Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Favorite Shows, 2016

The Blind Boys of Alabama at Shannon Hall  © SKepecs 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Twenty-sixteen, except for Smokey Robinsin getting the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and, of course, the Cubs, was an absolute bust.  The grim reaper took two of my family members this year, yes he did.  And if that’s not enough for one 12-month span, the elephants, emboldened, have stocked the swamp with nitwits and kleptocrats.  It’s enough to drive anyone to binge on booze, pop Prozac like peanuts, or jump head first through the icy shards of late December Lake Mendota. But the arts, without question, are restorative tonics, and here, in no particular order, is what zapped me out of my slump this year: 

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet returned to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall, April 11.  King’s a master deconstructivist who strips the artifice from ballet and renders visible, with his marvelously trained dancers, the full spectrum of its historical, spiritual, spatial, and musical components.  Two major works comprised the bill.  With Concerto for Two Violins (2013), King took the tremendous risk of creating a new ballet to the eponymous Bach score that Balanchine used for his most beloved work, Concerto Barocco (1941).  King’s vibrant, postmodern sense of time and space pushed this ballet toward the future, but it was sprinkled liberally with winking references to the twentieth century masterwork.
While Concerto comes from King’s formalist side, the other piece on the program, Biophony (2015), with its score of natural soundscapes recorded by Bernie Krause, author of the wonderfully titled The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places (Back Bay Books, 2013), was organic, unchained, utterly new – but also very balletic, filled with artifice-less saut de chats, coupe jete turns and pirouettes.  King’s dancers, moving to, through, and around this ecological, endangered score in their diaphanous threads, were like nature spirits – ancient ancestors of the fairies and satyrs from nineteenth century Russian ballets.

Madison Ballet’s had a difficult year, kicked off by a financial fiasco from which the organization’s
Reikersdorfer and Brooks  © Kat Stiennon 2016
still recovering.  But parts of its Oct. 14-15 repertory program at the Bartell, “Black/White,” stood out. Three short pas de deux extracted from Balanchine’s 1946 avant-garde Four Temperaments, set on the company by Balanchine Trust répétiteur Michelle Gifford, are little gems, each revealing a different facet of the master’s revolutionary neoclassical style.  They were impeccably danced by Kristin Hammer and Pablo Sanchez, Annika Reikersdorfer and Jacob Brooks, and Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson – testimony to the company’s resilience.
Also on the “Black/White” bill, “2+3,” an ode to Balanchine by frequent guest choreographer General McArthur Hambrick, popped with movement and light.  And Johnson’s bravura variation in Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith’s “Street" (2013) was a show-stopper.  Johnson swept through space, tossing his hair, whipping off strings of pas de chats en tournant – you could imagine him snorting fire as he flew through the air, like some ancient mythological dancing beast.

The great Cuban flautista Orlando “Maraca” Valle and his Latin Jazz All Stars played Overture’s Capitol Theater on Oct 7, proving, as always, that there’s no music like Cuban music, even when it
Press photo courtesy of Descarga Productions
comes from an international lineup.  And what a lineup it was – besides Maraca, Steve Turre on trumpet and conch shells, Robby Ameen on drums, Orlando Poleo on congas, Mario Canonge on piano.
There were a couple of small flies in the ointment.  Milwaukee homeboy Brian Lynch, who was listed on trumpet, didn’t make it – flights out of Miami, where he teaches, were suspended due to Hurricane Matthew.  It’s almost not Cuban if there’s no trumpet, but the rest of the players had so much saoco it turned out OK.   And the first set suffered from an unfortunate sound mix – why does Overture always over-mike?  
Nevertheless the All Stars played some sexy tunes, mostly Maraca’s own compositions – “Afro,” “Balada de Marzo,” “Danzon Siglo XXI.”  And the second set – sound problems resolved – was pure bliss: a long, lush fusion á la Emiliano Salvador; an inspired arrangement of Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” with Turre on shells; and, for the finale, the perfect homage to Cuba’s most famous, longest-lived charanga, Orquesta Aragon – “Guajira con Tumbao.”  A bailar.

The performance by the Blind Boys of Alabama with emerging gospel / R&B singer Liz Vice, at Wisconsin Union Theater's Shannon Hall on Dec. 1, was transformative. Vice and and her backup band on this tour (Jackie Miclau on piano, Derek Winkley on drums) were a surprise – a triple whammy of sparkling new talent. Vice, who started out in film, is a natural-born backbeat diva.  She plied her rich alto pipes on a selection of tunes from her sole album to date, There is a Light (Ramseur Records, 2015), her songs interspersed with simpatico stories about her unexpected career in music.
The Blind Boys themselves – their origins date to 1939 – are deacons of R&B-imbued, old fashioned hard gospel.  Only one of the original Blind Boys, Jimmy Carter, 85, wearing dark shades and a burnished aura of revered elder leadership, still tours with the band.  “I don’t know about you, but the Blind Boys came out here to have a good time tonight!  I gotta get up!  Do you feel it?  If you feel it lemme hear you say yeah!  Alright!” he exhorts the crowd.
The rest of the Blind Boys cross-cut generations, but their old school sound – the harmonies, the falsetto, the call and response, the sheer, wailing joy – is the mother of black American music.

Ben Sidran’s Salon for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats, and Freethinkers – in its sixth year at the Cardinal Bar, Tuesday happy hours June / August – has become one of the city’s great
Sidran's Salon  © SKepecs 2016
traditions, featuring a quartet of top-tier players: Sidran on keys, Nick Moran on bass, Louka Patenaude on guitar and Todd Hammes on percussion.  “We’re beyond politics this year,” Sidran says, announcing the philosophical shape of this summer’s salon.  “It’s all existentialism now.  The situation we have today, the most radical thing we can do is be happy.” 
The 2016 playlist was based on Sidran’s about-to-be-released album, Picture Him Happy, which I think you can only get at  These are songs in pure groove, edged with razor-sharp intellect.  Most were penned by Sidran, though Leo Sidran co-wrote one, and a couple are by Mose Allison, who died this fall.  The lyrics hit on Mose, Sisyphus, Trump, and the ‘60s, epitomized in a tune called “College” that tells the true story of the graying intellectuals packed into the Cardinal’s back room, boppin’ their heads, tappin’ their feet. 

As usual, the Cardinal, that bright Bird of happiness, hosted more musical magic than anyplace else in town, so here’s what else made my Greatest Hits list this year.  On April 15, New York- based tenor saxophonist Russ Nolan had a CD release party for his fourth album, Sanctuary from the Ordinary, on his own Rhinoceruss label.  With Nolan were Madison-based jazzmen Johannes
Russ Nolan at the Bird  © SKepecs 2016
Wallmann on keys, John Christensen on bass and Keith Lienert on drums.  I caught an echo of something loved and familiar in the set of agile, Latin-inspired fusions this quartet put out, and I asked Nolan if he could play a tribute to Argentinian saxman Gato Barbieri, who died two weeks prior.  “I don’t do ‘Europa,’” Nolan said, referring to Barbieri’s most famous track, the tune actually written by Carlos Santana.  “But I’ll do something Gato-like.”  I can’t name the tune he played – one of his own compositions – but it was sabrosísimo, y super bailable.
Golpe Tierra  © SKepecs 2016
Afro-Peruvian outfit Golpe Tierra didn’t play much in 2016, since cantante / cajonero Juanxo Martínez spends a lot of time in Spain these days.  But fans of the band’s earthy, complex cumbias and landós were euphoric on Oct. 16, when Martínez, Nick Moran on bass, Richard Hildner on guitar, and, this time, Tony Barba on sax, returned to the Bird.
Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Quartet © SKepecs 2016
The Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Quartet – Castañeda on congas, Dave Stoler on keys, Henry Boehm on bass, Anders Svanoe on saxes – regularly plays happy hour at the Cardinal on first Fridays.  Castañeda and company cook up the real thing, straight from the heart – the clave-based sound of the Latin street. 
The Bill Roberts combo with Bob Corbit on sax played its good-time jitterbug blues at several Cardinal happy hours this year.  On May 27, halfway through their second set, Hanah Jon Taylor showed up, instruments in hand.  And so it came to pass that two consummate saxmen engaged in a spectacular sax showdown, challenging each other to go bluer, swing higher.  And that’s the truth. 

Taylor (L) and Corbit  © SKepecs 2016

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