Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Best of 2011

by Susan Kepecs

The economic crisis endures and bad behavior’s on the rise, but in a weird way it’s been an exhilirating year, filled with great performances and Republican bungles.  Despite December’s snowless, chilly damp (yes, Virginia, that’s a sign of global warming), a cautious optimism warms my weary old bones. The 99% has finally risen up – hallelujah! – and the elephants are knee deep in their own spoor. What's more, if this year in the arts is any clue there's a lot to look forward to in 2012. Budgets bulldozed in the three-year crunch might have meant a near-beer season, but the best events of 2011 were sparklier than Dom Perignon.
                                                                       SKepecs © 2011
The plentitude of progressive performances in inspired opposition to the wackos of Fitzwalkerstan occupies the pinnacle of my list – hundreds of thousands of protesters carrying wildly creative signs, a glorious profusion of political song (the gutsy, tenacious Solidarity Singers), and exquisitely executed works of political parade art flaunting Mad City’s smarts and sense of fun.
                                                                                          SKepecs © 2011
The energy of the peoples’ movement seeped into our lives all over town.  At the Cardinal Bar, Tony Castañeda and his Latin jazz outfit closed their regular Sunday night gigs (now only on the last and first weekends of the month) with a slick take on Cal Tjader’s guajira bugalú “Wachi Wara,” reinventing the two word title / chorus as “Recall Walker.”  It’s a perfect fit, and the audience loves to belt it out.
Also at the Cardinal Bar: a glorious jam session memorial (Oct. 23) for the late guitarist Marcos González, a leader on the local reggae / roots / tropical / funk scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  González, who you’ll remember as Tony Brown’s lead guitarist and founder of the Waves, died of cancer this fall in Mexico, where he’d lived the last 30 years.  Primitive Culture’s David Hecht organized the homage and anchored the lead guitar slot through much of the evening.  Musicians from far and wide gathered to celebrate González’ life, including his brother, drummer Arno González, who currently lives in California and who, along with Tony Castañeda, was an original member of Olmeca, Madison’s first Latin band. Tony Brown came in from Iowa.  Sax master Bob Corbit and conguero James “Pie” Cowan were there, plus Castañeda, keyboardist David Stoler and a cornucopia of other players whose bands overlap in time and space. Partial lineups from the Tony Brown Band, the Roots, the Waves, Olmeca, Primitive Culture, the Kingtown Rockers and the Gibraltar Rockets came and left the stage like time-traveling shamans, weaving past and present into whole cloth and joining the deceased and the living at this gathering of the tribe.
The Ernán López Nussa trio’s sinuous, Havana-born danzón jazz at the Cardinal (Aug. 28)* was the year’s most overlooked event – López Nussa’s not well-known in the States, and his sparking performance was under-attended.  But Cardinal proprietor Ricardo González deserves big accolades for taking the risk of whisking top shelf non-local jazz out from under the proscenium arch and bringing it back to the nightclub scene, where it belongs. 
Still, some fine playing happens in formal theater settings.  Terence Blanchard and his accomplished young quintet served up sizzling post-bop and Miles-style fusion at the Wisconsin Union Theater (Oct. 21)*.  These edgy, mid-‘60s – early ‘70s styles may not make a big comeback, but for boomer jazz fans like me they’re a very satisfying antidote to the soft samba and hip-hop bop that’s marked the start of the new millenium.
Dianne Reeves (Union Theater, April 8), a giant of jazz song, swapped the poppier interpretations she’s favored in previous concerts for flat-out old-fashioned, straight-ahead swing.  It was thrilling to hear her unleash those supple pipes on sheer improvisation, substituting scat for lyrics.  Only Reeves could silkify the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” so suavely, and songs like “Social Call” and “Stormy Weather” haven’t sounded this smoky in years.
Sweet Honey in the Rock’s show, steeped in the tradition of the black church and shimmering with solidarity (Union Theater, Oct. 7), was sensational, but one special song overshadowed the rest.  Carol Maillard’s solo, “I’m Goin’ Home One Sweet Day,” was the sort of rafter-raising, soul-clapping gospel that’s got the power to make you give it all up and praise the spirit, even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool atheist like me.
The brilliance of hoofer Savion Glover’s SoLe Sanctuary (Union Theater, Nov. 13)* was tarnished at times by relentlessly speedy percussiveness, but Glover and performance partner Marshall Davis, dancing joyfully to “Resolution” off John Coltrane’s seminal Love Supreme, belongs in the ranks of the year’s best.
The lineup for the Madison World Music Festival, sponsored by the Wisconsin Union Theater with stages on the Union Terrace and at the Willy St. Fair (Sept. 15-17),* was one of the best in the eight-year history of this bighearted, free for the public event.  I learned something about global interconnections from every band I caught.  But Blitz the Ambassador (Sept. 16, on the Terrace), from Ghana and New York, blew me away with his inspired mix of Afrobeat, old-school soul and hip hop, rich with references to the lions of the African diaspora.  Bring this band back!
At the other end of the spectrum, Madison Opera stepped out of its traditional box at Overture’s Playhouse (Feb. 4-16) with a cleverly staged performance of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s satirical, anticapitalist Threepenny Opera.  The timing of this smartly updated production – the downtrodden masses marched with signs that said “I was outsourced” or “I was downsized” – couldn’t have been more fortuitous, coinciding with the announcement of Walker’s “budget repair bill.”  The whole package was a work of art, from the impressively flexible sets to the eight-piece jazz combo led by Maestro John Demain at the piano, witnessed through a window at the back of the set and resembling a lit-up Joseph Cornell box.  American Players Theater veteran Tracy Michelle Arnold, possessed with well-honed talent for both drama and song, was outstanding as the prostitute Jenny Diver, the role Lotte Lenya made famous.
New York Times dance critic Alistair Macaulay hated Remember Me, David Parsons’ collaboration with the East Village Opera Company, when it played at the Joyce in 2010.  But I loved this sexy love story ballet, built on a clever sequence of opera’s greatest hits done with driving backbeat, which I saw at Overture’s Capitol Theater (Feb. 23).  Parsons’ barefoot ballet base, adorned with hyperextended upper backs and oddly angled limbs and spiced with imaginative partnering, looked fresh, and the whole concoction, from the suggestive lighting to the interactions between dancers and vocalists, was emotionally and visually charged. 
                                  SKepecs © 2011
Last but not least, Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker (Overture Hall, Dec. 16-24)* topped off the company’s best year yet.  I don’t say this lightly – I’ll take almost any ballet over the sappy Christmas chestnut, and I’ve never been bowled over by the local production.  I was sure the company had reached its peak to date with Midsummer Night’s Dream (Capitol Theater, March 19-20), but I was wrong.  Peter Anastos’ fluffy little work looked fine, but the choreography really was too simple for the company Madison Ballet’s become.  Artistic director W. Earle Smith’s very traditional yet slightly quirky Nutcracker, with its Snow and Sugarplum pas de deux and its abundant divertissements, is choreographically much meatier, a fact that’s escaped me until now.  This year the soloists were so polished, and Marguerite Luksik in the principal Snow / Sugarplum role so bright and precise, that the magic hidden in this overworked ballet happened spontaneously.  It’s not just me – leaving the theater I overheard the audience giving it rave reviews.  It was so good, in fact, that I saw it twice. 

* full review elsewhere on this blog

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Madison Ballet's Best Nutcracker Yet

Dance Review: Madison Ballet’s The Nutcracker, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 pm, Overture Hall
by Susan Kepecs

Nutcrackers are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike.  Madison Ballet’s very traditional version has trended up over the years, but two details made the ballet I saw Sunday afternoon stand out.  The lavish sets and costumes, purchased by artistic director W. Earle Smith in 2004 for Overture’s opening season, seemed far too extravagant then.  But the company’s finally grown into them, and now they supply spectacular production values.  The sets for New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, telecast on PBS last week, looked pale in comparison.  And while Madison Ballet doesn’t have starpower principals like Megan Fairchild and Ashley Bouder, it does have Marguerite Luksik, in the principal role that blends Snow Queen and Sugarplum Fairy into the sole character of Clara, grown up.
This is Luksik’s second year in the demanding part.  In 2010 her Snow was luscious, but the quality of her performance slipped slightly in the second act.  This year was different – Luksik, gracefully partnered by Brian Roethlisberger, whose last appearance with Madison Ballet was in Nutcracker 2003, turned in a pitch-perfect, superbly confident performance from start to finish.  She floated into her lifts, her footwork sparkled, her turns were crisp, her lines elegant.  Best of all she often elongated her phrases, creating a very neoclassical kind of kinesthethc tension by dancing a luxuriant split-second behind the music.
        I expected Luksik's brilliance after her impressive performance as Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream last spring, but the solidity of the rest of the show surprised me.  The Act I party scene – in any Nutcracker, not just Madison Ballet’s – always makes me wish Tchiakovsky’s magnificent score were attached to a better ballet.  The Stahlbaum’s 2011 holiday gala on the Overture Hall stage was no exception, but the company did a notably better job with it than usual.  In the young Clara role Maja Peterson, a Level 3B student at the School of Madison Ballet, displayed balletic chops well beyond those of her predecessors.  For Madison actor Sam White, in his third year as the slightly creepy magician Drosselmeyer, the art of presenting in the ballet idiom finally clicked; that’s key, since without a strong Drosselmeyer the story falls apart.  And Jacob Brooks blessed the soldier doll dance with impressive stage presence plus athletic triple pirouettes, cabrioles and tours en l’air. 
Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker has finally blossomed, but the rats have been tops since the start.  The way they leap, kick and scratch in their grizzly rat suits is just plain from-the-heart funny, year after year.  No matter how much I may think I never want to see another Nutcracker, the rats, and Smith’s lush, slightly idiosyncratic neoclassical choreography for the Snow corps, always captivate me.  This year’s Snow corps, composed of advanced ballet students and professional company members, looked, for the most part, nicely unified.  But Rachelle Butler and Genevieve Custer-Weeks, who’ve been with Madison Ballet since the very beginning, stood out for their sumptious phrasing -- a distinction that was repeated in the Flowers corps in Act II.
The divertissements hit a few small snags.  This is the second year Smith’s done the Merliton dance, usually staged for two or three, as a solo.  Jennifer Holoubek, in her first appearance with the company, handled the piece well technically, but the sparkle she needed to meet the real challenge of this substantial dance was missing.  In spots I craved more brio from Brooks, who looked slightly uncomfortable when partnering Katy Frederick in the Spanish dance, which fit her like a glove, and when taking his bows.
Nevertheless, Brooks’ Russian variation was bold.  He bounded repeatedly into second position split jumps and whipped off a tricky string of cabrioles and tours en l’air that finished in front attitude, to the audience’s delight.  The Arabian pas was seamlessly sensual; tall, limber Shannon Quirk snaked seductively around partner Phillip Ollenburg.  Advanced School of Madison Ballet students Jon Stewart, Dierdre Turner and Marcella Van Kan turned in a terrific Thai dance.  And Megan Horton revisited the Dewdrop role in the Waltz of the Flowers, which she performed in 2009.  Horton is wispy, wide-eyed and graceful.  Her turns weren’t always perfect, but the way she sailed her grand pas de chats and grand jetés, festooning them with fabulously articulate arms, made her a joy to watch.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

SoLe Sanctuary: Hoofers' Last Hurrah

By Susan Kepecs
Thursday night Savion Glover brought to the Union Theater those famously brilliant bebop feet, plus his dance partner Marshall Davis, to pay homage to the 20th century’s master hoofers, all of whom have gone to their great reward.  Posters – Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Slyde, Gregory Hines – flew from the battens, signaling their spiritual presence.  A woman meditated on a small platform upstage right, as if offering a prayer to the departed deities.
Glover and Davis have highly individual styles.  Both like to dance with their eyes shut, feelin’ the groove. But Davis tends to hold his upper body still, arms stretched straight, fists curled, though his legs are loose.  Davis rides his beats; Glover doesn’t so much ride as fly.  He whirls, playing air drums; he swaps feet, engages his hips, pops his knees.  His hands reach out, out, palms up, in the universal “from the heart” gesture.
In SoLe Sanctuary the two hoofed routines in perfect unison. These morphed into long, improvised solos, or the two traded eights, riffing on a theme. They faced each other, grinning; one started a beat, the other picked it up,.  They jumped, clapped and spun as one.  They did call and response, Glover sending out a beat with his right leg, Davis answering with his left.  Glover often took the lead, Davis supplying counterrhythms upstage.
Most of the show was straight up percussion, sans accompaniment. Glover and Davis danced on a small wooden platform, playing the hollow floor with all facets of their feet the way congueros play their skins with every part of their hands. This pyrotechnical footwork is rhythmically rich, the moves visually arresting.  But nearly two hours of pure percussion, much of it at lightening speed, at times felt relentless – moreso than the more tuneful (though also unaccompanied) Bare Soundz, which Glover performed here in ’08.  More than once Thursday night I felt relief when the driving beat was broken with a slower step. 
The pure percussion mode, showcased on the platform's restricted space (something Glover used to do with Gregory Hines, the link back to the original tap dance kings), reveals the remarkable range of the artform, accentuates the artists’ sheer virtuosity, and adds a younger, tech-oriented edge to an old artform. But the original jazzy, jivey, joyful hoofers ate up space, and most often used accompaniment of some sort.  There are hundreds of YouTube videos you can watch to see what I mean – but here's one with most of the grand old men (introduced by Hines), for a point of comparison. I think this was taped in 1989:

In both Bare Soundz and SoLe Sanctuary I missed those expansive moves across the stage, though the hollow box makes it easier to pick up all the small variations those shoes, on the right feet, can create.  And while the wow factor in SoLe Sanctuary was constant, the show was at its most soulful during those interludes in which other sounds slipped in.  At one point Glover, ecstatic and sweating, laid a soft, off-key vocal renditon of Johnny Nash’s 1972 hit “I Can See Clearly Now” over his steps. Tapping quietly, he scatted around the Gil Scott Heron lyric “no matter how far you’ve gone, you can always turn around.” And finally, dancing to John Coltrane’s “Resolution,” the second track on Love Supreme, Glover and Davis blew the lid off the show, flying easy, spinning, playing off each others’ steps. Davis swung by himself to McCoy Tyner’s cascading piano solo; when Coltrane’s sax came back in Glover took over, postboppin' and grinning, loose as a goose. 
When this joyful journey ended the two men bowed to each other and shook hands. Glover, alone on the stage, recited the roll call of the departed to whom homage had just been paid. He spoke softly, over an electronic track of the spiritual “A Long Way From Home,” while his feet tapped faster and faster. I couldn't catch all the names, but Jimmy Slyde, Chuck Green, Gil Scott Heron, Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis, Jr., the great Lon Chaney and Buster Brown were on the list.  
Glover pivoted around his left foot, eyes closed, instinctually recalling steps learned at the masters’ sides. He flew, landed, raised his palm in thanks.  Davis joined him, and the two, raising their eyes to the posters above, looked solemn and prayerful as the curtain went down.
According to the program notes Glover and Davis are “the last hoofers standing.”  And, as my friend the pianist David Stoler said to me recently, the arts, like life, have an arc.  When it's over, that's what it is.  Just as there’ll be no more Coltranes, or no more Van Goghs, there may well be no more hoofers, and that’s indeed solemn and sad.  But given that the old masters possessed immense warmth, good humor, and soul in spades, the end of SoLe Sanctuary was sort of a letdown.  I’d much rather have seen a big, splashy jazz band on this hearse wagon. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Footwork Phenomenon: Savion Glover Returns!

by Susan Kepecs
Savion Glover returns to the Wisconsin Union Theater stage on Thursday, Nov. 10 – exactly three years minus two days after his last performance here.  The master tapper touched down in Madison on Nov. 8, 2008 (just four days after Obama won the presidential election, to put that in perspective), bringing us Bare Soundz, a stripped down performance featuring Glover with fellow hoofers Marshall Davis Jr. and Maurice Chestnut, dancing – apparently effortlessly, but I saw sweat flying – on three amplified platforms.  They played bebop with their feet, trading eights and swapping solos like the jazzmen they are, flaunting their astonishing ability to play recognizable tunes with nothing other than beats, breath, and bits of metal tacked to the bottoms of their shoes. 
        From what I can glean about the show Glover’s bringing this time, SoLe Sanctuary, it’s similarly pure, but it has props – some audio clues, including a section from John Coltrane’s Love Supreme, plus posters of Glover’s artistic ancestors and an altar to a pair of tap shoes that assumably belonged to one of those beloved, departed mentors.  (For more info on Glover and those who came before, see the background piece I wrote for Isthmus in 2008, attached below)
        SoLe Sanctuary features Glover and Marshall Davis Jr., an onstage partnership that began with the original 1995 Broadway production of Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk, which catapulted Glover to global fame. Last week I had a chance to talk to him about his dancing, and this show.  The king of tap is strikingly possessive of his artform, and you can agree with him on that issue or not.  But everything he had to say points clearly to this: what he does onstage comes straight from his heart. And that’s what distinguishes art from mere entertainment.  Here are his responses to my queries, in his own words:

CulturalOyster: Last time we talked you described working with Lon Cheney, Chuck Green, Gregory Hines and all the others from that time – and how thankful you were for their teachings.  So it feels like SoLe Sanctuary is a project that’s been in your heart for a long time – can you tell me about that? 

Glover: First, SoLe Sanctuary isn’t a production. The whole idea of it is just what I do.  What you have to understand is that whatever I’ve done outside Broadway is all about dedications to my mentors, the pioneers of this artform.  It’s all something I live with and express in every performance I do.  It just happens that this is the first time I’ve said that out loud, and with the pictures I use onstage.

CulturalOyster: What’s the basis of this show – do you and Marshall Davis take steps learned from the greats and improvise on them?  If we in the audience were educated enough to know the styles of the elders, would we recognize them?

Glover: Yes, and again, this concept is in everything I do.  We take the steps and routines and rhythms of the pioneers and build on them. If you’re familiar with Chuck Green, or Gregory Hines, when you see one of their steps done by us it’s an homage, a form of respect.  But they taught us by saying ‘Don’t just do what we do.  Don’t steal my step, but take it and do something with it.’  So aside from any of our own steps that we may come up with, Marshall and I are just up there enjoying each others’ company and enjoying the sound. 

CulturalOyster: How is your own style unique – different from those who came before?

Glover: I think my style is similar to what my mentors did.  What separates it from the other tap dancers of today is that our approach to the dance – I’m speaking for myself and these men who are no longer here – is more spiritual, more about communion, than about entertaining.

CulturalOyster: In the program notes you call yourself and Marshall Davis Jr. “the last hoofers standing.”  Do you really feel there’s no future for your art form?

Glover: I feel that the future is within me, within us – so there is, God willing, a hopeful and bright future as long as I stay on the path I’m on.  I was blessed and fortunate to be with a handful of those great men who invented the art form.  They’re not around any more, so the kids today aren’t getting that same energy and attention.  I have students, but I’m only one person.  There’s no comparing that to what I had.  I do my best to allow my students to understand the artform, but we don’t necessarily need more good [tap] dancers – we had greats and there’ll be nothing greater than those men.  What we need is more awareness – more writers, more literaries.  We need the dance to be spoken about so we can remember those men.  It’s just like the music – we need more conversation about Coltrane and his contribution to the earth, more discussion about Miles [Davis], Sidney Bechet, Van Gogh, Gauguin. It [hoofing] isn't meant for everyone.  I am not the biggest genius, but I have a gift for the dance, for what I express.  Some young people just ain't got it.  Their brilliance isn't in dance, it's elsewhere, but they just want to be onstage.  That's not going to help.

(the following piece first appeared in Isthmus, under the title “Savion Glover Stretches the Boundaries of Tap," on Nov. 6, 2008)

by Susan Kepecs

Savion Glover brings his neo-bebop happy feet to the Wisconsin Union Theater Saturday night. In his current touring repertory show, Bare Soundz, he plys his renowned rhythm taps on a rangy set of African diaspora beats.
            A child prodigy, Glover made his Broadway debut at 12 in Tap Dance Kid. At 22 he copped two Tonys, for his performance and choreography in Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. He's a superstar at 34. Even if you're not a hoofer habitué you've seen Glover tap on TV. He's done everything from PBS specials to commercials and even Dancing with the Stars, though glitz isn't his game. Glover's biggest claim to fame is that he's taken an art form born in the 19th century and rendered it new for the 21st. That's no small feat.
            When I was a dance class kid in the '50s, the Golden Age of movie musicals was done. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were out; Balanchine's ballets, Martha Graham, Agnes De Mille's revolutionary musicals were in. Tap was relegated to the warpy wood floors of second-rate Dolly Dinkle ballet schools. Glover's usually credited with saving tap dance, though that's not quite right. The liquid, lanky-faced dancer / actor Gregory Hines, star of movies I loved like Frances Ford Coppola's Cotton Club (1984) and White Nights with Mikhail Baryshnikov (1985), was the real bridge between the legendary rhythm tappers and the genre's resurgence. Hines was Glover's mentor. But it's Glover, with his trademark dreads and baggy threads, who made hoofin' hip for the next generation.
How Glover came to be crowned tap dance king seems like destiny, even to an atheist like me. He was dancing in utero, his mother, Yvette Glover, says in Savion! My Life in Tap, Glover's autobio as told to New York Times writer Bruce Weber. The Lord wanted to call this rhythmic child Savior, the story goes, but Glover's mom prudently swapped the "r" for an "n."
            "My mom was a singer," Glover tells me on the phone. "She was very heavy in the church and jazz as well. So she had her career. Music was all throughout my family. My grandmother was a minister of music, my grandfather was a musician. That's where my inspiration comes from, having a happy family and giving thanks to God that I'm alive and able to express myself through dance."
            Yvette Glover, a single mother in economically depressed Newark, N.J., scraped together what it took to send seven year old Savion to tap class. No Dolly Dinkle school would do. Glover got his first glimpse of glinty Teletone taps at the Hines-Hatchett studio (owned by Gregory Hines' older brother Maurice) in midtown Manhattan, where legendary hoofers still hung out. "The day my mom signed me up I saw Chuck Green and Lon Chaney [the tapper, not the actor]," he says. "I was pretty turned on."
            Glover's trademark lightning-speed, polyrhythmic style didn't quite happen overnight. "I started like everybody else," he says.
            That means Maxi Fords and shufflin' off to Buffalo, but Glover mastered the elements in minutes and zoomed ahead. At 10 he auditioned for Broadway / film choreographer Henry LeTang, who got the young rhythm whiz cast in the 1984 Broadway production of Tap Dance Kid. Five years later Glover found himself in the Paris production of Black and Blue, a tribute to African-American music directed by Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, a pair of Argentinian showmen whose previous song and dance revues included Tango Argentino and Flamenco Puro. LeTang won a Tony for his choreography in Black and Blue, which featured a 13-piece jazz orchestra, R&B diva Ruth "Mama he Treats Your Daughter Mean" Brown and a pantheon of iconic hoofers including Lon Chaney, Chuck Green, Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde and the elegant queen of jazz tap Dianne "Lady Di" Walker.
Gregory Hines saw the show. It was Glover's luckiest break. "I met Gregory before, at Hines and Hatchett, he'd come up there from time to time, but it wasn't till he saw me in Paris that we started working together," Glover says. "It was a beautiful experience. I worked with him till he died."
            Hines' influence still flows through Glover's taps. You can see his style take shape in old YouTube videos of the two trading eights. But the whole hoofer community seems to have taken the young prince of tap under its collective wing, Walker in particular. Glover still calls her "Aunt Dianne."
            While apprenticing at the masters' sides, Glover played himself -- an endearing, wholesome teen -- on Sesame Street. He did the Broadway run of Black and Blue.  In Jelly’s Last Jam, based on the life of Jelly Roll Morton, Glover played Young Jelly opposite Hines, who won a Tony for his role as the aging jazz piano man.
            In a video interview made years later, LeTang took credit for his discovery. "I'm so happy with Savion," he tells the camera. "He's keeping it alive. I took him when he was a kid exposed him to the older dancers like Bunny and Jimmy Slyde. I'd say Bunny, show the kid a step. Savion's got a piece of all of us."
            Most of the rhythm tap kings in whose shoes Glover now dances are gone. Lon Chaney died in '95, Green in '97, Hines in '03, LeTang last year, Jimmy Slyde last May. "My teachers were far beyond show business," Glover says. "They taught me that I wasn't a show business kind of kid. Every show I've been involved in has been by invitation on their part. I'm grateful to God that they taught me to represent an art form that belongs to my people. Being part of the family of hoofers is a blessing. I'm thankful I was able to know the cats and they let me copy them till I was ready to speak in my own voice."
Glover's voice emerged full-blown in '95 with Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. Black and Blue had loads of soul, but Noise / Funk, subtitled "A Rap/Tap Discourse on the Staying Power of da' Beat," broke Broadway barriers with its young black aesthetic. Glover danced with an all-male crew of new-generation hoofers to song lyrics by poetry slam champ reg e. gaines. Noise / Funk ripped across the entire canvas of African-American street music, from the slave diaspora to hip-hop.
            Glover got slapped with a tag: hip-hop tap. He spurns the term. "I was around before the word hip-hop. I was there when it was rap, enjoying the songs and lyrics. Today it's nothing, it's a setback. There's a lot of things the kids 18 or 19 understand, but at 34 I don't get it. There is no link between hip-hop and what I do. I play music. The only links I have are to people like Hines or Lon Chaney. Those people know nothing about hip-hop. It was straight swing jazz through bebop. What I do, I can play all types of music, whether it's Caribbean or folk or jazz. I don't want kids to think that what I do has anything to do with hip-hop. No. It has to do with a very long legacy of tap dancers."
            Glover's stretched that tradition with his spiffy Gen X look and rhythmic chops. Like Noise / Funk, his 2005 tour Classical Savion (think Vivaldi, Mozart, Dvorzak) pushed the envelope. The show was controversial, netting both high praise and arched eyebrows from the press. Asked if he'd take on more classical themes in the future, Glover hesitates. "Sure, why not?" he says, after the pause.
            But the mature Glover is heading in a more relevant direction. He's picked up the bop legacy where an earlier generation of hoofers left off. Swing and bebop bands often worked with tap dancers. Like his predecessors Glover's tapped to bebop potentates -- he did an evening of works to Thelonious Monk at Lincoln Center a few years back. But he's also the world's first serious post-bop hoofer. He's got a Coltrane-inspired small-venue improv show, If Trane Wuz Here, with reg e. gaines and rising young Chicago-born composer / saxwoman Matana Roberts.
            "Coltrane's the same as dancers like Gregory Hines," Glover says. "Hines is like Miles [Davis], Miles is like Sammy Davis Jr. They're like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ghandi. They're all the same to me 'cause of their contributions to the world. They all taught me that we can continue to evolve as artists 'till we run out of evolvement. They're transformative."
            Glover's evolution includes gigs in big city jazz clubs and concert halls with his own jazz quartet, the Otherz, or post-bop pianist McCoy Tyner and his trio. But it doesn't stop there. Like Hines, Glover plys his beats on the silver screen. He played a vaudeville minstrel in blackface in Spike Lee's bitter satire Bamboozled (2000) -- a very edgy part, but Glover's a versatile performer. Proving that fame hasn't eclipsed the good-humored kid from Sesame Street, he did the tap-over for Mumble the Penguin in Warner Brothers' 2006 animated film Happy Feet. When former New York Times arts critic John Rockwell complained that the dancer didn't get proper credit, Glover responded that he saw himself as stunt man, not star; he was just glad somebody wanted to make a movie about tap dancing.
            Like his mentors, Glover teaches at the Broadway Dance Center, formerly Hines and Hatchett. He's passing the torch to the next generation, particularly to Cartier Williams, 18, who's been Glover's protegé for a decade.
            Williams struts his stuff with Glover Saturday night, along with Marshall Davis Jr., from the original Noise / Funk cast. "Davis is a student of the late, great Steve Condos, who danced in the '30s with musicians like Benny Goodman and Count Basie," Glover says. "I really dig performing with these two dudes, they have great respect for the art form and the cats who came before us."
            There's swing, bebop and post-bop, plus Calypso and more on the Bare Soundz bill. "It displays tap as music," Glover wraps up. "That's what it is. We play grooves through tap. It's tap dance as song."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Terence Blanchard Runs the Voodoo Down

by Susan Kepecs

The Terence Blanchard Quintet brought jazz full circle (at least for this first-wave boomer) at the Union Theater last Friday night (Oct. 21). Blanchard rose to prominence in the ‘80s, plying his Crescent City-spiced trumpet with hard bop king Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers two decades after the golden days of that rousing gospel and blues-tinged flavor of bop and its edgier, more modal, post bop sister.  If Blakey and his one-time trumpet man Lee Morgan, along with Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver were hard bop’s honchos, Coltrane, in his Love Supreme period, was the potentate of post bop – but the almighty Miles Davis, who played all kinds of bop and invented half of them, started it when he opened up the terrain of modal scales. Hard bop speaks to my Chicago girl soul, but post bop embodies the most daring spirit of the Big Apple ‘60s, when both of these takes on jazz (which sometimes overlap) were huge. 
That adventuous edginess has been gone for decades. A few years back Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddens quit reviewing, calling jazz an artform of the past. And in 2005, UK jazz writer Stuart Nicholson published a talked-about book titled Is Jazz Dead?  It’s true – jazz had a feeble existence once  it burned itself out on imitations of Miles' original electronic fusion sometime in the ‘70s.  The music’s quasi resurgence at the start of the new millenium -- the Africanization and hip-hopization of bop (think Lionel Loueke, Esperanza Spalding) and the soft approach to bossa nova (Gretchen Parlato, among others) is often pretty good, but except for grizzled old lions like McCoy Tyner and Roy Haynes, keepin' on into their 70s and 80s, real, honest, old-fashioned bop has been hard to come by for a very long time.
And then Blanchard blazes into town, signaling solidarity, exhorting us to “get [Walker’s] ass out!" – shades of the ‘60s! – and leaping into the void with his smokin’ young quintet: Havana-born Fabian Almazan on piano (Ben Ratliff recently called Almazan one of the country’s most interesting rising pianists:; the impressive, accomplished Brice Winston on tenor sax; 19-year old Juilliard student Joshua Crumbly on bass, and, sitting in (with no rehearsal) on drums, Jeremiah Williams.  A Blanchard-penned tune titled “Wandering Wonder” – a miracle of modal expression – started the first set; only Almazan’s brief, semi-disguised montuno hinted at anything other than ‘60s New York. 
Of course, these are versatile musicians; on the heels of “Wandering” came the bluesy, gospel-y “Ashé,” off Blanchard’s Tale of God’s Will album, the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s movie When the Levees Broke – followed by a piece of sheer post bop by Winston, “Time to Spare,” featuring Winston’s sinuous sax and Almazan’s quirky keyboard work. 
The second set opened with a soaring, sexy take on the standard “Autumn Leaves,” and an extended segment from Choices, Blanchard’s 2009 CD on Concord. I carried away from that an image of Blanchard and Winston bent over their horns, playing the same cascading runs seconds apart.
      In the closer, a new, as yet unrecorded piece by Almazan called “Pet Step Sitter’s Theme” (or something like that), the keys were souped up with electronic processing, and Blanchard’s authoritative trumpet looped through a chorus pedal. Throughout the night Blanchard, the consummate jazz educator, had served up commanding solos while leaving wide open spaces for his rising sidemen. Almazan, true to this form, broke loose in his fusion-tinged piece, which possesses a wildness akin to Bitches Brew.  And, saving the best for last, Blanchard ran the voodoo down.  

Monday, October 3, 2011

Picking Tickets for Fall, '11

    Sweet Honey in the Rock                      Dwight Carter photo

by Susan Kepecs

Since the Crash of ’08 I’ve written a lot about how the city’s culture palaces are feeling the pinch.  In the old days, I was at Overture or the Wisconsin Union Theater at least once a week, sometimes twice.  This season, again, the pickings are slimmer – but so what? Who can afford more than a handful of tickets these days?  As always, my enthusiasm runs higher for some shows than others, even among those I plan to see.  Here’s a look at my choices among the imported shows by Overture Presents and the WUT. 
My fall theater-going season starts this Friday (Oct. 7, WUT) with the unsurpassable Sweet Honey in the Rock, which hasn’t graced Madison since its 2000 concert at the old Madison Civic Center.  This week is perfect timing for the return of this national treasure – there’s no better way to get the spirit as American Autumn (Occupy Wall St.!  Recall Walker!) gears up. When these six elegant sisters raise their collective a capella voice to the heavens, spirits soar – but this music, steeped in the vocal traditions of the black church, is more political than religious.  There’s always a message in Sweet Honey’s rousing repertory of  spirituals, gospel, jazz, blues, freedom songs and African chants.  Some of these songs are old as the hills; others, penned by group members, speak truth to new excesses of power.  Sweet Honey’s been twining rich four and five-part harmonies around their demands for justice and equality for nearly 40 years, and they do it with wide-open heart and soul.
My final fall pick, calendar-wise, is Mad City fave Dobet Gnahore (Nov. 11, the Sett, Union South).  Since her first visit to Madison with Putumayo’s Acoustic Africa show in the fall of ’06, we’ve watched this Ivorian chanteuse / dancer go from rising star to the top of Afropop.  A new-generation pan-African idealist, Gnahore guards the continent’s culture from the jaws of global commercial forces.  Unlike older, hard rock-influenced Afropop gods or Africa’s hip hop youth she sticks to the roots. She’s a sizzling songstress; she dances pan-African freestyle like liquid fire.  She’s a goddess of Afrochic.  She grooves.  
Gnahore smokes; Madeleine Peyroux (WUT, Oct. 12) is cool. The Athens, Georga-born chanteuse, who started busking on European streets as a teen, was the ticketed headliner for the Isthmus Jazz Festival four years ago. She’s traveled new ground since then.  Her spare alto voice still sounds a lot like Billie Holiday sans pain, though unlike Holiday Peyroux plays a guitar, and her repertory often strays far afield from bluesy jazz – she’s covered Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan, lots of Leonard Cohen.  Lately, Peyroux’s been writing (or co-writing) her own songs.  Most of them swing, and her words wink.
        My jones for old-fashioned jazz gets fed when multitalented trumpeter / bandleader / composer / film score master and four-time Grammy winner Terence Blanchard, long a leading lion of straight-ahead, takes the WUT stage with his quintet on Oct. 21. Blanchard, a New Orleans native, emerged as a leader in the ‘80s during his stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.  Through Blanchard, the flames of hard bop and Miles-style fusion burn on, sizzling with Crescent City pizzazz.  Amen to that!  But Blanchard’s no relic of bygone eras. An educator who works with some amazing young musicians, he keeps his sound current with the intense global colors – mostly African, though his forthcoming album with conga king Poncho Sanchez, Chano y Dizzy, is pure Cubop – that mark the burgeoning new jazz of the twenty-first century generation.
        By way of contrast, rising young jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire – a former Blanchard student – plays Overture’s Capitol Theater (Oct. 11) with “The Miles Davis Experience,” a commercial, pre-packaged affair from Blue Note Records, CAMI Music and Miles Davis Properties, LLC.  The show concentrates on Miles’ works from 1959 through 1969, which would include just about all of his best albums, from Kind of Blue through In a Silent Way, while seeming to stop a few months prior to the 1970 release of Bitches’ Brew, his seminal fusion album. With or without Bitches Brew this is some of the best repertory in jazz, and Akinmusire’s gotta be good – he won the Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition in 2007, and he gets rave reviews.  I’d love to hear him play, but this is one of those history channel packages, filled with film clips and other epoch-related relics and aimed at rescuing the twentieth century for the twenty-first.  Shows like this have their place, but they tend to make me gnash my teeth.  I might go, if I’m in the mood.  But if you just want to hear living jazz, rooted in Miles’ legacy and moving into the future on its own, choose Blanchard instead.
        Dance gets the short shrift in the theaters this fall – there’s not a lot, but virtuoso hoofer Savion Glover (Nov. 10, WUT) is a best bet.  Last time Glover was here, in November, ’08, he plied his renowned rhythm taps on Bare Soundz, a show with a rangy set of African diaspora beats.  Bare Soundz was brilliantly sophisticated, and Glover, who’s paid homage to monumental musicians from Monk and Coltrane to Bach and Bartok, is still pushing the envelope with those fortunate feet. This time he’s touring Classical Encounter, a show so brand-new there are no reviews yet – I don’t know what’s in it, but you’re bound to be blown away.
        Ballet Maribor’s Radio and Juliet (Overture Hall, Oct. 15) is on my maybe list. The company, from the eponymous Slovenian city, doesn’t have much of an English-language online presence, other than a couple of positive reviews of this full-length work, which was performed at Pittsburgh’s International Festival of Firsts in ’08 and again at Jacob’s Pillow the following year.  But from YouTube clips it’s clear that Radio and Juliet, choreograhed by the company’s artistic director, Edward Clug, looks a lot like the work of Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian of Nederlands Dans Theatre, whose pieces are also prominent in the repertory of Chicago’s Hubbard St. Dance.  I’m not a huge fan of Kylian’s work, but I’m a sucker for clean, contemporary ballet technique, and I’ve never seen Ballet Maribor, so you might find me there. 
That’s it for me this fall -- what are you planning to see?  
 Broke or not, I’ve got my eye on more tickets for spring.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

High Holy Music

CD Review: Further Definitions of the Days of Awe.  The Afro-Semitic Experience (Reckless DC Music, 2011).

Just in time for the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah this starts at sundown on on Weds., Sept. 28 this year), an album called Further Definitions of the Days of Awe, by a band called the Afro-Semitic Experience, landed on my desk.
The Afro-Semitic Experience, which draws jazz, Latin and soul influences into its mix, isn’t the only band with a black / Jewish bent; kosher soul brother Joshua Nelson, a cantor who frequently performs with alt-klezmer kings the Klezmatics, has his own distinct take – joyful, gospel-charged, and politically progressive – on black Jewish music. The Afro-Semitic Experience, founded by African-American jazz pianist Warren Byrd and Jewish bass player David Chavan, is equally good, if less well-known.
For a decade, according to the liner notes, the Afro-Semitic Experience has played the Selichot services that precede Rosh Hashanah with Cantor Jack Mendelson at his synagogue in White Plains, NY.  Selichot, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the day of attonement) – collectively, the Days of Awe – are solemn times of repentance and renewal, but Further Definitions of the Days of Awe manages to be both deeply liturgical and unabashedly celebratory, all at once. Really, that's the right note for renewal, not to mention welcoming a new year. My ancestors might not approve such joyful noise, but I say hallelujah!
Classic cantorial vocal lines weave plaintively through soulful arrangements.  An Ashrei prayer becomes funky R&B, the bari sax adding edges of Monk-like dissonance. Viddui, a prayer of confession, morphs into a Motown-based ballad with a hint of rumba congas at the end.  Adoshem (praise) is done first as smoky tango, then as classic salsa in 2-3 clave. “Sh’ma Koleinu” sneaks in as soul, then slides toward straight-ahead jazz. “Shomer Yisrael,” a song for the guardian at the gates, simmers in soul ballad mode, spiced with supremely graceful horn lines; you can hear the audience say “Woo! Yeah!” at the end of the track. 
For the record, I’m an urban secular Jew.  My parents sent me to synagogue for a few years to instill a sense of my heritage, but my only vivid memory of that experience is the time I played Queen Esther in the annual Purim play. Religion’s never been my bag, but I can say this beyond a shadow of doubt: if the Afro-Semitic Experience had played at our services, I’d have attended religiously.
Further Definitions of the Days of Awe isn’t a disc I’d spin every day, but it’s much more than a mere holiday album. The Afro-Semitic Experience packs a lot of power onto a little CD – it’s worth a listen any time you feel the need for repentance and renewal.
Mazel tov.  Shana tova.
-- Susan Kepecs                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Monday, September 19, 2011

Reflections on the Madison World Music Festival's Eighth Incarnation

                                                                                                SKepecs © 2011
By Susan Kepecs

Some Madison World Music Festivals have been better than others, and this year’s fest – the eighth – was one of the best. Every band I heard was brilliant, and the overarching lesson I took away from the event was this: while what we call “world music” is constantly evolving, and while lots of it is, overtly or not, about cultural resistance, absolutely all of it is woven from the shifting cultural-economic web of the world system. For a social scientist like me that’s a fascinating phenomenon.
I caught almost every group that played at the Memorial Union, though I missed Frigg due to bad timing Thursday night. I opted out of the Willy St. Fair – I had mixed feelings about Sergent Garcia and Bomba Estereo anyway, which I reported in the preview I posted last week. Still, I’m sure these bands, like the rest, shed some light on the world system. If you were there, please use the comments box below to tell me what I missed!
                                                                    SKepecs © 2011
Here’s what I thought of the rest of the fest. My pre-event pick was Nawal, the voice of the Comoros Islands, and she was great – a warm performer in a red Sufi turban, barefoot and smiling. Nawal, a mesmerizing Muslim woman wielding a mighty voice, chose to open her set with a Sufi trance take on “Shalom Aleichem,” an Israeli song every good Jewish kid learns at a tender age. That alone was a revelation, but the whole show underscored the essence of the island crossroads in the Indian Ocean where Nawal was born, and where traders from Madagascar, South and East Africa, Arabia and Asia mingled from medieval times through the late nineteenth century. Most of the Nawal’s repertory married Bantu polyrhythms and Arabic tonalities, though she stretched into deep, ringing hums like cosmic breaths, swung into the Soweto sound or intoned purely Persian modal melodies. Rounding out the set, the pianist in the stellar three-piece backup band plunged into some joyful straight-ahead western jazz during the encore. Bravo.
                                                                                             SKepecs © 2011
The Chai Found Music Workshop from Taiwan (which played two concerts, Thurs. and Fri. nights) was a big surprise.  Billed as traditional Chinese chamber music, I expected a high-end noodle shop sound. Instead, this virtuoso ensemble with its fabulous Chinese instruments (including a violin like a small box on a stick, played bottom down like a cello, and a big, round, banjolike guitar) melded echoes of western composers from Chopin to Prokofiev with non-western scales and elongated, sliding notes.  I even caught a few blue notes, a whiff of medieval Spain, a boogie woogie blues and a Chinese song built on a Buddy Holly-like 1957 rock n’ roll chassis.  Of course, China was at the heart of the world system from early days of the Silk Routes till the Ching Dynasty instituted the closed door policy in the seventeenth century – and Taiwan, celebrating its centennial of independence this year, has been much more open to European influences than mainland China since the late 1800’s -- so Chai's striking mix makes sense.
                                                                      SKepecs © 2011
The pizzica tarantella dance music Canzionere Grecianico Salentino brought to the fest wove a different sort of tapestry from world system sounds.  I loved the multi-instrumentality of the players and the folksy, scarf-flinging dance in 6/8 time. It was absolutely freezing out on the Terrace late Friday afternoon, but a group of local women – one of them a bona fide expert – whirled joyfully around on the concrete.  Ancient Greeks brought the original form, a Bacchanalian festival dance, to southern Italy, where it morphed into a medieval cure to cast out devil venom acquired through spider bites.  The tarantella still thrives in Italy, but there’s much more to it than the Adriatic connection. Italy was a Silk Route stop – that’s how Marco Polo got to China in the thirteenth century. His travels, and the links they established, came through loud and clear in Canzionere’s tunes, especially in the snake charmer flute solos and the echoes of Asia and Persia elicited from the concertina.  Did you hear that, too?
                                                                                                  SKepecs © 2011 
Kutumba, from Kathmandu, on its first-ever U.S. tour, served up high-energy fare. The young players, wearing jeans under their Nehru jackets, take a twenty-first century approach to cultural resistance, updating traditional Nepalese sounds with a slim, bright edge of rock and a slew of heartfelt activist themes. On their playlist Friday night was a song for the environment and another about Nepal’s 1996-2006 civil war.  Though Nepal is sandwiched between India and Tibet, Kutumba sounds much more Indian than Chinese.  Drums, cymbals and gongs are a hallmark of this music.  But like the Chai Found Music Workshop, Kutumba cooks with conversations between violin (sarangi – a much different-looking instrument than the Chinese violin) and flute.
                                                SKepecs © 2011
It was all great, but I saved the best for last.  I’ve always been nuts about Dragon Knights, those spectacular stiltwalker puppets towering over the Terrace, the Union Theater and the Willy St. Fair.  Founder Lily Valerie Noden, who’s French and lives in California, describes her artform as culturally blended theater with roots in Europe, Africa, Asia and the U.S. (go to her website,, for more of the story). But her puppets are more like creatures from another planet, or your dreams.  The dragon’s been dazzling MWMF goers since 2006; the luminous dragonfly was new here this year. Little kids seemed scared of them, but grownups were as thrilled as the slightly bigger kids, following them around with awestruck expressions.  And here’s a law of life: when a Dragon Knight touches you, you never forget. The dragon tried to take a bite of my hair, and I fell madly in love with him; MWMF artistic selection chair Esty Dinur danced with the dragonfly and was similarly charmed.
                                                                              SKepecs © 2011
Finally, Blitz the Ambassador, from Ghana and New York, blew me away. Blitz bills his act as hip hop, and I’m way too much of a boomer to be a big hip hop fan. From the YouTube videos I watched before I wrote my preview I was willing to bet Blitz and his band would be boss, but live onstage they beat the pants off my expectations.  What a troupe of tremendous showmen!  As the students in the UW-Madison Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives' First Wave Program might say, this band just bust. It was late Friday night. It was cold, but Blitz was hot. People were bopping before the stage; one guy was break dancing like wildfire. Blitz’ socially savvy lyrics ("You got to organize! Bring in the horns!") satisfied, and his mix of Afrobeat, highlife, old-school soul and hip hop ("I’m gonna blend it together, Madison!”), plus the blazing James Brown-style horn section, citing lions like Masakela and Coltrane, did me in.
           Thanks, Wisconsin Union Theater, for the Madison World Music Festival. Bring back Blitz the Ambassador!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Gringa's Guide to the Madison World Music Festival, Chapter 8

by Susan Kepecs

When the first hint of crispness creeps into the air, you know it’s time for the annual Madison World Music Festival.  This feast of free music (Thurs. - Sat., Sept. 15-17, with special added attractions tonight -- that's Sat., Sept. 10 -- and Weds. Sept. 14) hits its eighth incarnation this year. It's facilitated, in large part, through collaboration with other, overlapping Midwest fests, and it’s brought to you by the Wisconsin Union Theater and a generous group of local sponsors. Most events occur on our beloved Memorial Union Terrace, but on Sat., Sept. 17, everything but the wrapup show takes place at the Willy St. Fair.  That's a hike or a parking nightmare if you don't live on the Near East Side, but never fear -- this year for the first time Greyhound Bus offers free hourly shuttle service between the Memorial Union and Willy St., so there’s no excuse not to hit the near East Side for any band you want to hear.
The festival, as always, brings in rising young acts and established bearers of cultural traditions little-known outside their home countries.  But this year there’s also a warmup concert by a big star, Vieux Farka Touré, master Malian guitarist and son of the late, legendary Malian bluesman Ali Farka Touré. Vieux’s playing, rooted in his father’s flowing style but infused with fancy, Hendrix-like licks, wields his wicked axe on the Terrace this Saturday at 10 PM. 

Next up (Weds., Sept. 14, 7 PM at the Marquee, Union South) is Cultures of Resistance, an award-winning documentary by Brazilian activist Iara Lee.  Lee's traveled the globe documenting activist artists, many of them musicians. This important film speaks to the oblique powers of nonviolent artistic resistance against the global oligarchs, and reveals voices you’ll never hear in the mainstream media. Dr. Jonathan Overby, of Wisconsin Public Radio’s Higher Ground, leads a post-screening Q&A, and he’s the best person I can imagine for this role. The film screens again, without Overby, at the Play Circle in the Memorial Union at 9 PM Thurs.
For years, most of what we call “world music” was a tool of cultural, if not overtly political or economic, resistance.  But the genre’s always changing, as an historical glance at Madison's seven previous festivals shows.  For its first four years the fest was a savvy mix of very traditional sounds and the rootsy indie blends cooked up by a younger generation.  Among my many favorites in the first category I'll list sonero/merenguero Puerto Plata from the Dominican Republic in 2007, and the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar in 2006; in the second, Chicana/Mixteca Lila Downs’ sin fronteras rancheras (2005) amd Gjallarhorn’s jazzy electronic takes on medieval Swedish folk (2006) left lasting impressions.
By the festival’s fifth year, the emphasis expanded.  Two underground Europop bands – a wacky Hungarian group called Little Cow, plus Prague rockers Plastic People of the Universe, who billed themselves as the Czech Republc’s Mothers of Invention, found questionable room in the festival’s big tent. And at this year’s fest, alongside traditional and next-generation players you’ll discover three hip-hop groups.  Global hip-hop’s been edging into the world music festival circuit since at least last year, when several acts appeared at Chicago’s event, but I admit it – I have mixed feelings about this development. After all, hip-hop, an artform born in the Bronx, blazed its way around the world via the conduits of U.S. military-economic domination. Not that all hip hop is part of the capitalist machine – far from it. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the insipid thug themes of cheap, commercial rap is the socially conscious movement around which the UW-Madison’s Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives has built First Wave, a brilliantly innovative program of undergraduate education. OMAI dishes up its lavish Line Breaks Festival every spring.  Given hip-hop’s already prominent presence on campus, is adding it to the world music lineup the right way to go?  You decide, and let me know – please, drop me a line in the comments box at the end of this preview.
Of the three hip-hop acts at this year’s fest, one – Blitz the Ambassador (from Brooklyn, via his native Ghana) – stands out (Fri. 9:30 PM, Memorial Union Terrace [rain, 10 PM, Union Theater).  This is top-shelf, socially conscious hip-hop with honest world music roots – super-sharp, gritty, urban rhymes set to a scorching synthesis of highlife, Afrobeat and Big Apple hip-hop.  I’d be happy to hear Blitz the Ambassador at the MWMF, the Line Breaks fest or anywhere else.  I’m less enthusiastic about Sergent Garcia (Sat., 5:30 PM, Willy St. Fair; 9:30 PM on the Terrace [rain, Rathskellar]), a Parisian ex-punk rocker with Spanish roots who’s given his sound the unfortunately silly name of “salsamuffin.”  In a nutshell it’s sin fronteras salsa-with-reggae-and-rap; it’s muy bailable, but neither the sound nor lyrics, ranging from mildly political to self-indulgent refrains on the artist’s own hipness, can hold a candle to Blitz the Ambassador.  Bomba Estereo (Sat., 7:30 PM, Willy St.), from Colombia, plays “electro-tropical,” a close cousin to reggaeton and, yes, salsamuffin.  Its lead singer, Liliana Samuet, is slick, but this band’s let’s party, quitame la ropa lyrics (in Spanish and English) leave me cold.  Still, Sergent Garcia and Bomba Estereo will rock the crowds, and there’s something to be said for that.

Here’s a look at the rest of the fest.  My personal pick this year is Nawal (Thurs., 8:30 PM, Union Theater), chanteuse extraordinaire from Paris via the Comoros Islands. It’s the first time this volcanic chain in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of Africa has been represented at the MWMF. The Comoros, a crossroads for medieval trade, was colonized by France at the start of the 20th century and cut out of contemporary commercial routes.  The islands are among the poorest regions in today’s world, but the historical legacy of their rich exchange with South and East Africa, Arabia, Asia and Madascar lives in Nawal’s music; she plies her powerhouse alto voice on a jazz-like Sufi / Bantu mix – sometimes pulsingly polyrhythmic, sometimes a meditative flow – and accompanies herself on the gambusi, a sort of oud with a banjolike sound.
Another country represented for the first time this year is Nepal.  Kutumba (Fri., 8 PM, Union Theater), a six-piece instrumental folk ensemble from Kathmandu, is dedicated to preserving the traditional folk music and instruments of this tiny, landlocked sliver of the Himalayas, while updating the sound for the 21st century. On its website, Kutumba makes it clear – this band is all about cultural resistance in the face of globalization. I like Kutumba’s rich aural Buddhist/Hindu tapestry, which, at least for this gringa boomer, conjures up incense and hippies. This is Katumba’s first U.S. tour, but the expat Nepalese community is already in tune with this troupe. A comment under a YouTube video says it all: “Kutumba, the pride of Nepal. Saving our culture, thanx, man.” 

From Taiwan, in celebration of the island's centennial as a sovereign state this year, comes the Chai Found Music Workshop (Thurs., 6:30 PM, Union Theater; Fri., 7:30 PM, Terrace [rain, 7 PM, Union Theater]). This remarkable group works in two veins. The first is traditional Sizhu (“silk and bamboo”) music, which essentially consists of improvisational dialogue between wind (bamboo) and strings (silk). In the second, compositions created in collaboration with other musicians from around the world, while clearly Chinese in instrumentation, fuse east and west in contemporary ways.  At Thursday’s indoor concert you’ll hear a quiet, traditional, very Chinese sound; the group’s Terrace performance on Friday shows off its more upbeat, international side.
For a closer-to-home sound, Brazilian sambista/popster Luisa Maita, the latest young phenom to climb the Latin charts, is a good pick.  Her sound’s not unique, but it’s satisfyingly silky.

Two really hot Italian bands take the stage this year. I’m especially looking forward to Canzionere Grecianico Salentino (Fri., 5:30 PM, Terrace [rain, 5:30 PM, Union Theater]), from the Puglia region of southern Italy – the heel of the boot, jutting into the Adriatic toward Greece.  This bright seven-piece band-plus-dancer plays 21st century arrangements of pizzica salentina, a regional form of tarentella dance music rooted in medieval belief that spirit-possessed dancing was the cure for tarantula bites.  In Italy right now there’s a big revival of this lively music, featuring tambourines, accordion and Italian bagpipes, and Canzionere – the band’s been around since the 1970s – is the reigning king of this scene.
At the opposite end of the spaghetti spectrum is singer / songwriter / guitarist Marco Calliari (Sat. Willy St., 3:30 PM). Born in Montreal to Italian immigrant parents, Calliari started out playing thrash metal with a group called Anonymus.  On trip to Italy he discovered his roots; today he writes his own tunes and casts traditional Italian songs like “Bella Ciao” in his own style, mixing traditional Italian rhythms with rock, hints of flamenco and more.
Calliari's on my to-do list, and so is Frigg (Thurs., 9 PM, Union Terrace [rain, Union Theater]), a band of Finnish fiddle players and Norwegian folksters that serves up “Nordgrass,” a high energy, contemporary takes on traditional Scandanivian tunes. Frigg is the name of the Norse goddess of happiness, and Frigg the Nordgrass band puts out an ebullient violin and accordion (concertina, actually) sound.  The echoes of Celtic and Cajun music you won’t fail to notice weave whole musical cloth from the Viking invasions of Ireland, then Canada, and the later flight of the Acadians from the Canadian maritime provinces to Lousiana. 

                           SKepecs photo © 2008
And last but not least, there’s the festival ambience – sunset on the Union Terrace, rowdy Willy St., beer, brats, ice cream – and, returning for the fifth year in a row, the amazing Dragon Knights (they tend to amble sporadically through the crowd, but they’re slated specifically for 7:20 PM Fri. on the Terrace [rain, 8 PM, Union Theater] and Sat., 3 and 5 PM at the Willy St. Fair).  These spectacular, otherworldly puppets on stilts by Lily Valerie Noden, who trained at the Ecole International de Theatre in Paris, are worth the parking hassle all by themselves.  
I can't wait. See you there!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

López-Nussa Rocks the Cardinal Bar

                                                                                                     SK photo © 2011

by Susan Kepecs

Last Sunday night I caught the Ernan López-Nussa trio at the Cardinal Bar. That afternoon the high-end Cuban jazz outfit played the Orton Park Festival, but this is nightclub music, and I chose to hear it where it belongs. Kudos to Cardinal proprietor Ricardo Gonzalez for providing a rare treat in a town where non-local jazz is usually relegated to the formal constraints of the proscenium arch – think the Isthmus Jazz Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and Sonny Rollins or Kenny Barron at the Overture. That never feels right to me – jazz, a spontaneous artform, demands a drink in your hand, friends at your table, the right ambience for head-bopping and the freedom to say “yeah!”
López-Nussa, a Havana native, is, like all great musicians raised in Revolutionary Cuba, conservatory trained. Early in his career he worked with Silvio Rodríguez, whose nueva trova, while far from my favorite style, provides some of the satisfying softness that comes through in López-Nussa’s own sound. With jazz giant Bobby Carcassés’ Afrocuba, López-Nussa honed his guaguancó. Today the versatile pianist, who’s got six or seven albums under his belt (most of them not available in the States) is a big name in Cuba. But while this is his second (or third?) U.S. tour, he’s not nearly as well known here as other piano titans from the embargoed island like Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba or Omar Sosa.  That’s a shame, since López-Nussa’s phenomenal jazz criollo explodes with sabor.  Based on the stately danzón and contradanza rhythms of nineteenth century Cuba – a fortuitous marriage of the Viennese waltzes that were the rage in Europe and Afro-Cuban influences – it’s a gentler sound than the mambo / rumba jazz played by Lopez-Nussa’s counterparts.  Not that criollo is Lopez-Nussa’s only style; Sunday night he ranged from from Bach to bossa nova, mixed montunos with modal progressions and plunged into some tasty jazz/rock fusions.
Onstage at the Cardinal, López-Nussa’s remarkable rapport with his Cuba-born sidemen, Jimmy Branley on drums and Jorge Alexander on bass, stood out. Branley’s a subtle but sparkling drummer with some of Roy Haynes’ snap-crackle in his sticks.  His credits include Valdés and Rubalcaba, plus NG la Banda, the band that invented timba and is still the only timba outfit I enjoy. Alexander started playing with López-Nussa at the turn of this century, in the latter’s jazz fusion band Habana Report (the name evokes the king of ‘70s fusion bands, Weather Report, fronted by Wayne Shorter and the late, great keyboardist Joe Zawinul – and the influences of both players are evident in Lopez Nussa’s style).
                                                                         SK photo © 2011
López-Nussa, Branley and Alexander, clearly in love with their music, sat facing each other, conversing, I swear, flirtatiously, via their instruments.  It was some of the best musical dialogue I’ve heard in years.  
           At one point López-Nussa, grinning, looked up from the keys saying “I’m going to do a sacrilege!” and launched in to Chopin’s Waltz No. 7 from Les Sylphides. From straight-up Romanticism López-Nussa swung seamlessly into danzón, letting the audience experience the blood tie between the two forms.  Say yeah!
López-Nussa served up several more spot-on danzones and a contradanza, all filled with soaring improvizations, plus some brilliant two-fisted piano playing on a playful piece of jazz / gospel / rock fusion. In a fine Cuban finish the trio took off on Rafael Fernández’ famous guaracha, “Capullito de Aleli.” I left wishing for more, and ready to spring for all the Lopez-Nussa CDs I can find.