Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Best of 2010

By Susan Kepecs

As we close out the first decade of the new millineum with multiple unwinnable wars, a repressive transnational political economy, and emerging environmental catastrophe – not to mention the TeaPublicans poised to take over the state (and the lower body of the federal legislature) next week – the survival of the performing arts is touching testimony to the strength of the human spirit.  Not everything I saw this year was great, but here’s my list of this year’s pearls.
There’s no real order here – no “top of the list.”  But I’ll start with Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, Overture’s Capitol Theater, Nov. 11, since it packed a personal wallop.  The drug war’s spiraling violence can’t kill Mexico’s vibrant culture – even the cultish narcocultura is unmistakably Mexican – but the ramped up dangers south of the border impose exile on anyone who loves the place but doesn’t absolutely have to be there.  Luckily, Los Angeles-based Los Camperos, at the top of the mariachi tradition in the States, returned to Madison after a four year absence.  Overture’s outreach needs improvement – los paisanos were in the house, but I was surprised La Movida’s Luis Montoto wasn’t invited (as he was in 2006) to present the band.  Still, the music was so glorious I had to choke back tears while belting out, with all the other exiles in the audience, the chorsuses of the great mariachi anthems – “Volver,” “Cielito Lindo,” and of course, “El Rey.”
Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, Wisconsin Union Theater, Feb. 6.  King’s dancers are among the world’s best, and his remarkable artistry, stretching the physical and metaphysical boundaries of ballet, links the global 21st century to the many-layered ancient past.  The two long pieces he brought this year – in both, ensemble dances were interspersed with pas de deux – showcased distinct aspects of King’s sensibilities.  “Signs and Wonders,” originally choreographed for Dance Theater of Harlem, was stocked with bold moves and set to traditional African chants.  The enigmatic, luminous “Dust and Light” had a lofty score woven from Corelli’s baroque concerti and Poulenc’s sacred motets.  Almost opposites on the surface, both works transcended time and space.  Throughout, King achieved a serendipitous synergy between light, energy and imagery (onstage) and a kinesthetic response (in the audience) that was almost spooky, and left me breathless.
El rey del piano, Eddie Palmieri, with his Latin Jazz Septet, Wisconsin Union Theater, Nov. 5.  The band sailed through two sets of the Maestro’s compositions, including “Crew,” a showy new mambo, and “Slowvizor,” a funky cha cha cha off his groundbreaking 1994 album Palmas, plus Tito Puente’s “Picadillo” in homage to the late mambo king.  At 74 Palmieri still rips on the keys, growling into the mike, but he leaves plenty of space for his collaborators to stretch out.  The long, sinuous grooves that prevailed, driven by Palmieri’s regular rhythm section (Little Johnny Rivero on congas, José Claussel on timbales, Orlando Vega on bongos), were lavishly embellished with trumpeter Brian Lynch’s agile hard bop chops, Curtis Luques’ brawny bass solos and newcomer Louis Fouché’s gently blues-infused alto sax.
The Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour, Overture’s Capitol Theater, April 29.  A slate of straight-ahead masters – pianist Kenny Barron, violinist Regina Carter, guitarist Russell Malone and vocalist Kurt Elling – put on a tight and generous, though conservative show.  I wanted more solos from Barron, and more bop.  But the radiant exchanges between Barron, Carter and Malone on Barron’s joyful composition “Calypso,” and Barron and Carter quoting everything from “America the Beautiful” to Bach in their playful take on “Georgia on My Mind,” were worth the extravagant ticket price.
Nrityagram Indian Dance Ensemble, Wisconsin Union Theater, March 6.  This was the best event no one attended this year.  The tiny audience was embarrasing, but the show was sumptuous.  The company – really a holistic dance community dedicated to Odissi, a classical, supremely sensuous style that was banned under British rule but revived in the 1950s from ancient temple sculptures – brings an utterly contemporary, theatrical sensibility to this lyrical ancient form.  The five dances on the program, rich with rhythmic complexity and technical precision, were framed in extraordinary ambiences of light and color. 
                                                                    Andrew Weeks 2010
Madison Ballet’s Cinderella, Overture Hall, March 13-14.  Three years after going professional, the company hit its stride with this sparkling production. Artistic director W. Earle Smith’s confident choreography fit his strong, bright dancers like a glove.  And the company, solidified by its previous seasons, achieved a distinctive unity based on neoclassical vocabulary and a slightly syncopated musicality.  Madison, just a cow town with a big university when I first came here 45 years ago, finally has a bona fide ballet company, and a Balanchine-based one at that.  To me, that’s the mark of a real city.
Li Chiao Ping’s Knotcracker, Overture’s Promenade Hall, Dec. 3-5.  Balletomane that I am, I loved this clever postmodern holiday show for the way it knocked down every possible preconceived notion about the art of dance.  Li’s tongue-in-cheek deconstructions of formal ballet conventions were charming and smart, and the mix of professional and community dancers, including seniors and the physically differently abled, pitted a populist message against ballet’s rarified world.
                                                                              SKepecs 2010
Mad City conga king Tony Castañeda’s exuberant Latin Jazz Septet – catch this band at its home base, Sunday nights at the Cardinal Bar – is always evolving.  Lately, I’ve noticed repertory tweaks.  Mongo Santamaria and Cal Tjader tunes still prevail, but the band’s swapped out some of its staple cha cha cha and boogaloo grooves for more wide open mambos, plus some clave-based takes on slinky straight ahead standards.  Don’t get me wrong – this band has always delivered dazzling mambos, and it hasn’t lost its cha cha cha chops.  But the slight shift accomodates the mighty musicianship these players (besides Castañeda, the current lineup consists of David Stoler on keys, Henry Behm on bass, Anders Svanoe on sax, Darren Sterud on trombone, Charlie Wagner on trumpet and Kyle Traska on timbales) bring to the table, making more space for sizzling improvisations.  This is great Latin jazz, both mesmerizing and bailable, and you can dig it where it belongs – in a hip urban nightclub instead of under the proscenium arch. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Madison Ballet's Nutcracker: Gorgeous, with a few Glitches

By Susan Kepecs

The sheer range of choreographic ingenuity exposed in New York Times dance critic Alistair Macaulay’s cross-country Nutcracker Chronicles – have you been following this? – is staggering.  His dispatches, from traditional productions – the Joffrey’s Nut, Moscow Ballet’s, Balanchine’s, by New York City Ballet – and the offbeat ones – hip hop Nuts, R-rated Nuts, Nuts set in the historical contexts of the cities in which they’re staged, Mark Morris’ famous ‘70s retro Hard Nut, the 15th Annual Black Nutcracker at Harlem’s Apollo Theater – paint a precise portrait of American diversity through the lens of a beloved Christmas classic.  Macaulay’s blog posts ( reveal the gorgeous, the glitches, what’s memorable, and what’s not, in every single one of these sundry productions.
Macaulay omits Madison, but I caught the 7:30 PM performance of Madison Ballet’s annual Nutcracker in Overture Hall on Sat., Dec. 18 (the casting shifts slightly from one show to the next and there are two matinees to go, on Christmas Eve at 1 PM and Dec. 26, at 2).  The production, which marks the fourth season since the company went professional, was slightly uneven, like Nuts nationwide.
Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker, choreographed in the Balanchine tradition by artistic director W. Earle Smith, falls squarely in the traditional camp.  This is certainly the right approach for this company, in this city, in these times.  But my biggest beef – and I’ve said this before – is the humdrum party scene in Act I, in which little Clara receives a nutcracker doll as a holiday gift.  Unless your own little dance student is shining onstage there’s no real excitement, and the canned music the company’s used since the crash of ’08 exaggerates the problem.  Since we can’t hang our attention spans on a live interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score, only Gretchen Bourg’s hammy pantomime as the maid, plus the local celebs disguised as party parents – Mad City Police Department public information officer and former WISC-TV reporter Joel DeSpain and UW’s Wisconsin Union Director Mark Guthier this year – provided relief. 
Well, that and the dancing dolls.  Zachary Guthier, a Madison Ballet apprentice, merits mention for his crisp, clean Soldier Doll performance.  But this short burst of bona fide ballet is nowhere near enough to carry the whole scene, which is sorely in need of a new slant.
Guthier (Zachary, that is) swapped costumes to come right back out as the Rat King in Clara’s post-party midnight nightmare, with its zany battle between the rats and the toy soldiers.  The rats were terrific this year, kicking and leaping in their grizzly rat suits.  
At the end of this silly-spooky dream little Clara grows up and the nutcracker doll comes to life; the two celebrate their budding romance in the Snow pas de deux that follows.  This year Smith cast Molly Luksik and Bryan Cunningham in the protagonist roles – a challenge for Luksik, a fiery redhead who stole last year's show with her daredevil Russian dance.  Since her natural style is swift and brash I was amazed to see her pull out dreamy nuances in the Snow pas, floating into her lifts, swooping backwards into Cunningham’s arms and flipping birdlike into plush penchée arabesques, the lines of her extended limbs continued upward in the raised arc of Cunningham’s free arm.
Cunningham’s partnering was indeed pitch perfect, and he delivered a relaxed, fluid performance in his short variation.  But the pair slipped slightly in the second act.  The Sugarplum pas de deux, studded with fish dives and risky lifts, was confident, and Luksik, flaunting fancy footwork in the coda, sparkled.  But the creampuffy quality she brought to the Snow pas gave way, and Cunningham’s clean lines faded at his less than pointed feet during his nonetheless admirably airborne coupe jete menege.
The divertissements deserve a salute.  Katy Fredrick, subtly flicking her feet, brought a smidge of escuela bolera, suspiciously missing in previous years, to the Spanish dance.  Avichai Scher’s bravura chops brought cheers for his Russian dance, reprised from 2008.  Laura Rutledge, by herself, finessed the substantial Merlitons piece, which is usually staged for two or three.
In the performance I saw Madelyn Boyce had the demanding Dewdrop role in the Waltz of the Flowers.  Boyce is a lovely dancer, notable for her faultless musical phrasing and expressive neoclassical style, but she played the part too close to the chest – the Dewdrop requires the kind of give-it-all-up-for-the-audience glitter hometown favorite Genevieve Custer-Weeks used to bring to the part.
Small flaws and the party scene aside, though, I’ll admit it – this was Madison Ballet’s best Nutcracker yet.  The proof’s in how the audience sees it.  I walked outside after the show with an old friend whose daughter was in the youth company corps de ballet for the first Nut Smith directed when he took over in 1999.  At that time the production was simply a community affair, relying entirely on area ballet students except for the pair of big-name guest principals flown in for the Sugarplum pas.  “Earle came to Madison with a vision,” my friend said, meaning his plan to create a professional company equal to those of other mid-size cities, “and he’s realizing it.”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Li Chiao-Ping's Knotcracker Knocks Sox Off

"Faux Pas"     photo by John Maniaci

by Susan Kepecs

Knotcracker, a new full length, two-act anti-ballet from Madison’s premier second-wave postmodern choreographer and UW Dance prof Li Chiao-Ping (in Overture's Promenade Hall last weekend, Dec. 3-5) was no Nutcracker knockoff.  Li’s holiday gift to the city was seriously original, and often hilarious – not an adjective anyone would apply to the nineteenth century holiday classic.
Though Li’s made funny dances before, much of her oeuvre is decidedly intellectual instead.  Knotcracker had broad audience appeal, in a very non-slick, un-commercial, from-the-heart way.  Personally I like edgy performances, but an occasional work that packs popular punch can only be good for postmodern dance in general, and for Li’s company in particular. 
Knotcracker mixed Li’s current professional company with community dancers, including seniors and the physically differently abled, most of whom have been working with Li for years.  The professional troupe isn’t the strongest Li’s had, since about half the dancers are new this season.  But the choreography fit them fine, and the community group has never looked better.  I was dismayed to find no notes about these brave non-pros in the program’s dancers’ biographies section.
For Knotcracker, Li took a cubist approach to a loose tale in which the protagonist, Little Miss Steps – a bit of a misfit in big red sneakers – is determined to dance.  We see her at the beginning and end of the program as a little girl (Kenna Titus), though the main story revolves around a young adult (company member Liz Sexe) who ultimately triumphs over the trials and tribulations of the bunhead, Pilates-toned, conformist dance world.
Seventeen short dances revealed clever facets of both the heroine’s story and the artificial chunks into which this thing we call dance is divided.  The story’s non-linear arrangement was highlighted with a fragmented score mixing classical composers – Mozart, Prokofiev, Strauss – with klezmer, Indipop and contemporary electronica by local musicians Patrick Reinholz, Matan Rubenstein and Ben Willis.
Yes, there were several Nutcracker references.  The most overt one opened the show.  Li, as Mother Ginger, a staple character in Nutcracker’s Act II, rolled in regally on a high platform and released horde of small children – young Little Miss Steps’ companions – from beneath her gigantic skirts.  Slightly subtler was “Tangle,” a sideways glance at the parents’ cotillion from Nut’s Act I.  The playful pairs piece for community and company performers, set to an infectious sound track by local klezmer band Yid Vicious, injected a soupçon of Chanukah into the lopsided sectarian season. 
Knotcracker, in fact, knocked the art of ballet jokes out of the park.  My favorite piece, “Faux Pas,” was a tongue in cheek, anti-classical pas de six reminiscent of “Go,” Li’s brilliant 1995 Swan Lake in combat boots.  In “Faux Pas,” dancers in clunky laceup pointe shoes and wildly deconstructed tutus danced a mix of Li’s unmistakable movement vocabulary and turned-in, knock kneed, flexed foot pique turns and penchee arabesques.  Of course, “Faux Pas” was part of the story, so when Little Miss Steps tried to join the ballerinas they hissed at her and stomped offstage.
Divertissements are little dances – diversions, or amusements – that interrupt the narratives of traditional story ballets.  In Nutcracker, the divertissements are balletic folkdances – Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabian – that break up Act II.   The Knotcracker program listed three divertissements, and the very idea of deconstructing this formal but inconsequential element of classical ballet tickled my funnybone.  No. 1, “Knot in Kansas,” was a high energy, shake-fisted boogie featuring Michael Ziemet, one of Li’s long-time community dancers.  In “Lumen Beings” dancers moved in the dark with flashlights in understated homage to certain works by multimedia dance theater maven and UW alum Tim Glenn or his late mentor, Alwin Nikolais.  No. 3, “Seeing I to I,” performed by the company in black tutus and bright bodices, was built of quintessential Li-isms.  But a fourth piece, “A World, A Part” – a looney-bin bit of fun in which Li’s community dancers spoke in tongues to Matan Rubenstein’s electronic score – fit the divertissement mold, too. 
Ballet wasn’t the only target for Li’s sharp-eyed wit.  In “eRacers” she set her sights on the Pilates craze, moving the storyline forward with a dance in which Little Miss Steps was rejected by a sorority of firm-up fanatics dressed identically in black pants and sunglasses, flaunting their pink and blue – eraser colored – Pilates mats.
Dances to utter absurdity – “A World, A Part,” and “Aqueducks,” in which “swimmers” in flapper-style bathing suits made Miss Steps smile by spouting real water as they mimed the crawl – filled the space between “eRacers” and the story’s four-installment denouement.  In the first of these, “Stamps of Approval” – a party of line and circle dances, full of spins, jumps and hand jives – Little Miss Steps finally cracked the knot, claiming her spot in the midst of the action.  In “Miss Steps Misses Steps No More,” she soloed happily.  “Playground – Reprise Surprise Oh Mys” featured community dancers’ bodies as playground equipment for the cast’s little kids plus a charming two-piece Chinese dragon, courtesy of the Zhong Yi Jung Fu Association, in a tender duet with young Little Miss Steps.  In “Esperanto Stomp,” the finale, everyone from community elders to little kids let loose, with both Little Miss Steps smack in the center. 
This long spate of relentless joy is, in fact, my only gripe.  I’d have broken it up, giving Little Miss Steps one last hurdle before the finale – a dangerous, clunky, anti-Sugarplummy pas de deux. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Madison Ballet's Big, Bright Season

By Susan Kepecs

If last spring’s luxuriant production of Cinderella is any clue, Madison Ballet is set to debut a stunning season.  It starts when the curtain goes up in Overture Hall on the first of five Nutcracker performances at 2 PM on Saturday, Dec. 18.
This production marks the company’s fourth year as a professional outfit, and to be frank, the first two seasons were uneven.  That’s no surprise, since no artistic venture as large and complex as a ballet company – which requires dancers to develop intuition about each other and to internalize the artistic director’s vision – comes ready-made.  But Madison Ballet’s artistic director, W. Earle Smith, who brings to the table beautiful Balanchine training and his own slightly quirky, syncopated musicality, has worked wonders with what began as a batch of dancers with diverse ballet backgrounds.  With Cinderella, the company finally gelled.  In my review I wrote that Madison finally has a bona fide ballet company – the stuff of a real city.
There’s no reason to suspect this success was a flash in the pan.  I like Nut – a Russian Victorian relic that morphed into an American Christmas ritual during the prosperous post-WWII period – less than Cinderella.  The holiday ballet never fails to bring out my inner Grinch.  But Nut has its magic moments, even for me.  Smith’s Balanchiney Snow scene is a lovely ballet blanc, reason enough to go even if you’ve already seen it several times. 
Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker hasn’t seen radical change since Smith rechoreographed it when he launched the professional company in 2007 -- before that, the performance arm of the organization was a pre-professional studio company dependent on guest principals to dance the Sugarplum pas de deux.  But in every Nut there’s something new.  Smith tweaks his choreography every year, tailoring the solos, pas de deux and variations for specific dancers.  And this time around he’s taken a bold risk, casting against type, which adds a new edge to the performance.  “I have a lot of faith in my dancers,” he says.  “I know how far I can push them out of their box.”
Nutcracker, based on a story about a little girl and her Christmas doll, is partly a ballet for and by children – and this year’s Nut has the largest youth cast ever.  The young dancers come from schools all across Dane County.  Neither of the two little Claras, who alternate performances, is from the School of Madison Ballet.  “It’s not about who’s better, it’s just that I saw something I liked in these students, and that’s testimony to the open audition process,” Smith says.
Coming up in a post-holiday blink of an eye is “Evening of Romance” [Capitol Theater, Sat., Feb. 12], Madison Ballet’s Valentine to the city.  This repertory concert gives Smith a chance to stretch out and showcase his dancers without the constraints of a full-length, storybook production, and it offers the public an entirely different view of ballet.  Much of what’s in “Evening of Romance” originally was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, 2009, but the program became a casualty of the economic collapse.  A few days before the show was scheduled – the works well-rehearsed, the dancers ready – the bottom fell out of the budget.  The Capitol Theater performance was cancelled, but a small studio showing was so good it moved the audience to tears.
Two years on, with his company on a roll, Smith’s expanded this program, adding works I haven’t seen and pushing the choreographic envelope farther.  Acompanying the post-Balanchine neoclassical dances he’s prepared for this show there’ll be archival film footage from the big band era, plus live music onstage by longtime local singer / songwriter / pianist Michael Massey and the great Jan Wheaton, Mad City’s First Lady of Jazz, who'll do a set from her very swingin’ 2005 album Expressions of Love. 
Midsummer Night’s Dream [March 19-20, in the Capitol Theater] rounds out the season.  Though it’s a story ballet, it’s got a whole different aesthetic than the traditional workhorses of every company’s repertory, like Nutcracker, Cinderella and Swan Lake.  Balanchine once choreographed Shakespeare’s famous play about wedding mixups and midsummer forest sprites, but Smith bought the rights to the version done by Peter Anastos, a major US choreographer and ballet historian who’s best known as the founding director / choreographer of Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo, that famous troupe of men on pointe. 
Midsummer, like all things Shakespearean, has so much substance,” Smith says – “acting, dancing, comedy, drama.  And Anastos is a great storyteller.  It’s really exciting to set someone else’s work.  I don’t always want to do my own choreography.  I want my company to have the diversity and training to do many styles and to carry off works by many different choreographers.  Versatility is what makes a company successful.  That takes well-trained, smart dancers, and I have them.”
Madison Ballet, back in its studio company days, performed Midsummer twice at the old Civic Center, today the Capitol Theater – in the spring of 2002, and again in 2004.  As a pre-professional production it was delightful, and it should look utterly fabulous on the fast-rising company Madison Ballet is today.
But if that’s not enough, there’s a little bit more.  “The dancers are taking to the streets,” Smith says.  “Look for them in surprise performances around town.  Sometimes, out of the blue, ballet just happens.”
The Nutcracker schedule (all shows are in Overture Hall) includes a single 7:30 PM evening performance, on Sat., Dec. 18.  You can catch a 2 PM matinee on Sat., Dec. 18 or Sun., Dec. 19.  There’s a 1 PM Christmas Eve show on Fri., Dec. 24, and a 2 PM matinee on Sun., Dec. 26.  “People need to get out of the house after being cooped up inside all day on Christmas,” says Smith.  “In my family we always used to go to the movies – but now there’s Nutcracker.  It's a perfect alternative."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Mambo King Returns

                               Palmieri at the Union Theater, 2006                       SKepecs photo                          
  By Susan Kepecs

If the pundits are right, after Tuesday’s alarming midterm elections are over I’m going to be in mourning for our country in general and for my representation, as a Wisconsin citizen, in the US Senate in particular.  But halleluja, there’s brief, shining respite on tap Friday night (Nov. 5).  After a four-year absence Maestro Eddie Palmieri, the mambo king, presides at the piano on the Union Theater stage with his stellar Latin jazz septet.
Since Palmieri’s last visit he’s reaped his ninth Grammy, with his protegé-turned-collaborator, trompetista Brian Lynch, for their stunning 2006 release, Simpatico.  And Azucar Pa’ Ti, Palmieri’s glorious fifth album, recorded with his Conjunto La Perfecta in 1965, was chosen for the National Recording Registry of the US Library of Congress.  Azucar’s Nuyorican-style Cuban dance beats are brilliantly laced with jazz idioms –montunos imbued with dissonant, Thelonious Monk chords and the extended instrumental mambo improvisations that mark everything Palmieri’s done since.
Was Azucar Latin jazz, or salsa’s precursor?  Either way, Palmieri and his brother Charlie were among the founding fathers of the son-based dance music we still love to groove to at the Cardinal Bar.  But please, don’t yell out requests for “Adoración” or “Vamonos p’al Monte” Friday night.  Palmieri’s instrumental mambos are bailable, though sometimes, with Lynch in the lead, they head toward hard bop territory.  If you need your salsa fix first, head down to Chicago the night before.  Palmieri mostly plays Latin jazz these days, but he’s never been able to completely cash in his dance band chips.  La Perfecta II revives its predecessor’s greatest hits at V Live on Logan Square at 2047 N. Milwaukee Ave., Thursday (Nov. 4) at 9 PM.
“I didn’t grow up with jazz,” Palmieri says.  “I brought myself up in the Latin dance genre. That was my forte, my main interest.  I love to watch people dance, and leading a dance band orchestra was my ideal.  But little by little the genre changed.  I saw the writing on the wall.  I had no choice but to go into Latin jazz.”  His first official jazz release was the all-instrumental Palmas, in 1994. 
Nevertheless, for Palmieri there’s always been a fine line between Latin dance music and Latin jazz.  “Remember,” he says, “jazz started with the big dance orchestras.  In the 1950s the Palladium [New York’s legendary Latin ballroom] and Birdland, ‘the jazz corner of the world,’ were right next to each other.  We had the greatest jazz players coming to the dance club and vice-versa.”
Palmieri rattles off stories about the birth of Cubop, the original Latin / jazz fusion.  “When Chico O’Farrill came to New York and started composing and arranging for Machito’s orchestra he was always going next door to Birdland and listening to Duke Ellington and Count Basie.  And don’t forget the most famous example – when [Havana-born conguero] Chano Pozo meets Dizzy Gillespie in New York one percussionist changes the entire jazz orchestra.  The power of the drum was the New York phenomenon of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.  All these years Latin rhythms and jazz have gone hand and hand and now they’re moving forward in wonderful new kinds of jazz fusion.”
Everywhere he travels lately, Palmieri explains – Japan, Russia and Australia as well as Europe, Mexico and the US – he’s finding incredible interest in Latin jazz and its instrumentation.  “The young players that aspire to be jazz musicians start to comprehend the rhythmical patterns we use and they find it extremely exciting.  Many aren’t Latinos, but they’ve discovered than using Latin rhythms within any composition enhances it.”
The new fusions that emerge from the new, global generation’s experimentations with Latin beats are the vanguard of the 21st century, Palmieri  says.  The problem is that jazz doesn’t get commercial airplay, so a lot of it happens underground. 
Frankly, I find some of the new global jazz fusions confusing.  I’ll take Palmieri’s Afro-Cuban-plus-bop brand of Latin jazz any day.  His regular rhythm section – José Claussel on timbales, Vincent “Little Johnny” Rivero on congas and bongocero Orlando Vega – provides the drum power Friday night.  Vega, who’s been playing with Palmieri for a couple of years now, is the youngster of the bunch – Claussel and Rivero have worked with the maestro since he swapped salsa for Latin jazz. 
So has Milwaukee-born Lynch, who started playing Latin way back in the late ‘70s with the Brew City’s original salsa / Latin jazz band, La Chazz.  Lynch, who went on to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in New York till Blakey died in 1990, first recorded with Palmieri on Palmas.  “If you count up all the years Claussel, Rivero and Lynch have been working with me,” Palmieri says, “it comes out to about 100.”
Also in Friday night’s lineup is Luques Curtis, a fast-rising young bass player who studied with leading Latin jazz bassist Andy González of the Fort Apache Band.  González himself played with Palmieri in the early ‘70s, so Curtis, whose recording career with Lynch and Palmieri began with Simpatico, brings it all back home.  And on alto sax for this tour is newcomer Louis Fouché, who’s been playing with some happenin’ young musicians, notably New Orleans-born trumpet and fluglehorn player Christian Scott.  Scott’s uncle is saxman Donald Harrison, another of Palmieri’s longtime associates.
Palmieri’s bringing us one helluva band Friday night, so buck up, Mad City.  America may be in freefall, but we get to go out and dig some of the most exceptional music on the planet.  At least we still have that!

The following piece first ran in Isthmus on Nov. 30, 2006.  I'm including it here in case you don't know much about Palmieri.  It's got all the background information I left out of the short preview of Friday night's concert, above.

Jazz you can dance to

Latin music king Eddie Palmieri brings salsa-style energy to a combo setting

By Susan Kepecs

It may be a cold, dark December, but the Sun of Latin Music — the one and only Eddie Palmieri — lights up the Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m. For this second of three concerts in the season’s Isthmus Jazz Series, Palmieri, best known for scorching salsa, plays his mambos jazzeado. At 70, with 200 compositions, 50 recordings and eight Grammys in his kit, the fabled Nuyorican bandleader/ pianist has pretty much cashed in his dance orchestra for a seven-or eight-man combo. But no matter which mode he’s in, Palmieri mixes Afro-Cuban dance rhythms with monumental American music better than anyone else on the planet.
I live to dance on clave, but let’s face it — salsa’s old-school. Some of its brightest stars — Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto — are gone. Rubén Blades is Panama’s tourism minister now. Willie Colón’s gone political activist and talks of retiring his trombone. Sure, a handful of ’70s salseros like Blades’ piano man Oscar Hernández and trombone icon Jimmy Bosch are trying to rescue the genre from the chintzy late-’80s “salsa sensual” of Marc Anthony’s ilk. Even Palmieri, who’s been swinging on the jazz side since the early ’90s, made a short salsa comeback at the start of the millennium. Mostly, though, style trumps substance in today’s highly commercialized Latin dance music. The scene’s been usurped by electronics — heavy recordings, flashy clothes, souped-up dance moves and a younger generation’s beats: timba, reggaetón and — the latest — salsatón.
On the other hand it’s an auspicious age for Latin jazz. In recent years some terrific players have come through town — Omar Sosa, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, John Santos and Poncho Sánchez, to name a few. But history puts Palmieri at the head of the pack.

The lineup for the WUT show includes four longtime Palmieri regulars: second-wave post-boppers Brian Lynch (from Milwaukee) on trumpet and Conrad Herwig on trombone, plus Nuyorican rhythm kings José Clausell on timbales and Little Johnny Rivero on congas; bongocero TBA. Eddie Resto, who’s played with Palmieri in the past, is on bass. That’s a smokin’ Afro-Latin rhythm section plus personnel for modal harmonics and adventurous solos, but it’s not Cubop. Don’t leave your dancin’ shoes home.
Palmieri — Spanish Harlem born, South Bronx-raised — is a direct musical descendant of the original Afro-Cuban mambo kings, Arsenio Rodríguez, José Curbelo and Machito, who played big-band Havana dance music at Harlem clubs in the roaring ’40s.
The first U.S.-born Latin music king — the late, great Nuyorican timbalero Tito Puente — always said if it’s Latin jazz, you can dance to it. That wasn’t always true, even in Puente’s day. As a category, today’s Latin jazz covers a lot of ground, but Palmieri shares Puente’s philosophy. For him, and for players like Poncho Sánchez or Mad City’s own Tony Castañeda (who plays a Latin dance party for ticketholders in the UW Memorial Union Rathskeller after Palmieri’s set), the partitions between Latin jazz, mambo and salsa are porous.
Palmieri was born in 1936 to working-class Puerto Rican parents. “My dad,” he says, “was an electrician, a radio and TV repair man. He could do anything — he was unique. My mother was a seamstress. She loved music. I had uncles who lived in our building. They had a band that played typical Puerto Rican music.”
Palmieri was 11 when he started studying classical piano with the barrier-breaking, Juilliard-trained African American composer-pianist Margaret Bonds, at her studio in the Carnegie Hall building. Always versatile, at 13 he played timbales in his uncle’s band, Chino y sus Tropicales. But the biggest influence was his older brother Charlie, who became known as “el gigante del teclado” (the keyboard giant).
“My brother would come home with records by the big bands — Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, Duke Ellington and the Latin orchestras of the time. The favorite was Machito, who was extraordinary, with René Hernández from Cuba on piano and the young Tito Puente on timbales.
“It was exciting, growing up then. It was before TV. Latin music was on the air constantly. You could hear Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez all day long. We don’t have that kind of radio any more.”
In ’48 Puente put together his own conjunto, the Picadilly Boys, with a three-trumpet frontline and Charlie Palmieri on piano. The Picadillys soon became Tito Puente & His Orchestra and — along with the Machito and Tito Rodríguez orchestras — made the Palladium Ballroom at 53rd and Broadway the epicenter of mambo and cha-cha-cha.
“The live mambo scene was really happening,” Palmieri says. “That was the greatest dance that ever came out of Cuba. Vicentico Valdés was Puente’s vocalist till he started his own conjunto in ’54. From ’56 through ’58 I did summer gigs with him. We’d play the Palladium four nights a week, and in September Machito and Puente would come back from the Catskills and excite us all with the new music they’d bring back.”
Palmieri got a big break in ’58, playing with Puente’s main rival, Tito Rodríguez. Eisenhower was president, Elvis was king, Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” was at its peak, and Sam Cooke was set to release “Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha,” which brought the dance, American-style, with the break on the wrong beat, to TV-watching teenyboppers like me.

Two years later political events put a new edge on American culture. The Cuban Revolution was fresh from triumph. Thousands of displaced Cubans flooded Miami. John F. Kennedy was elected president. Lunch-counter sit-ins kicked off civil rights activism in the South. Berry Gordy Jr. started Motown Records in Detroit. In Manhattan, the brand-new John Coltrane Quartet recorded My Favorite Things. And Eddie Palmieri forged his own edgy new band, La Perfecta, featuring a three-trombone-plus-flute frontline. He called the sound, which broke the typical trumpet-based conjunto format and added flute from Cuba’s popular charanga orchestras, “trombanga.” La Perfecta reportedly played the Palladium four sets a night, four nights a week from its inception till the famous ballroom’s final night in 1966.
A mainstay of La Perfecta’s shifting lineup was trombonist Barry Rogers, a Bronx-born Jew of Polish descent. Rogers was hip to straight-ahead jazz, and partly through his influence Palmieri started adding modal harmonics to what became his signature sound.
“I came to jazz late,” Palmieri says. “I wasn’t interested before ’cause I was so into the music coming out of Cuba in the ’50s. But those extraordinary jazz pianists — Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner — they knew the piano inside out. They were great pioneers with those fingerings and harmonic structures.
“I took the structures of their chords. I’ll utilize Monk’s dissonance and those big McCoy Tyner fourths in a piece with vocals. It becomes quite a challenge to present those harmonic structures in my solo and keep things interesting for the rhythm section at the same time, but jazz harmonics make salsa interesting to the ear.”
“Azúcar,” on the hard-to-find Azúcar pa’ ti (Tico, 1965), is an early example. “We played that tune all over town. It was a hit before we recorded it. In the studio back then you had to keep your tunes to two minutes, 45 seconds, so they could put 12 on an album. The A&R man at Tico was Count Basie’s manager. He said ‘play it like you play it,’ and we did. It went 8:38 and was released that way. It wasn’t called Latin jazz, but it was free format, with vocals. That was the first time I accompanied myself, soloing freely with my right hand, playing over the chords. It became one of the biggest hits I’ve ever had.”

In ’68, after nine albums, La Perfecta broke up, broke. In the heart of the hippie era Latin/funk fusion reigned. Palmieri recorded boogaloos and antiwar anthems with various lineups, most famously the all-star Harlem River Drive outfit, featuring Charlie Palmieri at the organ.
I admit it — I’ve been in love with boogaloo since the ’60s. But Latin purists hated it, at least back then. Puente said it stunk. Barretto called it a curse. Palmieri blamed isolation from Cuba for this low point in Latin music.
In the early ’70s Palmieri reclaimed his mambo roots with a vengeance, putting out a series of albums with shifting big-band lineups that usually included Rogers on trombone. The Sun of Latin Music (’74) and Unfinished Masterpiece (’75) won back-to-back Grammys. There’s still some funk on these discs, but mostly they’re a mix of straight-up salsa spiked with Palmieri’s trademark dissonance and tunes in the “Azúcar” mode — jazz jams that morph into mambos like “Un Día Bonito” (on Sun) and “Adoración” (on Sentido, from ’73).
Those recordings blasted Mad City into the salsa age. In August of ’75 Ricardo Gonzalez, who’d recently opened the Cardinal Bar, kicked off its first-ever Latin dance night with “Puerto Rico,” off Sentido. In December of that year he launched “La Junta” on fledgling WORT radio. On his first playlist were “Puerto Rico” and the beautifully bailable “Kinkamache” from Unfinished Masterpiece.
By the end of the 1970s, Dominican merengue had replaced Cuban-based salsa as New York’s favorite Latin dance beat. But if salsa was going down, it went in style. In ’81 Palmieri put out a self-titled album with a big, rich orchestral sound. Everything sizzles. In particular, “Ritmo Alegre” is the nostalgic motif of my many noches latinas at the Cardinal Bar.

For Palmieri the next decade was mixed. He picked up a couple of Grammys but lost both his brother and Barry Rogers. He reworked some earlier hits. In ’93 he came roaring back, invigorated, with Palmas, the first of a breakway, small-format, instrumental trilogy that includes Arete (’95) and Vortex (’96). Lynch, Herwig annd Clausell, at the heart Palmieri’s Latin jazz combo, have been with him ever since. The “new” sound is really the old setup, mellower and minus vocals. “I know how to take an instrumental mambo and make it jazz,” Palmieri says. “We do the top of the composition so the rhythm underneath’s more danceable. That makes it exciting for us to play, and no matter how free-form we start out, we always end with a compelling mambo coda.”
The trilogy’s danceable, dissonant recordings gleam with Palmieri’s nuanced solo piano and high-end brass. On Palmas in particular there’s a touch of Art Tatum in Palmieri’s right hand; Lynch sounds like a Latin Lee Morgan.
There’s a pair of drop-dead-gorgeous cuts — “Doña Tere” and “Iriaida” — on Vortex, dedicated to Oya, orisha of angry winds. Of the two, I love the latter. Palmieri hits some gospel chords. There’s a hint of synth, making the piano sound like an organ at a black Baptist Sunday service. He plays a run of casual riffs like a classical pianist improvising, tickling out a few blue notes with his right hand. The bass comes in slow and takes over the theme. Palmieri punctuates on piano, building suspensefully toward a three-chord guajeo. The percussion kicks over, the sax slips in, the bass goes funky and oh, baby, it’s boogaloo cha!
Palmieri’s latest CD, Listen Here, Best Latin Jazz Grammy winner this year, features illustrious guest soloists. Conguero Giovanni Hidalgo brings out the hidden clave in Eddie Harris’ original ’68 hard-bop boogaloo of the album’s title cut; Regina Carter’s violin adds a charanga charge to Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream”; Donald Harrison’s alto sax swings on Palmieri’s “EP Blues.” Palmieri’s signature cadence on piano gives Cubop standard “Tin Tin Deo” a whole new life. It’s a good album, but it’s no Vortex.

Palmieri still takes trips on the salsa side. El Rumbero del Piano (’99), with Herman Olivera on vocals, is pure sabor. La Perfecta II (’02), again with Olivera, brings back the trombanga sound and revisits some vintage tracks. From ’02 there’s also Obra Maestra, the only work Palmieri and Puente recorded together. Puente died shortly thereafter. Palmieri released one more salsa disc, Ritmo Caliente, in ’03.
     “For me it’s a complete responsibility to keep the music going in Tito’s direction, with a Latin orchestra and vocalists,” Palmieri says. “But it’s hard to keep it up. There’s not the audience there used to be. Clubs like the Palladium don’t exist, and the ones that do hire young bands. The genre’s reggaetón.”
Plus it’s just too expensive to travel with a full orchestra. “I’m always on the road,” Palmieri says. “I was in South America this month, and we’re going to the West Coast after Wisconsin. The band stays employed that way. We’ve been very well accepted in jazz festivals all over the world. Latin jazz is the fusion of the 21st century.”
Expect Palmieri to be in Palmas mode Saturday night. The style’s a balancing act onstage, says the Sun of Latin Music. “People yell requests — ‘Vámonos pa’l monte!’ ‘Adoración!’ I have to stop and explain, this is jazz! We don’t have a vocalist!”

© S. Kepecs 2006

Monday, October 25, 2010

Recommended Reading

By Susan Kepecs

Fifty years of US-imposed blockade on Cuba couldn’t dampen our rabid enthusiasm for the big island’s miraculous music on this side of the Florida Straits.  Still, the market – booming with Buena Vista Social Club concerts and CDs made accessible thanks to Britain’s World Circuit Records in the late ‘90s – withered a bit during W’s presidency.  Obama hasn’t done much to change the situation, but I see a resurgence shimmering in my crystal ball.  Paramount jazz pianist Chucho Valdés is on his first US tour in seven years.  AfroCubism, the album World Circuit originally intended to make – a gentle, loping collaboration between Cuban sonero Eliades Ochoa and Malian world music star Toumani Diabaté that was scrapped when Diabaté couldn’t get a visa to Cuba in 1996 – was recorded in Spain in 2008 and finally released last month.  And there’s a new book on the stands – the definitive bio so far of the late Cuban singing idol Benny Moré, “el barbaro del ritmo.”  The book [University of Florida Press, 2009] was written by homeboy John Radanovich, who’s titled his slim tome with a translation of Benny’s nickname – Wildman of Rhythm.
This book merits a CulturalOyster post for two reasons.  First, the zoot-suited, charismatic Moré was and still is the undisputed king of Cuban song.  The treasure trove of tracks he laid down on RCA Victor, the lion’s share from the ‘50s with his mind-blowing Banda Gigante, epitomizes every genre of Cuban music from balmy boleros to guaracha-swing.  Whether you’re a neophyte mambero or a raging rumbera, you don’t know beans about Cuban music if you aren’t hip to Benny Moré. 
And second, as I hinted above, Wildman of Rhythm has Mad City roots.  Radanovich, who currently lives in Florida, was here earlier this month promoting his book.  “Madison completely formed me,” he said over coffee at Borders.  He was born here, and though he grew up in Milwaukee he spent his childhood chomping at the bit to return.  “In 1969, when I was 6, we visited my tie-dyed uncle in Madison, where he lived on Mifflin street.  He had plants in the back that we knew weren't "tomato" plants as he told my parents.  He had  Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin posters and bead curtains.  When we left, we saw two women nude sunbathing on the balcony next door.  My mom remembers that I said ‘I want to go to college here’ at that exact moment.”
Radanovich planned to become a photo journalist. “But I realized I didn't want to be a war photographer, so I switched to a double major in English and French.  And I wrote for the Daily Cardinal about world music, which lead to my pursuing the music of the Americas ever since.”
Two of his life’s obsessions, Radanovich said, are Louis Armstrong and Benny Moré.  “I immediately understood their music the first time I heard it.” 
Unable to find an authoritative source on Moré, he ended up in relentless pursuit of the story’s pieces, scouring Havana and Miami for years with no intention of writing a book until one day he realized there was no escape. 
The way Radanovich describes the process sounds like doing jigsaw puzzles in the dark.  There should have been tons of researchable material in Cuba, he said.  Moré’s death in 1963 was perfectly timed for history, since all but the last four years of his life were spent in the pre-Revolutionary period.  The Cuban national archives should be full of radio interviews, news clips, photos.  “But there was nothing.  It was like searching for a ghost.”
Radanovich managed to meet a few of Moré’s still-living musicians, including his cousin, songwriter and backup singer Enrique Benítez, “El Conde Negro.”  “He’s very sharp,” Radanovich said.  “He remembers.  But we’d be talking about a specific recording session and he’d seem so lucid, and then he’d say ‘but I’m not sure …”  And I’d ask ‘what are you not sure about?’ and his answer was ‘well, we were really, really drunk...’
“I thought oh my god, he’s the last link to the historical record and I’m trying to get it straight – but I was never sure I had it right.”
For a long time, Radanovitch added, he didn’t understand how politics colored what people told him.  Jazz in particular is a hot potato in post-Revolutionary Cuba.  In the ‘40s and ‘50s Cuban players came to New York – Cubop, born of the famous Dizzy Gillespie / Chano Pozo collaboration, forever altered the path of American music.  And American jazz was big in Havana.  Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughn, Nat King Cole and Benny Goodman played regularly at the Tropicana and other city hotspots.  Expat Cuban sax master Paquito d’Rivera, in his book My Sax Life [Northwestern University Press, 2005], talks about the jazz recordings his father collected in Havana during that epoch.  But after the Revolution, everything American – including jazz – was prohibido. 
D’Rivera, who left Cuba in 1980 and never went back, gave Radanovich a Havana phone number for legendary Cuban trombonist and Banda Gigante arranger / composer Generoso Jiménez.  “The first thing I did when I went to Havana was to look up Generoso,” Radanovich said, “and the first question I asked him was ‘how did jazz influence your arranging of music?  What did you listen to and what big bands did you like?’  Generoso got a funny look on his face and said ‘We never listened to jazz.  It had no influence on me whatsoever.’”
“Whenever I asked the same question in Cuba and in Miami I’d get diametrically opposed answers,” Radanovich  continued.  “I could never split the difference.  It never made sense to me.  The contradictions were constant, and very difficult to deal with.  Just the way Benny’s name is spelled is controversial.”
Benny was a stage alias – Moré’s real name was Bartolo.  “People come out of the woodwork on my website,” Radanovich says, “and either agree with me or tell me I’m wrong, it’s got one “n,” not two.  It took me years to come to terms with this issue.  Finally I tracked down his grandson in Miami, who insisted Benny took his name from Benny Goodman.  I’m 98% certain that’s right, but it’s still a little bit suspect.”
Wildman of Rhythm’s not perfect, Radanovich admits.  And besides the uncertainties, which in a way are part of the story, the book’s dotted with small errors of fact and translation not directly related to Moré that an astute bilingual, bicultural editor should have ferreted out.  But Radanovich put a lot of heart into this work.  The details he was able to piece together in the dark, neatly woven into the backstory of late pre-Revolutionary Cuba in all its mafioso glory, are more than worth the sticker price.

Benny Moré’s RCA Victor recordings with Banda Gigante are compiled – with a small biography in Spanish – on Tumbao Classics’ fabulous box set, El Legendario Idolo del Pueblo Cubano Benny Moré y su Banda Gigante: Grabaciones Completas 1953-1960.  

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Question for You, Readers!

Dear Readers,
Today there should be a review of Ballet Hispanico in this space.  Having written a preview that was simultaneously cautious and hopeful, I was looking forward to seeing whether the concert matched my somewhat mixed expectations, or not.  But due to circumstances beyond my control – I was sick! – I missed the show.  So I hope you’ll fill me in.  I’d love to get your critical opinion.  Was it a wonderful concert?  Or not quite what you hoped for?  Which piece did you like best, and why?  Were the dancers as beautifully trained as you’d expect for a major New York company?  Do you look forward to seeing Ballet Hispanico again?  I really want to know.  The comments box, below, is just waiting for you!  Many thanks in advance for your input,
Susan Kepecs

Monday, September 27, 2010

¡A Bailar!

photo by Cheryl Mann

 By Susan Kepecs

Last time Ballet Hispanico was here – at Overture’s predecessor, the Civic Center, in 2003 – the venerable old New York company looked worn out.  But the country’s most famous Latin dance performance troupe comes back to Madison (to the Union Theater this time) on Saturday, Oct. 2, with a new lease on life.  Eduardo Vilaro, a principal dancer with Ballet Hispanico in the ‘90s before he founded Chicago’s lovely Latin company, Luna Negra, in 1999, returned to the Big Apple last year to take the reins from retiring artistic director Tina Ramírez.
Vilaro, who left his native Cuba at the age of 6, a decade after the Cuban Revolution, grew up in New York and has family there.  It was time to go home, he says.  “I started something new in Chicago, and it was a tough decision, but I left Luna Negra with wings to fly.  Ballet Hispanico offered me the opportunity to work with more resources and to have more impact.  I decided to go for it while I still have the energy to take on a challenge.  Also, my moving back to New York opened the door for another Latino choreographer in Chicago [Spanish dancemaker Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, who has history with both Luna Negra and the Windy City’s best-known contemporary company, Hubbard Street Dance] to develop.”
Vilaro’s vision, he says, isn’t to change Ballet Hispanico, but to strengthen it.  He’s turning the organization into a dance resource center with a strong educational component and links to Latin dance outfits across the country “so we can help each other, because Latin culture is all about family.” 
And he’s creating the psychological space Latina/o choreographers need to create important new work.  A lot of Latin dance performance (with the exception of that by folkloric companies like Ballet Folklórico México) strikes me as either spiffed-up ballroom or contemporary / modern dance without much of a Latin edge. Vilaro himself is a hell of a dancemaker, and one of the few Latin American choreographers in the U.S. ever to create a seamless blend of Latin style and formal dance idioms.  It’ll take much more of this for dance performance in the U.S. to look like the national population.  Though most of the four repertory works on Saturday night’s program have Latin themes, only one – and it’s not one of Vilaro’s – was made by a Latin choreographer.
Vilaro’s own dances should start showing up in Ballet Hispanico’s repertory soon.  “I’m not quite there yet,” he says.  “You get into a new place and it takes a year to get yourself set up.  I had a lot on my agenda and wanted to impart my vision to the organization first.  But it’s coming – I’m finally starting to plan my own creative work in the context of Ballet Hispanico.”
Meanwhile, it’ll be interesting to discover how the pieces we’ll see – most have received mixed reviews over the years – fare under Vilaro’s direction.  Given his natural enthusiasm, I’m hoping they’ll look fresh.  
These dances, as a package, commemorate Ballet Hispanico’s 40th anniversary, and represent distinct stages of its history.  As the evening progresses, Vilaro says, the mood goes from raw to dancey to somber to celebratory.  In honor of the Mexican bicentennial (despite the fact that Mexico has little to celebrate right now), the first piece is “Tres Cantos,” a 1975 ode to Aztecs and Spanish conquistadors by the late, legendary African-American choreographer Talley Beatty.  Vilaro danced in this work himself during his earlier Ballet Hispanico days, but says he chose it for this program mostly because he wanted to bring the sound of Mexican composers – Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas – to the stage.
“Tres Bailes,” set to a tango score, is a contemporary ballet from the late 1990s choreographed by Jean Emile, whose dance resumé includes Alvin Ailey, Nederalands Dans Theater,  La Compañia Nacional de Danza in Madrid and Cirque du Soliel. 
“Farewell” was choreographed in 1992 by the late Christopher Gillis, a dancer with the Paul Taylor Company in the 1970s.  “It’s a beautiful duet,” Vilaro says, “and one I used to perform.”
The finale, “Club Havana,” from 2000 – the company’s current signature piece – is by Cuba-born choreographer Pedro Ruíz.  “It captures the magic of Cuba in the ‘40s,” Vilaro says.  “You’ll love it.  It’s just beautiful.”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Gringa's Guide to the Madison World Music Festival, Chapter 7

By Susan Kepecs

Music, the universal language, can bridge all kinds of cultural divides.  So it follows that the Wisconsin Union Theater-sponsored Madison World Music Festival is a unifying force, and boy, can we use that right now.  I don’t expect any Mama Grizzlies to show up, but the Tea Party might learn to transcend its xenophobia if its goofy throngs attended this event instead of following Glenn Beck to the National Mall.  The seventh annual MWMF features a brilliant lineup of African, Afro-Caribean and Afro-Latin bands, plus a few eclectic surprises.  I’m offering a handful of relevant observations, below, but for the full schedule of events and locations – times and stages change depending on the weather – go back to the WUT website
The wingnuts could use some attitude adjustment, and Dja Rara, a  Brooklyn-based Haitian parade band (see the Green Room blog for more) just might do the trick.  Back in January, after the western end of the island of Hispaniola was devastated in a major earthquake, TV evangelist Pat Roberton told Fox Noise that Haiti’s African slaves had liberated themselves from French colonial rule in 1791 by making a pact with the devil.  Evidently Satan set up the temblor to call in his chips.  But Dja Rara’s rhythms represent the gods of the African diaspora.  Under MWMF auspices the band hits diverse spots around town before performing at the fest’s main stages – the Memorial Union on Friday and Willy St. on Saturday. 
From the Spanish-speaking end of Hispaniola – the Dominican Republic – comes Joan Soriano, the rising star of Afro-Dominican bachata who tells his story in Adam Taub’s new documentary film, “El Duque de Bachata.”  Bachata, born in the 20th century, blends rural Afro-Dominican dance music with the sinuous rhythms of Cuban bolero and son.  There’s a whole school of slicked up, watered down 21st century bachata that doesn’t appeal to me, and I’m a salsera at heart anyway, but my hips can’t resist Soriano’s percussive guitar playing and gritty, old school style.  Since Soriano’s sure to send everyone into bachata delirium, his act’s the perfect festival finale Saturday night.
But bailando bachata’s an opportunity we almost missed, thanks to our nation’s immigration paranoia.  Right before Labor Day, Union Theater marketing director / MWMF artistic selection chair Esty Dinur got a panic email from Soriano’s manager saying the American ambassador in the Dominican Republic was about to deny band members their visas, since he didn’t believe they were bona fide artists. They ended up having to perform for embassy officials to prove their legitimacy.
Another performer who was on the original bill – Pietra Montecorvino, a glamorous Italian songstress / actress with a spellbinding, urban, take no prisoners voice – was denied her visa altogether.  “Living in the European Union with its open borders and governments that support cultural exchanges, her agent didn’t appreciate how immensely complicated it is to get into the U.S.,” Dinur says.  The agent dragged his heels, and by the time the application process got started it was too late to buck the U.S. Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy.
While we don’t get a dazzling Italian diva, we do get Barbara Furtuna, an all male a capella quartet from the once-Genoese Mediterranean island of Corsica, ceded to France in the 1760 Treaty of Versailles.  Barbara Furtuna means “cruel fate” in Corsu; it’s the title of a traditional resistance anthem about 18th century Corsican freedom fighters exiled after trying to overthrow French rule.  That may sound like obscure history, and yes, Corsican polyphonic song has medieval roots.  But this quartet sounds absolutely ambrosial.  Its second album, In Santa Pace – a mix of long-loved songs plus the group’s own compositions – is as soulful as African-American gospel and calming like an offering for world peace.
When it comes to pushing peace, Kenge Kenge – musical masters from Kenya’s Luo tribe whose traditional tunes have a light Afropop edge – kill the competition.  Like Kenge Kenge, Obama’s father was Luo – a fact that led right wing megaphones Dinesh D’Souza and Newt Gingrich just last week to spew out the notion that the President rules the country “according to the anticolonialist dreams of a Luo tribesman.”  If only that were true!  Check out Kenge Kenge’s pre-2008 election video, “Obama for Change”
and imagine Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gettin’ down to this tune in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House.  If that can't change the world situation, nothing will. 
The rest of the three-day program’s like a global summit on cultural diversity.  The most exotic ensemble on this year’s bill is Ordo Sakhna – nomadic, storyteller musicians from the Silk Route crossroads of Kyrgyzstan. 
Three hot young bands – two from the U.S. and one from Romania – create 21st century global sounds from diverse perspectives.  La Santa Cecilia, from Los Angeles, a band with Mexican sensibilities and instrumentation, throws everything from Miles Davis, Klezmer and the Beatles into its mix, though Latin American influence prevails.  The Sway Machinery, out of New York, bills its hard-driving mix of klezmer, Afropop and blues as “post-cantorial.”  And from Romania comes Mahala Rai Banda, mixing traitional Gypsy tunes and Roma pop with reggae and other genres.  Their latest CD, Ghetto Blasters, is a chart buster.
And then there’s Cimarrón, from the grassy eastern plains of Colombia’s Orinoco Basin.  This has been cattle country since the Spaniards set up shop in the 16th century, but today the region also hosts paramilitary violence, narcotraffic and transnational oil extraction.  Miraculously, joropo, the joyful, percussive, harp, guitar and maracas-driven dance music born of indigenous, Spanish and African traditions in the colonial crucible of these livestock lands, survives.  Cimarrón – seven virtuosos who showcase the syncopated, foot-stomping sound around the world – is my personal bet for best of the fest.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Picking Tickets

By Susan Kepecs

Don’t tell me the recession’s over!  In the good old days, before the economy crashed, the performing arts plates at the city’s big theaters were piled high – almost every week I found more than one sumptuous morsel on my menu.  Despite the brand-new report from the National Bureau of Economic Research claiming the downturn ended in June, 2009, this fall at the theater follows last year’s pattern.  Overture, flailing in its financial fix, sticks close to the mainstream, and while the Union Theater offers tasty treats, its 2010-2011 season’s small. 
Here’s what’s going to lure me out as the days turn colder.  I’m starting the season with the best bargain in town – the Wisconsin Union Theater’s always exuberant Madison World Music Festival (Thurs., Sept. 23 – Sat. Sept. 25).  This year’s fest features a full-fledged feast of African, Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean genres ranging from rootsy to global-poppy, plus a few treats from Europe and the U.S., and it’s free!  Check the schedule on the mother ship, the WUT website:  -- and I’ll post my picks in a day or two, after I finish digesting the banquet of sample CDs that’s piled on my desk.
Next up on my agenda is Ballet Hispanico (WUT, Oct. 2).  The venerable New York troupe looked tired last time it was in town, in 2003.  But its new artistic director, Eduardo Vilaro, who formerly headed Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater, is just what the doctor ordered.  I haven’t yet seen the company under his leadership, but Vilaro’s a standout dancemaker.  I’m disappointed that none of his works are on the bill, but even so, my expectations are high.
On Oct. 8, legendary folk singer and progressive political champion Joan Baez plays the Union Theater.  Baez, who first performed at WUT in 1962, is approaching her 70th birthday.  Sure, her voice has aged, but she still packs the sterling authenticity she started out with when old boomers like me were young and innocent.  We’re still waiting for the day when the state of the world reflects the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome,” but the faithful will surely gather at this event to pay homage to the message.
And oh, my stars, master composer / pianist Eddie Palmieri, the Sun of Latin Music, brings his mambo-ized, post-bop edged, smokin’ Latin jazz back to the Wisconsin Union Theater (Nov. 5), following a five year absence.  The lineup (sax player TBA) includes the talented young bassman Luques Curtis, Milwaukee-born Bryan Lynch on trumpet, plus Nuyorican rhythm kings José Claussell on timbales, Little Johnny Rivero on congas and bongocero Orlando Vega.
Over at Overture, spring looks better than fall for dance, and I’ll report on that later.  But River North Dance Company (Capitol Theater, Nov. 20), a Chicago contemporary dance staple, finally replaces the endless string of annual performances by the Windy City’s other big-name company, Hubbard Street.  It’s not a huge change – River North’s choreography sometimes borders on cliché – but it’s a great opportunity to see what else is going on south of the state border, and the company’s dancers are stunningly trained in the modern-cum-jazz idiom. 
Real mariachis are always on my wish list, but for the last couple of years Overture’s served up mariachi lite instead.  So I’m delighted that Los Angeles-based Mariachi Los Camperos – the group’s spirited holiday show at Overture Hall in December, 2006, brought the house down – returns this year on Nov. 11 (in the Capitol Theater).  La comunidad gets another opportunity to belt out the chorus on great mariachi standards like “Cielito Lindo,” “El Rey,” and “Volver.”  ¡Ay ay ay!
             Local troupes are toughing out the times, and in fact 2009-2010 was one of the best seasons ever for Mad City’s own performing arts scene.  I expect 2010-2011 to continue that trend.  There’ll be some surprises on the Latin music front this fall.  Look for my report on a brand-new band – Brazilian, with a twist – in the next few weeks. 
In dance, I’m curious to see what Kate Corby & Dancers – once a Chicago based interdisciplinary dance theater that’s been tied to Madison since Corby took a faculty position in the UW Dance Program two years ago – cook up in H’Doubler Performance Space on campus (Oct. 7-9). 
Li Chiao-Ping works magic with parodies of classical ballets.  Gó, a sort of Swan Lake in combat boots from years back, is one of her all-time top works.  So I’m intrigued by the announcement of her new full-length work, “Knotcracker,” coming up for the holiday season (Dec. 3-5, Overture’s Promenade Hall). 
And even though The Nutcracker is a sappy old ballet, and I think I've reviewed it at least a thousand times over the course of my arts writing career, Madison Ballet’s Christmastime production (Dec. 18-26, Overture Hall) is on my list – our city’s first bona fide professional ballet company, entering its fourth year, is very much on the rise, and that’s thrilling to see.
That’s my two cents worth.  But remember, there’s a comments box, below.  What are you looking forward to this fall?