Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Economy, The Arts, and The Best of 2012

by Susan Kepecs
We’re falling off the fiscal cliff, only to face off with the debt ceiling leering up at us from the bottom. I blame it on Boehner, and GOP intransigence, but Obama – who just last week offered to limit cost of living adjustments to Social Security – desperately needs new talking points.  According to the historical sociologists we’re at the bottom of a 40 to 60-year economic cycle called the Kondratieff wave, named for the early twentieth-century Russian economist who first mapped out this repetitive pattern.  K-waves rise and decline on technological innovation.  The automobile wave cranked up in 1915; the IT wave started in ’70. Count it out. If long-term history’s any judge the only way the economy will rise again is if we invest heavily in new technology, setting off a brand-new boom.  I’d vote for ending oil and gas subsidies and re-tooling industry for green energy, wouldn’t you?
Meanwhile, the arts (and science – did you notice that Chicago’s Field Museum is slashing its research budget for 2013? are on a long, bumpy ride.  Thanks to the Overture Center’s ongoing slump that institution’s all but eliminated edgy programming in favor of Broadway touring productions and other mainstream pablum.  Not that it’s all bad – I enjoyed Jersey Boys (Overture Hall, Nov. 7-25) – but it means there’s less jazz, dance performance, and everything else I usually review.  Combine that with what the New York Times cleverly called the “Edifice Complex” on college campuses ( – the Wisconsin Union Theater’s been shut down for mammoth remodeling since May, and the smaller venues at its disposal till it reopens in fall, ’04, limit its possibilities – and you get a fairly thin year for the performing arts in Madison.  I attended fewer events than usual this year, and some of them were underwhelming.  
                    © SKepecs 2012
Instead of a top ten, I offer my super seven.  For the first time ever there’s only one dance performance on my best-of list – Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker (Overture Hall, Dec. 15-24).  Not because I love the holiday ballet (I don’t), but because this company has grown into a real a city treasure.  So much so, in fact, that despite the stagnant economy Madison Ballet is growing. The number of dancers in residence has increased.  For the first time since the Crash of ’08 Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker score was live (by the Madison Symphony Orchestra) rather than canned. And the company, which staged this sole production in 2012, has two new shows ( slated for spring. 
But six musical treats, all of which you can read more about by skimming CulturalOyster’s 2012 posts, deserve rave reviews.  In no particular order, they are:

                                                                   © SKepecs 2012
Ben Sidran’s Salon for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats and Freethinkers, Tuesday afternoons at the Cardinal Bar from June (the first one was on Recall night) through August.  The weekly event brought out most of the city’s hippest grownups, plus a few very illustrious out of town guests.  Sidran’s intellectually and politically engaged talking hippie bebop blues – balm for the soul in the balmy, brain-scrambling summer of ’12 – put a backbeat on everything from Paul Ryan’s hypocrisy to the Higgs boson discovery, while his cosmic local quartet (Sidran on keys, Nick Moran on bass, Louka Patenaude on guitar and Todd Hammes on percussion) workshopped a set of brand new tunes for Sidran’s next album, Don’t Cry for no Hipster, due out (according to next month.

                                                                 © SKepecs 2012
Sierra Maestra, Wisconsin Union Theater at Memorial Union’s Great Hall, March 23.  The saviors of Cuban son, a nonet of major players straight from Havana, served up their celestial old-school tunes with extra saoco despite the iffy sound system in the venerable old space.  Some of the intricacies of this immortal music were muffled, but audience enthusiasm was far from dampened.  Classic guaracha and son montuno, mostly off the band’s latest album, Sonando Ya (SASA Music, 2010), morphed into monster descargas featuring jazzy flights of fancy anclados en clave, to the dancers’ delight. 

                                                               © SKepecs 2012
The Ninety Miles Project, Wisconsin Union Theater at Music Hall, Nov. 29.  Saxman Davíd Sánchez, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and vibraphonist Stefon Harris – players at the pinnacle of today’s bop – put together a lush and fluid pan-Afro-Latin sound.  Sometimes modal, quiet, slow and textured (Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way came to mind more than once), sometimes bright neo-bop, even occasionally almost classical, Ninety Miles was the epitome of new American music. Harris, mallets flying, scatted barely heard vocals as he plied his vibes.  Payton’s wailing, dissonant blues raised the spirits of history’s trumpet masters.  Sánchez, leaning back with iconic saxman attitude and dancing with his horn blew sweet, mournful solos.  Except when Cuban percussionist Mauricio Herrera called up the orishas to start the show, and once when Sánchez himself clapped out the clave – and for a guageo or two on the piano – the stellar Afro-Latin percussion section ran rumba, bomba, blues and subtler beats well beneath the melodic lines, leaving the three stunning frontmen free to find the abstract truth behind familiar rhythmic forms.

                                                        Fleck and Roberts         © SKepecs 2012
Bela Fleck’s on my list twice – first, for the sheer joy of the Original Flecktones reunion (Wisconsin Union Theater, March 1), featuring the return of Howard Levy on keyboards and harmonica, along with the triumvirate of Fleck, Futureman and Victor Wooten, and again with pianist Marcus Roberts and his superb, sophisticated straight-ahead trio (Rodney Jordan on bass, Jason Marsalis on drums) – a True Endeavors/Frank Production on Oct. 16 at Overture’s Capitol Theater.  The result of this latter, unlikely mix was both old-timey and new, a smooth and swingin’ blues / bebop / bluegrass groove. The harmonic convergence of banjo and piano was surprising, lighthearted and masterful, all at once. 

                                                                 © SKepecs 2012
Last but not least, El Clan Destino vive!  After its semi-hiatus the last several years this quartet of mighty Mad City musicos (Nick Moran on bass, Vince Fuh on keys, Frank Martínez on drums and Yorel Lashley on percussion) made a dazzling comeback at the Cardinal Bar -- check the Cardinal calendar  ( for this band’s sporadic Friday Happy Hour sets.  Clan Destino’s infinitely bailable, unbeatably brainy Afro-Cuban rock n’ roll jazz gets my 2012 Sabor Award.

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