|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.