by Susan Kepecs
I took a break this weekend from watching the horserace to the White House and entertained myself instead by deciding what to see at the city’s culture palaces – the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Overture Center – this fall. Picking tickets, and then attending those shows, is one of my best strategies for staying sane. So while the weather turns cool, here’s my annual, opinionated look at what’s hot between now and the end of 2012.
My list is slightly shorter than usual this fall, partly because of the WUT’s stripped-down season, necessitated by the fact that the venerable old venue is in the process of getting a major facelift. During this revamp the theater’s using various smaller sites, including The Sett at Union South and the infinitely more charming but evidently less available Music Hall – though there’s no adequate space for dance. And Overture’s risk-aversion strategy, which includes booking long runs for Broadway touring productions – Jersey Boys monopolizes the big hall for a full three weeks in November – cuts into my ticket cache. It’s worth noting, too, that Overture’s yielded much of the edgier music programming it used to do in the Capitol Theater to True Endeavors / Frank Productions, though fortunately for us this outfit’s offering some stellar acts.
If you’ve never seen el Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández (Overture Hall, Oct. 9), or even if you just haven’t been in a few years, like me, by all means treat yourself to a ticket. Yes, there are other Mexican folkloric dance companies, including Wisconsin’s own long-established Ballet Folklórico Mexico de los hermanos Avila, which also tours the world and is very good. But Ballet Folklórico de Amalia Hernández sits at the anthropological pinnacle of Mesoamerican folklore, since 1959 performing dances from the vast cultural treasure chest of our neighbor to the south several times weekly at Mexico City’s hallowed Palacio de Bellas Artes.
After its nearly impeccable run last year, Overture resident company Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker (Overture Hall, Dec. 15-22) is an absolute must-see. Marguerite Luksik, in the principal Snow Queen / Sugarplum role, is a knockout. This year’s Nut marks the retirement of Genevieve Custer-Weeks, who’s been with the company since its beginning. She’s stepping down from the stage to focus on her family and her Marin County pre-ballet Tutu School, and she’ll be missed. In all six shows Custer-Weeks, known for her nuanced dancing and remarkable musicality, performs the Dewdrop solo artistic director W. Earle Smith choreographed for her in 2004, when the Overture Center opened.
I’m on the fence about Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Its Moulin Rouge (Overture Hall, Oct. 30), choreographed in 2009 for the company’s seventieth anniversary, should appeal to first-time ballet-goers. This story ballet’s never drawn rave reviews, though it always gets props for its flashy sets and costumes. The company has some solid dancers, and principal Vanessa Lawson is lovely. I might go, just for that. But to hook Madison’s increasingly sophisticated ballet audience, it’s time to aim higher. Importing a major company’s an expensive proposition, but so are the Broadway tours Overture touts. A repertory program from Miami City Ballet, the Joffrey, or Pacific Northwest would be just as likely to fill the big hall as Winnipeg’s Moulin Rouge – and it would speak volumes about Overture’s commitment to this major art form.
Moving on to music, the options are more abundant. I’ll probably end up checking out Grupo Fantasma, out of Austin, TX (the WUT series at The Sett, Nov. 2). The members of this 11-piece band are plenty good players, but my enthusiasm’s tempered a bit by the fact that what they put out is yet another one of those ubiquitous new-century hybrids. Grupo Fantasma does the pan-Latin thing, mashing up salsa, cumbia, merengue, Tex-Mex, funk, y quien sabe que más. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a salsera at heart, and I like the rest of these sounds, especially Tejano. The way I see it, though, it’s better when it’s authentic. The hell-bent trend toward genre busting that’s taken over the dance music scene sacrifices a certain amount of sociocultural sincerity – it’s in the rhythm, and it’s something dancers can sense – on an altar of relentlessly shifting soundbites. If you’re gonna bring in a full-size Latin dance band why not go for some verdadera Big Apple salsa dura – say, Ralph Irizarry’s SonCafé (which played at the defunct Luther’s Blues in 2004), or Oscar Hernández’ spectacular Spanish Harlem Orchestra, which, also in ’04, shook up the Union Theater stage? Or, before they’re gone, how about Tejano legends like Flaco Jiménez or Mingo Saldivar, who are, as far as I know, still touring? But maybe Grupo Fantasma, live and in person, will win me over. I’ll let you know.
On the jazz front, I’m looking forward to hearing emerging jazz saxophonist / bandleader Tia Fuller play the WUT series at The Sett with her quartet on Oct. 12 – two sets, 8 and 10 PM. The (free!) event’s co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Madison Jazz Collective. Until recently you could practically count the number of women in jazz who played instruments on one hand, and most of them were keyboardists – Alice Coltrane, Shirley Scott, Mary Lou Williams. But like bassist Esperanza Spalding, who’s better known, Fuller, 36, belongs to a tribe of Gen Y players blasting bravely through the glass ceiling. She’s toured the world with Beyoncé and Diane Reeves. When Fuller gets to Madison she’ll be just off the Black Caucus gala in D.C. and the Monterey Jazz Festival, and headed for the release party for her new CD, Angelic Warrior, at midtown Manhattan’s Jazz Standard. Her fiery sound’s tempered with soul – it’s close to classic hardbop, though laced with a contemporary, hip-hop edge.
The Birdland Big Band, led by drummer Tommy Igoe, brings its updated brand of swing to the Overture’s Capitol Theater on Oct. 23. The BBB, born in 2006, gets raves for its regular Friday night gigs at the latest incarnation of the eponymous Manhattan club – and its big, brassy sound’s now stirring up a Monday storm at San Francisco’s Rrazz Room, as well. I only know this band by its sole album so far, Eleven (Deep Rhythm Music, 2011), which showcases solo-rich arrangements of straight-ahead repertory from the ‘70s and ‘80s like Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” and Chick Corea’s “Got a Match,” though there’s also a generous take the immortal hardbop standard “Moanin’,” penned by piano potentate Bobby Timmons in 1958 while he was working with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. If Eleven’s any clue, the Birdland Big Band will be big entertainment.
Two jazz fusion concerts round out the fall. It may sound hypocritical, but music melding works better in the open-ended environment of jazz than with the world beat dance mashups we’ve seen so much of lately. The jazz-rock fusions of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, wrought by the likes of Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis, are a great example. So is Cubop, born in bebop New York of collaborations between Dizzy Gillespie and two Cubans, trumpet player Mario Bauzá and percussionist Chano Pozo. In a geographic reversal some 70 years later (2010), the Ninety Miles Project brought three three New York-based players at the peaks of their careers – vibraphone visionary Stefon Harris, trumpet virtuoso Christian Scott and tenor saxman David Sánchez, who headlined the Isthmus Jazz Festival at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2009 – to Havana. There they connected with prominent Cuban pianists Rember Duharte and Harold López-Nussa (brother of Ernán López-Nussa, who was in town in September, 2011) – plus a panoply of percussionists. The resulting album, Ninety Miles (Concord Picante, 2011), a bop-Cu (the reverse of Cubop) tour-de-force, made cover of Downbeat with lots of fanfare.
The current Ninety Miles Project, which consists of Sánchez and Harris, plus trumpet lion Nicholas Payton, plays the WUT series at Music Hall, Nov. 29. It’s impossible to predict what they’ll do. Puerto Rico-born Sánchez, who’s paid musical homage to Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil and Camaroon on his own albums, recently told Los Angeles performing arts blogger Cristofer Gross (http://www.theatertimes.org/IntermissionDavidSanchez.html) that it’s not just about Cuba despite the band’s name, a reference to the distance between the big island and south Florida. The ongoing project will build bridges to new places. And I have no clue who’ll fill out the sound on this tour – possibly some local players? But none of that matters. Just go hear these cats play – you can’t go wrong.
And finally, here’s another example of shape-shifting, twenty-first century jazz – the fabulous Bela Fleck with the Marcus Roberts trio, Oct. 16 at Overture’s Capitol Theater, brought to you by True Endeavors / Frank Productions. It’s hard to imagine Fleck without Victor Wooten and Futureman, but this collaboration cooks. The unexpected quartet put out an album on Rounder, Across the Imaginary Divide, this spring, and it was on the jazz fest circuit all summer. Fleck’s indescribable jazzgrass banjo and Marcus’ two-fisted, honed-in-the-black-church piano style, steeped in the history of the music and polished in the classical canon, simply synch. Marcus’ regular trio’s filled out by a pair of hard-hitting, impeccable players – Jason Marsalis, the youngest member of the Marsalis dynasty, on drums, and Florida-based jazz educator Rodney Jordan on bass. It’s a gorgeous new groove.