Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Birdland Big Band's Tommy Igoe Talks to CulturalOyster

by Susan Kepecs
Today’s incarnation of Birdland, the famous midtown Manhattan jazz club, is not the place Jack Kerouac famously called a bop joint – just like today’s jazz bears only occasional resemblance to the bop traditions of the late ‘40s through mid-‘60s, the original nightspot’s heyday.  But Birdland, reborn in a new midtown location in the ‘90s, has had a hand in the current jazz resurgence – and like the club, the Birdland Big Band, which has played there every Friday night since 2006, serves up a new take on an old form.  The brassy, full-throttle music machine is taking its act on the road this month, and making a stop at Overture’s Capitol Theater this coming Tuesday, Oct. 23. 
The Birdland Big Band is the brainchild of drummer Tommy Igoe, who toured with Blood, Sweat and Tears and became the principal drummer and conductor for the original Broadway production of Lion King.  But Igoe was born to big band jazz – his father, the late drummer Sonny Igoe, played with Woody Herman and Benny Goodman.  I had a chance to ask Igoe (Tommy, that is) about his own 15-piece orchestra (for the lineup, go to last week.

Cultural Oyster: What made you decide to start a big band, in these times when there are so few large jazz ensembles working?

Igoe: The big band approach is in my background – when I was 18 I went on the road with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.  A slot opened up at Birdland and I asked them to give me a shot, to build something there that stood out – and they gave me the chance.  For a while I did Lion King at the same time – the band was only one show a week, and it didn’t conflict.

CulturalOyster: I read that you recently moved to the Bay Area, where you’re now doing a much buzzed-about Monday night gig.

Igoe: I go back and forth, and I have two bands – but this tour is about THE Birdland band, the exact same band that plays in Manhattan.  It’s grown beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, especially mine.  When we started there was nobody in the club.  Half a year out the club was about half full and within a year you couldn’t get in.  We’ve been the most popular weekly jazz event in New York for a couple of years now.

CulturalOyster: Your sound is so different from the other big jazz bands working today – in some ways it’s closer to the big Latin bands like Machito’s, or Tito Puente’s, than to, say, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. 

Igoe: We’re not trying to be a jazz band or a Latin band.  We’re trying to be a music event.  Being a jazz band is too narrow a scope, at least for me.  I want to play music from every corner of the world in one show.  If you bring someone who loves music, even if they’d never heard jazz or a large ensemble, they’d love the experience.  The problem is that people try to compare us with what else is out there, or they try to tie us to the big band legacy – so many bands look backwards and play the same old standards over and over.  We try our best to look forward while acknowledging where we came from.  We want to make our mark in the twenty-first century.  Music from everywhere – that’s our mission statement.

CulturalOyster: Is that because the world we live in is so globally interconnected?

Igoe: It’s that, but it’s also because I’m a drummer.  I like lots of rhythmic excitement, and I think the audience does too. People are hearing much more authentic music from around the world than ever before.  The days of playing a full night of swing and calling it satisfactory for a twenty-first century audience are over.  Today’s audience comes in with a much more varied expectation.

CulturalOyster: What makes you decide to add a tune to your repertory?

Igoe: Because I’m not a composer, I’m not locked into any dogma.  I get to pick and choose anything I want, from anywhere.  There are tunes I’ve always wanted to play that have never been done by a large ensemble, or haven’t been done justice to.  Our album [Eleven, the band’s 2012 release on CD Baby, up for four Grammys next year] is a perfect example of our artistic schizophrenia – it’s got music from Argentina, the Caribbean, a tune by the hot [Dominican-born] composer Michel Camilo, a Herbie Hancock piece – it’s literally all over the map, which is exactly the way we like it.  We do pay tribute to where we came from – like with Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’” [a CulturalOyster favorite, recorded in 1958 by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers].

CulturalOyster: Is there a new album in the works?

Igoe: There’s always a new album in the works.  Once the Grammys are over we’ll go right back into the studio and make a new one.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Fleck and Roberts beat Obama and Romney!

Dear readers -- just a note from me, in case you didn't read my fall ticket preview.  If you know me you know I'm a political junkie -- it takes a whole lot to get me to miss the Second Presidential Debate tomorrow night.  But I'm too psyched about the fabulous Bela Fleck with the Marcus Roberts trio, at Overture’s Capitol Theater, to stay home. 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. Miss it at your own risk!
                                                                                                       -------- Susan Kepecs

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dance Review: Ballet Folklórico de México

by Susan Kepecs
Tuesday night’s performance by the Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández at Overture Hall was a shining example of culturally relevant programming.  It’s been two years since the last time we heard Mariachi los Camperos (in Overture’s Capitol Theater, in 2010), and I was itching for a big dose of mexicanidad. 
Obviously, I wasn’t alone – la comunidad turned out big for this event.  One reason for the recent waves of in-migration from Mexico, of course, is the ominous shadow cast over that country by the drug cartels that have run amok over the last five years.  Watching the show, I kept thinking about a piece I read recently in the Mexico City news magazine Proceso, aptly titled “Mexico is the most violent, happiest country.”  The Ballet Folklórico, which regularly plays both the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico’s Distrito Federal, approaches dance performance as historical anthropology – and the current of violencia and alegría that runs endlessly through the country’s social fabric was evident in the choreography, in multiple ways.
The famous Yaqui Deer Dance, a staple in Ballet Folklórico’s repertory, is, as the program notes state, an example of imitative magic – but it’s also at least tangentially linked to the ancient, transcendental nature of death in Mexican art.  The mature dancer who wore the deer headdress Tuesday night imbued his performance with convincing animal wisdom.  His stag leaps, second position split jumps and agonized tremors expertly evoked the ungulate’s experience of fear and death.
In “Revolution,” gaily waltzing couples decked out in lavish costumes from the 1890s – the period during which the country was ruled by the dictator Porfirio Díaz, who built a new Mexican bourgeoisie on a base of world capitalism – were interrupted by the rifle-bearing soldados and soldaderas (Adelitas) of the Revolution, marching fiercely across the stage with bandoleirs like Pancho Villa’s strapped across their chests.
There was sheer alegría in the mariachis and soneros jarochos who provided musical live accompaniment for about half the works on the program, and, of course, in those dances. Two works in particular stood out – one from coastal Veracruz, the other from Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco.  Both places are under seige by the drug cartels, but there as elsewhere in Mexico, the festivals these dances are based on continue to occur like clockwork. 
The Veracruz piece, “Tlacotalpan Festivity,” showcased that town’s annual, carnaval-linked fiesta in honor of the Virgin of Candelaria.  The dance featured the full company in bright white traditional Veracruz dress, zapateando – the word means “rhythmic footwork,” rather than “tap dancing” in the Savion Glover sense – with abandon to familiar jarocho tunes like La Bamba.  Some dancers wore giant puppet costumes – demons, clowns and rumberos reflecting the influence of Cuban culture in Veracruz – to scare off evil spirits.
“Jalisco,” another Ballet Folklórico staple, is an ode to mariachi anthems.  The dance, a sparkling study in color, rhythm and pattern, wraps every show.  At the end, the dancers sail colored mylar strips that glow like fireworks into the theater.
“Jalisco” in particular is brilliant.  That said, I’ve seen this company many times, both in Mexico City and in Madison, and last night’s performance wasn’t peak.  The dance quality was uneven, though some of the men stood out for their flashy footwork. I can’t single them out for praise, unfortunately, since they weren’t named in the program.
And, in fact, the program and the performance didn’t entirely match, leaving anyone in the audience unfamiliar with Mexican folklore without a guidepost. The first post-intermission piece was a theatrical reproduction of the Totonac Quetzal dance from Veracruz and Puebla, done by eight men wearing the classic headdress that symbolizes the plumage of a tropical bird sacred in Mesoamerica throughout the prehispanic epoch.  Yet the Totonac dance wasn’t anywhere listed or described.
According to the program, the first piece in the show's second half was “Wedding in the Huasteca.”  The work that followed the Totonac dance might be construed as a wedding dance, but the opening tune was a Cuban-influenced, Veracruz-stye danzón, not huapango music from the huasteca. Even more confusing, the dancers – the full company of men and women – were precisely outfitted for a Yucatecan vaquería, which is the dance that kicks off the festivals for the patron saints of the towns in that state, a thousand miles southeast of the huasteca.  In a final disjunction, the “huasteca” work wrapped up with a typical Yucatecan jarana in 6/8 time.  How a dance company that’s usually so anthropologically correct wound up with an odd pastiche like this is beyond me.
But in the end it didn’t matter.  I left the theater happy, and grateful to be surrounded by the culture of a country I love despite its fatal flaws.  I know I wasn’t alone in that sentiment.