesco in a formal pose

night at the Jazz Kitchen with forays into his other instruments: trumpet and tenor saxophone.

Touring behind a new recording simply titled "More Music," the Philadelphia musician returned to the Kitchen for the first time since Feb. 29, 2020, he recalled for the audience as the set got under way. That was on the brink of everybody's forced vacation. 

That idled DeFrancesco and so many others for over a year, during which time he honed his chops on those two wind instruments and wrote the pieces for the new CD, many of which he and his trio brought out here. His current tour has him assisted by Lucas Brown, a guitarist-keyboardist, and Anwar Marshall, drums.

Starting with trumpet, both muted and open, which he's played professionally since his teens (he's now 50),  DeFrancesco and his trio set sail with a piece called "Free," which was succeeded by one written for his wife called "Lady G." That provided him with a turn on tenor sax, backed astutely by Brown. The bandleader as a saxophonist had a slightly rough, but tender, sound well-suited to a love song and somewhat recalling how his idol Pharoah Sanders approached ballads. The new release features DeFrancesco as saxophonist for the first time on record.

He next moved to the Hammond B-3, with which he has principally been associated for decades, in order for the trio to deliver his mash-up of two jazz classics, "Confirmation" and "Giant Steps." He calls it "Roll With It," and he was clearly in his element, with those long, looping phrases that sometimes seem overloaded with decorative elements but always manage to right themselves rhythmically. DeFrancesco always knows where the accents should fall, which makes him a super-adaptable partner with drummers, as he was throughout the set with Marshall.

A piece focused on a quality widely known as "funky," otherwise unidentified by title, followed. It incorporated a rhythmic-melodic phrase that DeFrancesco taught the audience to sing — something on the order of "baba-doo, ba-bebop" to start with, then capped by a couple of separated syllables. The audience was amply responsive; for his main solo, DeFrancesco launched into his most flamboyant manner, folding in what sounded like a splendid tribute to Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely?" 

With the versatile Brown moving back to guitar, the set formally concluded with the title tune from "More Music," where he interpolated another famous quotation. It was the evergreen "Back Home in Indiana," which seems to have suggested an obvious encore devoted specifically to that song. It unfolded in wholehearted fashion, decked out first in a fast tempo, then a slow one. 

There were shouts for still "more music," but it was obviously a good place for the performance to end, and a break was in order before the second set — the last of four in the trio's engagement here.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

ISO pays a visit to not-so-merry 'Merrie England'

 A famous English poem opens with this outburst: "Hail to thee, blithe spirit!" A bird is being addressed, though the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, has given himself license to say it isn't. The second line of "To a Skylark" is explicit about that. And there isn't much blithe spirit, feathered or otherwise, to hail in the English music the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is featuring this weekend. That's another contradiction, this time to an old stereotype, the pastoral vision of "Merrie England."

As guest conductor Carlos Kalmar pointed out from the podium Friday, a persistent image of measured calm and lofty elegance about things English is readily subject to contradiction.  English history alone is tumultuous enough to pose a challenge to such views. And so it turned out that the only blithe spirit on display in the first of two "Greetings from England" concerts animated Recitative and Scherzo, the Fritz Kreisler encore played by guest concert soloist Benjamin Beilman.

Benjamin Beilman's Indianapolis history goes back to 2010.

The announced program opened with "This Midnight Hour," a dreamy but rather menacing tone poem by Anna Clyne, a 41-year-old native of London. The scheduled piece featuring Beilman, who won the bronze medal in the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, followed: the  heavy, broad-based Violin Concerto in G minor by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

After intermission came a work that surprised even the English by its contrast with the composer's publicly expressed musical personality, which had done much to confirm "Merrie England" self-regard. The wider problems of the early 1930s were not on Ralph Vaughan Williams' mind when he wrote his Symphony in F minor, the first of his symphonic output to which he was willing to assign a number, 4. 

Opening with a frightening barrage of orchestral sound, the Fourth goes on to make any moment of relief rare and even a little self-contradictory. It's a heady mixture of dissonance and motoric energy, with abrupt changes of texture that the ISO handled well Friday night under Kalmar's excellent control. The mild ending of the first movement, with the flute prominent, suggests exhaustion as much as genuine repose.

Wind sonorities had a snarling quality in the Scherzo, which kept the work's dash of humor severely compromised by a feeling one commentator has labeled poisonous. Most exciting, though not in any uplifting sense, was the extensive fugal coda, announced by braying brass  and carried through by the orchestra with the ultimate in grim determination. The performance was electrifying.

"I admire the fact that you actually showed up,"  Kalmar told the audience from the podium before a note had been sounded. He was referring both to the relative obscurity of the program as well as the moments of assault that were soon to be delivered. Functioning in these concerts as a bracing, darkly colored kind of overture,"This Midnight Hour" is an abstract version of a scenario depicting a woman running wildly at night. It might almost be taken as a speeded-up version of Schoenberg's "Erwartung," but without the fatal sense of purpose and discovery of that expressionist monodrama. Clyne apparently didn't want to overload such a work with dread, but instead invites us to revel in the mystery of a nocturnal adventure without a backstory or a fateful destination. The lower strings were at the forefront several times, and acquitted themselves well in Friday's performance.

As for the concerto, Beilman and the ISO brought before the audience the work of a short-lived Afro-British composer: Coleridge-Taylor died in his late 30s, his life hobbled by poor health and poverty. This work, as played Friday, gave Indianapolis music-lovers a fourth chance to hear Beilman in concert since he distinguished himself in competition here. His phrasing is well-modeled and exhibited through a tone of consistent stature and rhetorical grace. 

The music requires a soloist of such distinction and evident commitment. It seemed at first hearing to be a tub sitting firmly on its own bottom. By that I mean that every gesture, theme and transitional passage was probably thoroughly justified in the developing composer's mind. The concerto sounded worth hearing once, but, despite some captivating gestures, didn't offer much incentive to hear it again. 

In its defense, while Shelley praised the skylark's "unpremeditated art," Coleridge-Taylor's art seemed very much at the opposite end of the  spectrum. And plenty of premeditation goes a long way toward justifying a composition's right to have public exposure. So does what such an inspired solo interpreter as Beilman can invest it with.


Friday, November 5, 2021

Under way in person in an intimate venue: Indianapolis Ballet presents 'New Works'

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), as visionary a composer as the history of Western music affords, provides the generative power for the major piece on Indianapolis Ballet's season-opening program, "New Works." The program runs through Sunday.

A selection of the Russian composer's solo piano pieces for ballet thus lends a proper highlighting of founder-director Victoria Lyras' vision of her increasingly accomplished and stable company. It's been newly underwritten with sponsors throughout its personnel, though it's still seeking a regular performance home downtown.

"Scriabin Suite": Making shallow space seem large enough.

"Scriabin Suite" cheats a little bit on the implication of "new works," however, since the work has been previously performed, as Lyras told the opening night audience at the District Theatre Thursday. But she regards setting such a piece on different dancers as qualification to be called new. And that may justify enough its inclusion in a program of actual premieres.

The choreography she created with Paul Vitali sheds light on some of the textural density of Scriabin's preludes, etudes and a couple of dances: a waltz and a mazurka. The design makes much of the overwhelming flow of the pieces and responds well to the composer's gift for coming up with miniatures that seem to say much compactly. The costumes Lyras designed make this a consistently "white" ballet, rooting the visual element in Romantic tradition and emphasizing the airiness of her concept.

It was especially impressive to note how well the sections calling for more dancers were designed so that the District Theatre's shallow stage did not seem to cramp the ensemble. Thus, in "Etude I," "Valse," and the concluding "Etude VII," the lateral movement felt expansive and free. There were some moments that explicitly gloried in the space, such as when the only male dancer in "Valse," William Robinson, made a dashing entrance behind the six women, crossing to the other side of the stage, then turned around and crossed in front of them back toward the first side. The effect was not just to assert the perpetual appeal of the waltz form, but also to underline a feeling of comfort and energy within the space. The perimeter was defined without crowding.

Before the grand finale, there was a typically enchanting duet for established company partners Chris Lingner and Yoshiko Kamikusa. Both had made their mark earlier in back-to-back solos in a couple of Etudes. In the second of three Preludes following the Etude that opened the show, Jessica Miller's solo was a standout. And for its virile energy, suitable to the bass-heavy music, "Etude V" allowed for concentration on the company's three men: Robinson, Lingner, and Filipe Aragao-Benton.

In the first half, the Brazilian dancer Aragao-Benton introduced "New Works" as both choreographer and one of the dancers in "Concerto in C." The well-crafted music of Leroy Anderson used to be at the top of the light-classical hit parade. Turned to good use for dance here, it was just the kind of upbeat work we need as the performing arts return to in-person performances. Especially impressive was the episode for five women as a fugue unfolded in the recorded orchestra. There was a fetching duet for Robinson and a female dancer that mirrored an instrumental duet for piano and snare drums. A sort of combination of march and folk dance brought forth a danced complement of whirlwind rhythms and melodies. 

Chris Lingner and Yokiko Kamikusa in "Spring Waters."

Brevity helps to establish a smorgasboard atmosphere for such a program. Asaf Messerer's "Spring Waters" offered a superb example of the remarkable rapport between Lingner and Kamikusa, climaxed by a breathtaking lift that displayed exquisite daring and balance. It was sensuous and muscular throughout its concentrated duration.

In a departure from Kamikusa's elegant, sylph-like norm, Robinson composed for her "Boy from New York City" to a saucy pop song (Michelle Creber) of that title to bring the show up to intermission. The delightful, street-wise virtuosity, enhanced by the dancer's costuming, had a puzzling interruption at one point: either it was something in the choreography that didn't quite belong or a rare mistake by the dancer — a deep back bend that looked  fragmentary, as it ended abruptly with a turn to one side that resembled a fall. Whatever it was, it struck me as the slightest break from the integrity of the vital whole, which was a showcase worthy of the soloist and a tribute to her versatility.

"Veiled Visions" builds on the repetitive patterns of minimalism.
The adaptability of contemporary ballet to incorporate different ways of addressing the floor – not leaving all that to modern dance — was displayed in  Roberta Wong's earthy and ethereal "Cherished (for Weezie)" and "Salute to the Crusher (for Sophia). It was a setting of two movements from Bach's Cello Suites, vigorously danced by five women. 

A female trio (Miller, Sierra Levin, and Lucy Merz) was used eloquently in a geometrically severe, more mysterious piece, the creation of company alumna Kristin Young Toner, titled "Veiled Visions." The music, by Armand Amar, is rooted in minimalism. Within the strictures of that style, the work of the dancers showed well-integrated variety, hinting at ritual, and a continually imaginative response to the music. The dancing seemed to project the partly hidden emotional contours suggested by the work's title.

[Photos by Moonbug Photography]


Monday, November 1, 2021

Copacetic to the end: Cohen-Rutkowski Project opens JK stage to a pair of guests

Rich Cohen: saxophonic mass and energy from a former physics teacher

"Copacetic" is one of those faux-fancy words that entered the language about the start of the Jazz Age (1919). Like jazz itself, its origin is unknown (says the dictionary), and its meaning ("very satisfactory") can also apply to countless jazz performances by adept practitioners of the music. 

It was thus quite fitting that a piece of that title concluded a long Sunday night set by the Cohen-Rutkowski Project at the Jazz Kitchen. Like all of this band's book, it was composed by Chris Rutkowski, the pianist who co-leads the band with saxophonist Rich Cohen. And the peppy finale also got a little extra heat as one guest star (tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon) was joined by another (trombonist Freddie Mendoza) to make for a formidable front line.

Opening with an infectious riff and settling into a Crescent City groove, "Copacetic" featured ripe solos by the two guests. It provided roomy accommodation for all the solos — Rutkowski worked Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca" into his turn in the spotlight — and sent a large, appreciative crowd happy out into the chilly night air. Things were "chill" inside, of course, in the best sense. Quite copacetic, in other words.

Chris Rutkowski shapes band's sound from the keyboard.
Rutkowski is in the tradition of jazz pianists  who come with classical credits to boast of as well as a collegial way of putting their stylistic stamp on bands that include other players of star quality. I think of Mel Powell briefly with the Benny Goodman band circa 1940 (though nobody was permitted to upstage Benny) and Joe Zawinul as the resident composing/arranging genius of Weather Report in the '70s and '80s. Rutkowski seems to have a similar shaping influence on what the Project projects from the bandstand.

Cohen is certainly a comrade-in-arms worthy of leading the musical charge along with Rutkowski. And the rest of the rhythm section consisted of two in-demand players: bassist Jesse Wittman and drummer Brian Yarde. One of Cohen's best solo outings of the evening came when he partnered with Dixon for a piece receiving its two-tenor premiere. Called "Double Barreled Rhythm Thing," it had a classic four-to-the-bar swing over which a melody in conventional song form was draped. It's worth singling out not only for Dixon's statement, but also for Cohen's searching yet emotionally settled improvisation. It's also worth noting that Rutkowski's solo received imaginative support from Wittman and Yarde.

The set's other two-tenor outing followed immediately: a gutbucket blues called "Slow Train to Chicago" featuring relaxed, earthy solos by the saxophonists. Here and in a tribute to him called "Rob's Thing," I noticed that Dixon has refined his delivery agreeably. The upper register is quite firm: he doesn't split or splinter any notes high up; his tone has genuine unity top to bottom. His early style incorporated lots of shakes, warbles, and curlicues — which I always found attractive and part of his brand, but whose absence was not missed Sunday. When he first came to town decades ago, Dixon also told jokes from the stage. I don't miss those either, though he wasn't bad at it.

There was still enough drollery from the stage to go around, however. Cohen is a gifted, amiable emcee. He trained the audience in a fingersnap/handclap repeated gesture that made something special to a Halloweeny repertoire choice: the theme from "The Addams Family." (Just typing those words has given me a daylong earworm, probably. ) Everyone was having fun.

Rutkowski's tendency to find fresh ways of being funky at the piano seems to be based  on his composing personality, which, as I said, exerts a powerful influence on everything that comes from this band. Something of an outlier was his "Slow Waltz," which Dixon sat out. It was a tender respite from the Project's usual fare. It didn't seem very waltzlike to me, though, with its repeated accent on the second beat — kind of like a poky mazurka. 

What followed was a better sample of the composer's resourcefulness, the next-to-last piece of the set. "Contrafaction," as Cohen explained, is a contrafact on Charlie Parker's "Confirmation." A contrafact is a jazz original following the harmonic basis of a well-known popular song. The beboppers came up with these in profusion, as they perfected "playing the changes" and sought to put that procedure on top of new tunes that would be free of the need to make royalty payments. 

Rhythmically, too, "Contrafaction" seemed quite closely modeled on "Confirmation," and it had a melodic contour that would have drawn nods of approval, one suspects, from Parker himself. There was wonderful exploitation of what Rutkowski had created in the outreach of Wittman's solo. Like almost everything about the set, it was copacetic.