Sunday, January 23, 2022

Pace-setter from Indianapolis: Indy Jazz Collective salutes J.J. Johnson

With a two-trombone front line, supplemented by guiding light Rob Dixon on tenor sax, J.J. Johnson was accorded a posthumous 98th-birthday celebration Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

Rob Dixon led; Freddie Mendoza and Ernest Stuart (bottom photo) embodied the legacy.

The celebrated trombonist-arranger-bandleader died in his hometown, diminished by illness, in the winter of 2001.

 In a long career that began here in the 1940s, he had long since birthed a new generation of jazz trombonists, of whom Freddie Mendoza and Ernest Stuart numbered themselves in remarks from the stage during the first set. A first-rate rhythm section contributed mightily to the tribute: pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Chris Parker. 

It was no surprise that the band stuck to Johnson originals.  He was a prolific composer, and I'd be surprised to learn Saturday's second set didn't consist entirely of his works as well. My first acquaintance with his excellence as both player and arranger came with my purchase as a teenage trombonist of "Jay & Kai + 6." On that LP, his arrangements  for trombone octet (along with with those of the studio date's co-leader, Kai Winding) vivified every piece he touched, most of them standards I've since never cared to hear any other way ("No Moon at All," for example). 

Long thereafter, I was among the delighted crowd to welcome Johnson back as a performer after he had resettled in his home town. He brought his quintet to the Jazz Kitchen when the club was less than a year old for a three-night stand in March 1995. Among the pluses of that experience, I noted at the time that "he can sound both tender and ironic, as if seeing a tune from various emotional perspectives as he creates logical, moving solos on it."

Both of the tribute trombonists have their own styles, but their fully formed habits remain capable of showing their debts to the master. Stuart seemed to hark back to the blatant, stinging tone of the early trombone manner, while at the same time detaching phrases, some of them pungently short, according to the pointillistic bop language. A case in point was his solo on "Shortcake," with added rhythmic insight animating his solo on "Flat Black," which Johnson based on the standard "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Its teasing fadeout reversed course in a crescendo that was typical of the set's spontaneous-feeling yet well-managed endings.

Mendoza had a showcase, as Dixon and Stuart stepped aside, in "Lament," perhaps Johnson's most famous ballad. Evoking the J.J. manner at its tenderest, he opened up aspects of the tune I never expected to hear. He also found the mellow side of the dance-inflected "Kenya," introduced by Parker alone before the band stated the rapidly swaying theme, whose medium-bounce bridge provided the tempo cue for most of the soloing.

"Shutterbug," the set's fastest piece, didn't jell immediately, but soon hit its stride. Parker's excellence as a sideman was confirmed by the drive and variety he provided behind a spirited Dixon solo. The enthusiasm of the audience was whipped up at length by the finale: "Fat Back," a slow blues with the kind of parade-ground rhythmic underpinning reminiscent of Benny Golson's "Blues March." The ensemble stayed poised even as it waxed "greasy" (say it to rhyme with "easy"). The performance embraced the spectrum of the golden age of small-group modern jazz,  to which J.J. Johnson contributed so much.



[Photos by Rob Ambrose]


Saturday, January 22, 2022

Space probes: Free-jazz veterans pay a poised tribute to Cecil Taylor

William Parker, Enrico Rava, Andrew Cyrille
 A well-laid-out program of a trio's tribute to the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor is also a showcase for spontaneous music-making by surefooted veteran artists.

"2 Blues for Cecil" takes its understated title from just two of the tracks on the ten-track disc (TUM Records Oy). The compatible musicians are Enrico Rava, flugelhorn; William Parker, bass, and Andrew Cyrille, drums. Recorded last winter in Paris, the program is notable for its sturdy reliance on a minimalist texture that holds up because of the self-assurance with which each member of the trio contributes to the whole. 

Rava, an Italian now 82 years old, is an inspiring example of the level of independence European jazz was able to assert starting in the 1970s with respect to advances in the American mainstream. Influenced by Miles Davis, the trumpeter-flugelhornist was poised to take to the outside the American master's much-lauded use of "space" — that is, a way of establishing a new kind of cohesiveness and even lyricism that made creative use of intermittent silence.

Underpacking the musical luggage is an approach to which the American veteran musicians Parker and Cyrille are also well-suited. Though the honoree, Cecil Taylor, was almost infamous for a heavily loaded all-keyboard style, this trio feels no need to mimic the avant-garde pianist's approach. What the trio members have in common is an open stance about matters of harmony, rhythm, and the interplay between melody and unmoored single-line statements. The textures allow considerable light to shine through.

There is little this threesome doesn't know about the fruitful results of remaining adventurous. Cyrille, also 82, has a long history of labors in the avant-garde vineyards and, of the three musicians, the longest association (15 years) with Taylor.  Parker, the youngster at 70, is a prolific recording artist with ceaseless activity at the frontiers of exploration on his instrument.

Playfulness sometimes makes an honest appearance central to a style that is often taken to be an unrelieved search for profundity. A case in point is "Ballerina," with an almost childlike tune laid down by the flugelhornist after a fluttery start.  Like a dancer's leaps, the trio boosts itself abruptly off the floor, airborne often with Cyrille's subtle cymbal flights. "I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes," Taylor once said. "I think of rhythm in terms of dance," Cyrille told Valerie Wilmer (As Serious as Your Life) after citing that remark.

The two "Blues for Cecil" draw upon the trio's authentic blues sensibility, emphasizing how Taylor was explcit about his devotion to the roots of black American music. He once surprised the jazz critic Gary Giddins (who was proud of his "super-hip jazz record collection") by asking with a trace of disdain: "Got any James Brown?"

The one piece originating from outside this inspired group is the set-closer, the Rodgers-Hart evergreen "My Funny Valentine." Rava's essential lyricism is especially highlighted in this brief account, and there's lots of space for him to evoke two of his inspirations: Miles Davis and Chet Baker. 

But the mutual admiration among the group is everywhere present, especially in Cyrille's collegial tribute, "Enrava Melody." And Parker's new piece is a shared personal statement with a climbing vibe, named "Machu Picchu" for the 15th-century Inca citadel and perennial tourist attraction in Peru. But the main heights climbed in this release are those that enable these three sages to indicate and embody the enduring strength of jazz at its ever-present frontiers. And, as Sun Ra, another jazz visionary, used to say: "Space is the place."



Friday, January 21, 2022

Chamber music to open Palladium's 2022: Collegial breadth in a freshly conceived program

The striking layout of the program offered by the Balourdet Quartet and pianist Dominic Cheli for their

Dominic Cheli and Balourdet Quartet

concert January 20 had a clarifying, timely theme behind it.

As announced by Cheli from the Carmel Palladium stage, what unified the center's Classical Series event was the working title of "Compassion and Inspiration." With the pandemic as everybody's backdrop, those words have taken on special resonance. When the Balourdet Quartet came on after the pianist's solo segment, violinist Justin DeFilippis added another magnetic note: Friendship.

It's in the nature of most composers, even the most distinguished ones, to ground themselves in the music that came before them. Sometimes the linkage is personal. But even when it takes place at a distance, the abstract nature of music allows for feelings and forms to vibrate in new music to earlier emanations of the universal muse.

Johannes Brahms, though a lifelong bachelor, had significant personal relationships, no more so than with Robert and Clara Schumann. He was also a great venerator of older music, especially from the Baroque era. The fountainhead of this interest was J.S. Bach, but he also drew inspiration from Bach's French contemporaries, notably Francois Couperin. Furthermore, Brahms was influential, despite the conservative associations he had in the late 19th-century mind, from his heyday onward: Modernist archetype Arnold Schoenberg wrote a famous essay called "Brahms the Progressive." Thus, putting a personal stamp on the legacy one inherits was Brahms' stock in trade.

Cheli, besides delivering cogent oral program notes before each solo piece, showed his stylistic breadth in works of three composers: Erwin Schulhoff, Clara Schumann, and Francois Couperin. In his solo recital for last year's American Pianists Association competition in which he was a finalist, the pianist gave ample evidence of his wide range of repertoire interests and his distinctive flair for bringing out colors and rhythms.

Bringing forward the magpie evidence of influences Schulhoff felt in his turbulent life, cut off by the Holocaust in 1942, Cheli showed a feeling for color and the distinctiveness with which one hand can apply it in different registers. The vehicle was two contrasting movements from Schulhoff's Suite for the Left Hand, written for a friend, a pianist who had lost the use of his right hand in World War I, in which both men served. The influence of Claude Debussy, with whom Schulhoff  studied briefly, was evident in "Preludio," and the pianist's rhythmic acuity was exhibited with drive in "Zingara," an exhibition of the Hungarian (or gypsy) influence in classical music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A closer friendship shed influence on Clara Schumann's "Romanze" in A minor, op. 21, no. 1. The melting sort of melody evident in much of her husband's music received tender play in this piece. A further contrast of texture and emotional focus concluded Cheli's appealing mini-recital: Couperin's "Le Tic-Toc-Choc," a delightful evocation of clock rhythms originally designed to blend and contrast a harpsichord's two manual keyboards. A fleet-fingered pianist can make the piece work just fine on one keyboard, as Cheli did.

To fill out the concert's focus on Brahms, the Balourdet took the stage for the String Quartet in A minor, op. 51, no. 2. The first movement had an attractively light-textured feeling. The four players evinced plenty of flexibility, fortunately at the same time. The agitated section of the slow movement sounded especially bracing. The unusual, looking-both-ways third movement — "Quasi minuetto, moderato" — didn't jell at first; the textures got firmer as the movement proceeded and the music sounded less underpowered. At any rate, the bold onset of the finale made for a nice contrast. Apart from a few slips of intonation by first violinist Angela Bae, the performance was shipshape, with especially good drive imparted to the coda.

After intermission came a work of near-genius from an American composer who is gradually getting more appreciation. I remember when the custom was to refer to Amy Beach as "Mrs. H.H.A. Beach," which was how her music came into the world in the late 19th century, linked to her husband. It's been one of the minor triumphs of feminism that the energetic composer from Boston (the hometown of the Balourdet, by the way) is consistently known now as Amy Beach.

The effect of Brahms on her music is vivid in the Piano Quintet, p. 67, for which the two violinists switched places. With their colleagues Benjamin Zannoni, viola, and Russell Houston, cello, they displayed full partnership with Cheli. 

The mellifluous quality of the first movement's second theme was close to magical; a fine dramatic grasp of the main material stayed unanimous. Despite the evident debt to what Brahms represented to her generation, Beach was receptive to newer tendencies in music of her time, such as Debussy's. There were diaphanous tremolos joined to classical ways of building tension. 

In the second movement, a glorious cello melody introduces a soaring ensemble climax. In the finale, anticipation is intense before a grand pause invites everyone to take a breath, setting up recollection of the work's opening and leading to a confident coda. The five players made the most of this progression. The case for many more opportunities to hear the music of Amy Beach was stoutly put forth. And imaginative programming, well-executed, will always carry the day.


 


Saturday, January 15, 2022

With France-focused program, artistic adviser Jun Märkl helps ISO resume Classical Series

 

Jun Märkl caught spectacle and nuance of Ravel masterpiece.

As the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra struggles to figure out what kind of "new normal" it will have, a major focus is the search for a new music director. 

Based on the evidence of his past success as a guest conductor, Jun Märkl has superior qualifications for the post of artistic adviser. The job title leaves open the question of how good his advice may be, but his rapport with the ISO after numerous appearances on the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium bodes well.

CEO James Johnson, in a welcoming speech to Friday night's audience, noted that the Japanese-German maestro's return conducting engagement marks his performing debut in his transitional position. Märkl delivered magnificently in the program's second half, to be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon, with a scintillating performance of Maurice Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloé."

The work was last performed here under the baton of the most recent music director, Krzysztof Urbanski, in 2014. That memorable production involved dancers from Dance Kaleidoscope, choreographed by the company's artistic director, David Hochoy. Necessarily, my attention was focused on the stage, so it was good to enjoy the full sonic spectrum of the score in a concert version.  

A missing element that invariably makes a performance of the complete ballet more thrilling is the wordless chorus, which was used in the 2014 performance. With the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, it made for one of the great collaborations of recent ISO history. Given pandemic-related strictures on choral singing, such completeness was probably inadvisable this time around. 

The subsequent loss of atmosphere — Ravel's evocation of the mythical setting on an ancient Greek island — is considerable. As full as the orchestral palette is, the effect is a little bit like watching "The Wizard of Oz" without the heroine's fantasy song "Over the Rainbow" to introduce the adventure. In a sense, to hear the complete "Daphnis et Chloé" without the chorus is akin to getting a realistic reminder that Dorothy never actually left Kansas. 

Be that as it may, the evocation of the ballet's scenario struck the ear agreeably throughout. The conductor drew from the orchestra precise and enlivened dance rhythms as the "Danse religieuse" yielded to the "Danse generale" in the opening tableau. The bassoon-and-percussion hints of awkwardness were delicious as the goatherd Dorcon (great name — did Ravel know Yiddish?) tries to attract the heroine. His attempts are laughed away by the orchestra, and it was one of several graceful touches in Friday's performance. 

The menacing pirates were vigorously depicted in an exhibition of Ravel's mastery of orchestration at its most forceful. When another touch of atmosphere — the wind machine the composer calls for — came through as rather wispy, it hardly mattered. We were by then in thrall to the interpretation, guided with detailed cueing from the conductor, working without score.  That was probably reassuring to an ensemble recently unused to complexity (after the oft-repeated, comparatively lucrative production of Yuletide Celebration last month). The emergence of the great shadow of Pan that climaxes the second tableau was awe-inspiring.

The depiction of daybreak at the start of the third tableau, which accounts for the popularity of the more often-performed second suite that Ravel drew from the ballet score, sounded both firm and subtle. The duo of the title characters paying tribute to the myth of Pan and Syrinx, highlighted by the excellent flute soloing of Rebecca Price Arrensen, exuded charm and reverence. Shortly thereafter, Märkl managed adroitly the ebb and flow of the pulse-pounding "Danse generale" to bring the piece to a rousing conclusion. The way the orchestra joined in the huge ovation during one of Märkl's curtain calls, and the way he responded to it,  set a seal upon their mutual regard. 

To open the concert, Märkl's return was enhanced by the engagement of the reliably exuberant

Gil Shaham enjoyed his work in two compositions.

violinist Gil Shaham, who occupied the  spotlight in two works, the Violin Concerto No. 9 in G major by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Pablo de Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy." On his last ISO visit, he was even busier, conducting as well. And, as in November 2016, he seemed buoyantly happy to be there. The attitude communicated itself to audience and orchestra like.

Bologne is among black composers of historical interest who have been enjoying a vogue in recent years. Showcasing the solo instrument against a large string orchestra, the piece has an inviting classical-period stature. The first movement sports distinctive themes; the second, a somber Largo, has the feeling of a baroque aria. There's a steady throbbing in the accompaniment as it goes along; you can hear Handel in it. The music's lyricism is restrained yet deeply felt, it seems. The rondo finale, which is concise to the point of abruptness, gives the soloist lots of busywork. It amounts to a distinct falling-off from how the concerto begins.

The familiar Sarasate treatment of several themes, well-placed in an expressively coherent order from Bizet's tragic opera "Carmen," brought to the stage a larger orchestra. Shaham's well-centered tone allowed for the violin's sound to penetrate in all contexts. The piece gave him great opportunity for display, which he relished in a straightforward manner. 

The nimbleness and flair of his left hand reminded me of the dazzling aplomb of Ruggiero Ricci (1918-2012).  Romping along the fingerboard seemed like child's play to this exuberant artist. The Habanera and Seguidilla insinuated themselves in the seductive manner of the title character (though I take exception to the program note's labeling Carmen a prostitute). The harmonics sang out, and the left-hand pizzicati sparkled. Shaham's playing worked hand-in-glove with the conductor's sympathetic control of the orchestra. The touristy title of the program, "Greetings from France," was loaded with exclamation points by virtue of Friday's performance.





Friday, January 7, 2022

Dance Kaleidoscope: Two choreographed perspectives on 'Romeo and Juliet' open the New Year

"Sweet Sorrow": Justin Rainey, Emily Dyson

Art can have so much resonance with current American anxieties, even when we turn to the arts to provide welcome distractions.

Heard on the first anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the well-known prologue to  "Romeo and Juliet"  rang an eerie alarm. It reminds us that an old feud between the Capulets and the Montagues in long-ago Verona, Italy, presents a "new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean." 

Though focused on the tragic outcome of one couple's forbidden love, hanging over "Romeo and Juliet" is a story of the breakdown of community. That affair is central to Shakespeare's play, but the peril to civic tranquility is a strong theme.

Those words were recited, along with the final couplet of the romantic tragedy,  on Thursday night as Dance Kaleidoscope opened "Star-Crossed Lovers," a program of two works based on the play, one of them a premiere. It was an inspiring choice to introduce the program with the prologue, given clarion focus opening night (and for the next two performances) by Kelsey Johnson of the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company.

The play, a favorite of many for generations,  provides the occasion for two dance interpretations. One of

Paige Robinson in Hochoy's ethereal "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy"


them, by artistic director David Hochoy, dates from 2012.  His "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy" takes its music and its title from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. The new work is by Stuart Coleman, who was appointed DK's associate artistic director last year. Modernizing the story and the characters at Hochoy's suggestion, Coleman reassigns a few of the roles in tribute to gender fluidity's claim to reinforce full-spectrum humanity.

As a choreographer, Coleman has never struck me as caught up in modernist irony, so his embrace of new aspects of this story never seemed to be a critique of the play. On the contrary, he is a wholehearted romantic, forgivably sentimental at times,  and seems particularly gifted at finding fresh ways to tell stories in dance. "Sweet Sorrow," whose title comes from Juliet's farewell at the end of the Balcony Scene ("Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say good night till it be morrow") also demonstrates how well Coleman knits character into narrative. 

For instance, a love duet for the newly smitten couple places their inflamed passion in a context of doubt and apprehension. Embraces have tucked into them anxious looks away, hints of hesitation at the dangerous prospects ahead. Coleman's casting seems perfect: company newcomer Justin Rainey and six-season member Marie Kuhns showed a partnership as solid as if it had been a long time in the making. The resolve of each dancer in character made the tragedy they face especially poignant. The emotions may be mixed, but are held in control by physical dauntlessness.

I liked Coleman's fading away from narrative responsibilities near the end. The accidental suicide of the couple in the tomb is quickly sealed by their last, floor-bound embrace. All the miscommunication that locks in their failure to progress toward happiness is elided. The good-hearted but misdirected Friar Laurence is a nonentity in "Sweet Sorrow."  

Benvolio and the Nurse join hands in determination that something good  may come out of the lovers' demise.

In that death scene, a tableau gradually coalesces of mourners representing both sides of the feud in solemn array. Effecting the rapprochement are Juliet's nurse (Manuel Valdes) and Romeo's friend Benvolio (Holly Harkins). A few twitches of residual hostility and frustration among some of the Veronese were put to symbolic rest by Benvolio's firm but calming gestures. Once again, Coleman's design showed its sure hand in bringing out the enduring values of a community capable of healing after much strife. 

Staging had moments of spectacle when appropriate. Laura E. Glover's lighting, which DK fans have long treasured as an essential component of its repertoire, came to Lord Capulet's party fully prepared. The brilliance of Erica Johnston's costumes, which reinforced the gender-fluid production aspect as needed, got full support from group movement during the revels. The music pulsated with disco intensity, part of a selection of music throughout that was keen to the mood of each scene, starting with an adaptation of Prokofiev's masterly treatment of the story against a suspended geometric set of thin lines suggesting conflict. Amid the roiling collective energy at the party, the quickly engaged mutual attraction of Romeo and Juliet has a vividness in this show that almost seems surprising, given that we all know it's coming. 

A special benefit of Coleman's unconventional gender assignment is his casting of Natalie Clevenger as Tybalt, Juliet's cousin and the kind of spark plug every feud needs in order to rekindle from time to time. As impressive as her ferocity was as a living hothead, my favorite scene was Tybalt's posthumous appearance  to the lovers; the ache of what his death represents in the play could not be described better than in the way Tybalt, with ghostly firmness,  indicates that this love will not last. For all their declarations, Romeo and Juliet are our culture's chief reminder that what may seem imperishable about love always must be given a perishable incarnation. The pas de trois for Clevenger, Rainey, and Kuhns is a scene I'll remember for a long time for its imaginative underlining of this truth.

Hochoy's piece was worth visiting again for its elegant flow and its sustained distribution of the essential story among four couples, one of whom represents parental desire for restraint and control of the mad fancies of youth. "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy" takes cues from Tchaikovsky's heart-melting score about the ebbs and swells of the doomed loved affair, seen with prismatic clarity. There is a fine realization of the mistakes that characterize the death scene, resulting in the demise of each lover in succession. The choreography honors the sweep and majestic conclusion well-known from Tchaikovsky's music. 

Cheryl Sparks' costumes and Glover's lighting complement the often balletic language of the choreography. Coolness and classical reserve never inhibit the emotional fervor. The inevitable separation of the lovers  is just as poignantly realized as in Coleman's piece, but in a much different fashion. These two treatments of "Romeo and Juliet" work well together, such that "Star-Crossed Lovers" is a great presentation of the current state of this reliably excellent company.

[Photos by Lora Olive]