Thursday, November 24, 2016

Tell Everybody the Blind Boys are On Their Way

photo courtesy of

by Susan Kepecs
The Blind Boys of Alabama – deacons of R&B-imbued, old fashioned hard gospel – bring the good news to the Wisconsin Union Theater on Thursday, Dec. 1.  And if there was ever a time when we needed some good news, this is it.  You know what I mean.  
When the Blind Boys started out, times were even worse.  The original singers were pre-teens when they began their career at a segregated institution for the blind in Talladega, Alabama.  The year was 1939 – the Jim Crow South at the tail end of the Great Depression and the start of WWII.  These conditions, plus the weighted legacy of black American history and the young men’s tremendous talents, gave rise to one of the deepest, most soulful sounds in the world.   
The Blind Boys appear on this tour with emerging gospel / R&B singer Liz Vice (, whose rootsy music, honed in Portland, Oregon in better days (she’s 33, but she only started singing a few years ago and just launched her first album, There’s a Light, on the obscure Ramseur label last year) promises sparkling complement to the Blind Boys’ ageless resonance. 
The Blind Boys of Alabama started out as the Happyland Jubilee Singers, known for their tight, jubilee-style harmonies carried over from nineteenth century spirituals, but there’s no permanent record of those early tunes.  A decade later, though, they were recording – and they were among the originators of the R&B-based, back beat driven, irresistable hard gospel sound you might know better, unless you grew up in the black church, from those beloved secular recordings of the ‘60s by the likes of the Staple Singers, or Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Here’s a gorgeous (pirated off the internet, so please forgive any ads that pop up) Blind Boys track from around 1948

 – and here’s how I remember them from Chicago soul radio station WVON, 1450 on your AM dial, in the mid-‘60s, when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak.

This video dates to 1965, the year Lyndon Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act.  Yes, that law, the one the conservative Supreme Court, an artifact of the W. Bush years, essentially gutted in 2013, leading to a wave of new voter restrictions in states across the country, including our own ).
Around the turn of the new century the Blind Boys of Alabama hooked up with British rocker and world music mogul Peter Gabriel – a partnership that’s opened up vast new avenues and audiences, and netted them five Grammys for Best Traditional Gospel plus a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.  The group’s done Tom Waits tunes; it’s worked with a diverse array of secular musicians including Taj Majal, Willie Nelson, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Running with the mainstream lends a subtle, updated edge to their sound – drum kit, more guitars – but the Blind Boys’ gospel heart and soul are miraculously intact. 
Only one of the original Blind Boys, Jimmy Carter, still tours with the band.  The rest of its members cross-cut generations.  I had the great good fortune to speak with Rickie McKinnie, blind singer and the group’s former drummer (he joined the vocal heart of the band in 2012) on the phone last week. 

CulturalOyster: I think Jimmy Carter is the only original member of the band who still performs – how is Clarence Fountain [the legendary leader of the original group] doing? 

McKinnie: Clarence is still alive and well in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  He’s not traveling any more, he’s on dialysis.  But he keeps up with everything we do.  Jimmy Carter is the only original member still traveling.  But I’ve been close to the group for 40 years and a member for 28.  I met them when I was four.  My mother, Sarah McKinnie, sang gospel with the Reverend Gene Martin, who used to travel with the Blind Boys back in the ‘50s.  I was born in 1952, and I met Clarence in ’56.   

CulturalOyster: You’re actually from Georgia, not Alabama.  Tell me about your history before you joined the Blind Boys, and how you came to be a member of the group.

McKinnie:  I’m from Atlanta, Georgia.  My career started with Troy Ramey and the Soul Searchers out of Atlanta.  And then I was the Gospel Keynotes from Tyler, Texas.  We were awarded a gold record for a song entitled “Jesus Been Good to Me” in 1975.  And then I had my own group, the Rickie McKinnie Singers of Atlanta.  My mom still sings with them.  If you want to know more, go to my website,

CulturalOyster:  I recently intervewed Bishop Jones, of the Jones Family Singers.  I asked him if he sees gospel as part of the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights.  His mission, he said, is entirely dedicated to spreading the good news.  But right now our civil rights are being trampled in new ways.  Do the Blind Boys, with their history of being involved with Martin Luther King, keep on pushing?

McKinnie: We’re still going in the same direction.  We still sing traditional gospel.  It’s always been about the good news.  We realize that if you keep the faith God will make a way for you.  We’re not dealing with politics, but right now the world is going through a transition.  We sing a song about that, “There Will Never be any Peace Until God is Seated at the Conference Table.”  It features Paul Beasley, our tenor – he’s the best in black gospel, often imitated but never duplicated. 

CulturalOyster: Since the group became a Grammy-winning phenomenon it reaches a way different audience than the soul radio stations of the 1960s.  Does that change what the group does?

McKinnie:  No.  We believe that people need people and workin’ together works.

CulturalOyster: Your show in Madison is billed as a Christmas tour, so I guess it’s based on your 2014 holiday album Talkin’ Christmas [Sony Masterworks] that features Taj Mahal [on guitar and harmonica, and he sings on a couple of tracks]. Liz Vice is coming with you instead of Taj Mahal, but – will you be doing all Christmas songs, including the originals the band wrote?

McKinnie:  It’s not just the Christmas tour.  It’s gonna be a mixture. This concert will consist of traditional gospel songs like “Amazing Grace” and “People Get Ready” and more songs from our other CDs.  But we will do some songs from Talkin’ Christmas and Go Tell it on the Mountain [their first holiday album, a Grammy winner released in 2003 on Real World].  

CulturalOyster: Is there anything else you want to say?

McKinnie:  Jut tell the people that the Blind Boys are on their way.  Tell everybody to tell somebody that Madison will not be the same when the boys are back in town.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Madison Ballet's Black / White Reveals Resilience

Quirk in Sonata © Kat Stiennon 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s black / white, at the Bartell last weekend (Oct. 14-15), had its flaws – but it also established clearly that the organization, which suffered a financial crisis and cancelled most of its spring programming this year, is on the road to recovery. 
Black / white was based on the idea behind Balanchine’s “black and white” ballets, those iconic, stripped-down masterpieces of balletic modernism that dismiss all distractions of costume and set, placing the viewer’s focus entirely on the dancing body.  Appropriately, the program opened with three pas de deux extracted from one of twentieth century master’s earliest black and white ballets, The Four Temperaments, from 1946.  These utterly sophisticated little pas de deux belong to the hopeful days right after WWII, when America was poised for new possibilities of invention.  As Balanchine was choreographing “Four T’s,” as the ballet’s affectionately called, Jackson Pollock was making his first action paintings and bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo created Latin jazz.
The three Four Temperaments pas go by in the blink of an eye, but they’re textbook studies of the way Balanchine seamlessly meshed classical elegance and angular, modernist, off-center moves.  Seventy years on these dances are miraculously fresh, still avant garde.  And they were performed impeccably.  In the first, danced by Kristin Hammer and Pablo Sanchez, a regal port de bras startled atop flexing feet that break the nineteenth century line.  The second is staccato and industrial; Annika Reikersdorfer and Jacob Brooks crossed each other in space, elbows bent at right angles; when hers were down, his were up.  In the third, the ideally paired Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson were luxuriously fluid – a single, four-limbed creature.
Frequent Madison Ballet guest choreographer General McArthur Hambrick’s 2+3, an ode of sorts to Balanchine, just popped with movement and light.  The title refers to the cast of three women (Quirk, Reikersdorfer, and Kelanie Murphy) and two men (Johnson and Brooks), who moved in and out of view in varying combinations.  The men lept, spun, thrusted their hips and cabrioled.  In one memorable pas de deux Johnson swirled Quirk off the ground, her legs out to the side parallel to the floor in a magical demonstration of centrifugal force.  For Reikersdorfer and Brooks there was an
Brooks and Reikersdorfer in 2+3  © Kat Stiennon 2016
adagio jitterbug – she fell backward into his arms, then was carried across the stage on his back.  The women pirouetted in an open semi-circle as the men, coming from behind, lept through them.  Quirk, in an elastic variation, swept her working leg up to a 90 degree second position and, resisting gravity, wrapped it marvelously into attitude. Murphy had a saucy little solo built on chugs, pique turns and little sissones, arms waving joyfully overhead.  Johnson and Brooks, who’s never looked stronger, challenged each other in a bold, playful duet.
Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith revisited two of his earlier works.  Sonata #1 in F Minor, a three-movement piece, reveals his  deep-rooted musicality and his strong sense of neoclassical vocabulary.  But the work enticed me less this time than it did when it premiered in 2014.  The middle, presto movement is an absolutely lovely piece of choreography, and it looked breathtaking on Quirk.  Breaking the black / white theme in a bright blue leotard, she was, as always, the consummate ballerina, flowing through the music, celebrating her long, luxurious lines.  The andante and funebre movements surrounding this dance were disappointing by comparison, especially the latter, which sat unevenly on the corps (Reikersdorfer, Hammer, Murphy and newcomer Michaela King).  The relentless adagio looked long and repetitive, and lacked some of the strong presence and extraordinary physical control it would need to really work.
The program finale, Street – a piece for the whole company, plus apprentices – has a violin score that mixes Bach and Beethoven with contemporary urban street music.  Like everything else on the program it’s based on neoclassical vocabulary, though here it’s mixed with street gang struts and a twerkish booty roll that shows up in various forms.  It’s an odd step, neither sexy nor balletic, but it served at least one good purpose – a handful of mid-sized kids gleefully mimicked it out in the street after the show.  There’s an overdose of filler in this piece, but there was compensation for its flaws. A little pas de trois for Reikersdorfer with Jackson Warring and Andrew Erickson was flirty and spunky.  Reikersdorfer sparkled with confidence, hitting a perfect arabesque on pointe, partnered on each side.  When they let go she stayed, impossibly suspended, for a breathtaking moment.  And Johnson’s bravura variation, to an excerpt from Für Elise, was a show-stopper – he swept through space, tossing his hair, whipping off strings of pas de chats en tournant – you could imagine him snorting fire as he flew through the air, like some ancient mythological dancing beast.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Aziza Plays Jazz for the Spirits at the Wisconsin Union Theater

Aziza press photo (Harland, Holland, Potter, Loueke)
by Susan Kepecs
Aziza, a superstar jazz quartet with a chameleon-like approach that takes its main shadings from Big Apple bop and Africa-hued fusions, comes to the Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday night, Oct. 22.  Aziza’s members’ musical pedigrees tie them tightly to the heights of black American music.  Veteran bassist Dave Holland played on Miles Davis’ indelible, Grammy-winning fusion recordings, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969 and 1970, respectively).  Saxman and former Holland protegé Chris Potter got his start at the end of the ‘80s with the late bebop jazz trumpeter Red Rodney, who played with Charlie Parker in the post WWII years.  Drummer Eric Harland often plays with the original jazz fusionist, Charles Lloyd, whose album Forest Flower (1967, Atlantic) changed the world.  And Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke, alum of the Thelonious Monk Institute, counts Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Terence Blanchard as his main mentors.
Aziza’s first album is titled eponymously, and its release date (on Holland’s Dare2 Records label) is amost week away as I write this, so there’s not a lot to listen to yet.  You can stream the title track, a Loueke tune called "Aziza Dance," thanks to the New York Times:

And I found a video of them in Vitoria-Gasteiz, capital of the atonomous Basque region of northeast Spain, which I’m pirating off the internet – so many thanks to an unknown videographer, and my apologies for the ads that’re undoubtedly gonna pop up.  


This is a group without a designated frontman, but azizas are Beninese forest sprites.  And in the spring of 2008, Loueke played the Union Theater stage with chanteuse Gretchen Parlato.  I’ve been taken with his intricately textured, pan-Africa-jazz / rock fusions ever since.  

So I picked Loueke to interview in advance of this concert.  I reached him by phone in Germany a couple of Saturday mornings ago. 

CulturalOyster: Tell me about being a kid in Benin – and how you came to choose a career in music.   When you were starting out there was a lot of exciting music happening in Africa, especially in Nigeria.  How much did that influence you? 

Loueke:  Being a kid in Benin I was pretty much surrounded by music.  Most of the kids there grow up with traditional ritual ceremonials.  Every week or so somebody passes away or gets married or there’s an aniversary, always with music.  So I grew up listening, and playing traditional music with musicians older than myself, and then I was going to different villages for ceremonies for the same reasons, so I really grew up with the music of Benin.  My older brother was a guitar player, that’s how I started – he showed me my first chords and then I taught myself, and I learned from my peers. 
       And I was influenced a lot by Nigerian musicians.  Nigeria being the biggest country in Africa in terms of population, and being right other side of the border from Benin, the two countries share a lot of culture – and the language is Yoruba in Benin as well as in Nigeria.  So I was definitely influenced by the great musicians like King Sunny Adé and Fela [Kuti].

CulturalOyster: You play guitar on Angelique Kidjo’s rootsy Oyo album.  I think she’s a bit older than you, so was she also an influence when you were young? 

Loueke: No, she wasn’t really an influence. she was older than me but not by much.  She grew up with my brother, she was his peer.  I remember seeing her and my brother playing recitals, and her mother and my mother are from the same village, so we knew each other a long time ago.

CulturalOyster: There’s some Soweto in your sound, too – the clicks, and sometimes the melodies. 

Loueke:  Yes, definitely.  I was listening a lot to [Miriam] Makeba.  I don’t speak Xhosa, unfortunately, but I get inspired by the click so I use it a lot.  For me it’s for rhythmic purposes, I don’t use it as language.

CulturalOyster: What was it that brought you to American jazz?

Loueke: When I started playing Afropop I heard jazz for the first time.  I was touched, without understanding.  I wanted to understand it and when I discovered it was based on improvisation it changed everything for me.  I was listening mostly to guitar players – Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, George Benson.  There’s definitely improvisation in African traditional music, but mostly from the lead percussionist or the lead singer.  The others in the band have specific parts.  I remember when I started playing professionally – I was in an Afropop group – and we had three guitar players, plus bass.  I was on lead guitar but I was always playing my own way, so they moved me to second guitar – there you’re only playing low register, so there’s not that much freedom to improvise.  But that’s what I always wanted to do. 

CulturalOyster:  Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter have been so important in your career – tell me a bit about how they influenced you, and how their influences come out in your work today.

Loueke: I learned so much – I’m still learning from them.  I’m lucky to still be playing with Herbie today.  All three of them changed a lot for me, even beyond the music.  Musically I learn every time I play with them, but just being around them is the biggest lesson.  It’s a life lesson.  It makes a difference in who I am today.  How humble and giving they are – that’s something that even playing music doesn’t quite reach.  There’s a whole different spiritual level that I’m learning from them.  That’s more important for me than music, because music is just part of what we do, but it’s not who we are, as Herbie says.

CulturalOyster: That delicate balance between Africa and New York that you get – how do you describe it, rhythmically and melodically? 

Loueke: That's a hard question.  I think in general, in New York today there’s a huge globalization of the music – Vijay Ayer from India, Miguel Zenón from Puerto Rico, guys from Cuba – all kinds of different influences come into play, you hear it very strongly and it’s something that really comes out in our generation. But Dizzy was doing it with Chano Pozo in the ‘40s – it’s just more developed and more global now.  Everybody is in New York, and everybody keeps their culture with them, which is a good thing for jazz.  I think that’s why I live in New York – I’m learning not just jazz, but also this incredible global language.  If you want to be a good jazz player you’ve got to be where it’s happening.  It happens in Benin, and all over Africa, but I’m more into the collaboration you only find in New York.  That’s what the world needs, we need to learn from each other and live together.

CulturalOyster: How did the Chris Potter, Dave Holland, Eric Harland and Lionel Loueke collaboration come about?  Tell me more about the project.  

Loueke: I’ve been doing a lot of collaborations, especially for the last four or five years.  I’ve worked with a lot of different musicians. Dave Holland and I were talking about working together and he called me about this project and I told him to count me in.  It’s a beautiful collaboration with great musicians.  It’s all about compositions from all of us, everybody brings tunes and we play them and record them – there’s no specific direction we’re going in.  I think the music speaks for itself and it goes in any direction someone takes it because everybody’s listening so close.  That’s when the magic can really happen.

CulturalOyster: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you want to add?

Loueke:  I want to give a sense sense of what this collaboration is really about.  There’s no ego, it’s all about the music and the moment.  That moment only happens one time, it’s unique and impermanent.  Come share that moment with us, if you can.

Madison Ballet's "Black / White" Brings Balanchine to the Bartell

Quirk and Johnson rehearsing 3+2  © SKepecs 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Madison ballet’s 2015-16 season opens with Black / White, Oct. 14-15 at the Bartell Theatre.  The program title’s a nod to George Balanchine’s “black and white” ballets, those iconic, stripped-down masterpieces of balletic modernism that dismiss all distractions of costume and set, placing the focus entirely on the dancing body.  On the Black / White program are the three themes from Balanchine’s 1946 black and white ballet The Four Temperaments, plus a new piece by frequent Madison Ballet guest choreographer General Hambrick and two revisited works by artistic director W. Earle Smith.
“What’s fascinating about this program,” says Smith, “is that the theme of black and white is exposed in so many different ways.  It’s discovered through choreographic ingenuity, through individual dancers, through music, through attire and lighting – it really makes for a very complete evening.”
            The Four Temperaments, with a score Balanchine comissioned for this ballet by twentieth century German composer Paul Hindemith, is, in its entirety, a 30-minute work for a company twice Madison Ballet’s size.  The three themes excerpted from the full work – all pas de deux – were meant to introduce four larger sections evoking the medieval notion of elemental “temperaments” that determine a person’s psychological makeup.  The Temperaments pas de deux, like all of the other Balanchine works Madison Ballet has performed, are done with rights granted by the Balanchine Trust, and are set on the company by Balanchine Trust répétiteur Michelle Gifford.  In Black / White they’ll be danced by Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson (who last partnered as Mina Murray and Jonathan Harker in last year’s production of Smith’s full-length ballet Dracula); Annika Reikersdorfer and Jacob Brooks; and Kristen Hammer with newcomer Pablo Sanchez. 
“What I love about the Temperaments themes is their crispness and clarity, and how they exemplify Balanchine’s unbelievable musicality,” Smith says.  “What’s really difficult about dancing them is the simplicity in the choreography.  The hardest combinations for dancers to do, often enough, are the simplest ones.”
Hambrick’s piece, 3+2, is, like the abstract, otherworldly story dances edged in revelation we’ve seen from him before, anchored in the choreographer’s unique neoclassical vocabulary gilded in Alvin Aileyisms. But 3+2 is also a huge departure from those works.  “General told me laughingly that this is his homage to George Balanchine,” Smith says.
Set on Quirk, Reikersdorfer, Kelanie Murphy, Johnson, and Brooks, 3+2 has none of the narrative trappings we’ve come to expect from Hambrick’s works.  This is pure ballet – big, lush, bold, and very dancey.
Smith’s very neoclasical “Sonata No. 1 in F Minor” (2014), a textured, three-movement piece named for its Scriabin accompaniment, has Quirk in the soloist role with Reikersdorfer, Hammer, Murphy and newcomer Michaela King in the corps.  “What I love about revisiting any work of mine is to be able to shape it further,” Smith says.  “Sonata” was just real meaty piece, and very challenging athletically.  I really wanted to see what these dancers would do with it.
Only Quirk has danced in this piece before, and the solo is new for her – but but in rehearsal she makes it look effortless, switching easily from off-center lunges to luxurious, perfectly centered arabesque turns.  The corps work is difficult, demanding unison and merging angular, staccato vocabluary with softer, more lyrical steps.
Johnson and Brooks rehearsing "Street" © SKepecs 2016
 “It’s hard!” the very able Reikersdorfer says after a grueling run-through. 
“The trick is getting the legs consistently where they need to go,” Smith replies, scissoring his arms, as choreographers do, to demonstrate what he means.    
Jackson Warring, Reikersdorfer and Andrew Erickson
rehearsing "Street" © SKepecs 2016

Smith’s other piece, “Street,” premiered as the finale for the company’s 2013 spring repertory show.  “It was a really uneventful piece for me,” Smith says.  “It was fun to do it, but I didn’t have much choreographic attachment to it until I saw the audience respond to it with delight.  That’s when I knew I wanted to expand it – to play with it more.”
The new, improved “Street” – it’s a neoclassical hip-hop mashup, and there’s beatboxing over violin in the score – sweeps and struts, with dancers moving in and out in shifting configurations.  There’s absolute whirlwind of a male variation for the terrific Johnson; in rehearsal, the studio air itself was supercharged by his powerful, airborne steps.  The dancers, sitting on the sidelines, cheered for him at the end. 
Johnson's "Street" variation © SKepecs 2016