Saturday, February 22, 2020

A New Album with Madison Roots to Check Out

                        Rost and Agner practicing to record Violet Cusp, Lori Citro photo
Last week a new album landed in my lap. It’s by Madison pianist Nancy Rost and Washington, D.C. – based bass player Eric Agner, and title is Violet Cusp. That sounds a lot like the hippie album titles of my youth, and there’s some of that feel in its six original tunes. I rarely write about records any more – the blogosphere ain’t what it used to be – but, full disclosure, Rost, who works out of Madison Music Foundry, is my piano teacher. I started playing again after 60 years, and her intuition for what I need to learn – and what songs I should be playing to learn it – has been absolutely spot-on.  So I figured I’d give her EP a spin. 
In a nutshell, Rost and Agner co-wrote, play, and sing lead on all of Violet Cusp’s six tracks; they’re joined by a slate of Baltimore and Madison musicians (details online), and a lot of the exchange took place across the 850 miles separating the nation’s capital from Wisconsin’s.
You can’t pin a genre on this disc. The title track echoes its hippie name – “the guitar part on that tune has a Byrds vibe,” Rost says. “Give You Everything” is folk-rocky, with Bob Dylan-esque vocals. There’s jazzy keyboard work from Rost on “If You Knew Me,” which has gospel undertones; “Ship that Sailed” is a nicely turned, bossa-leaning piece with haunting lyrics; “See You Again” is straight-up soul with a hint of New Orleans and a rhythm that reminds me a lot of Rufus Thomas’s 1965 R&B hit “Walking the Dog.”
Because arts journalism is so meager in this town – and because to grow the arts in Madison, local artists need more exposure than they usually get – I sat down with Rost to get the scoop on Violet Cusp.

CulturalOyster: How did you hook up with a bass player in DC to make an album?

Rost: Eric’s been in music a long time. He plays in several Baltimore bands including one called The Racket – they’re very active there, and he’s also made a couple of songwriter albums under his own name. We met through the February album writing challenge online – it’s an online community where people write fourteen songs in 28 days – on leap years, fourteen and a half!  In 2008 that half was a collaboration I did with Eric and we really liked that first thing we did so we kept writing together although we didn’t meet till three years later. Over time we built up a body of work and finally decided it would be a good idea to make an EP.

CulturalOyster: What’s the process been like?

Rost: Songwriting is what really brings it together.  When we first started he gave me lyrics he didn’t know what to do with, stuff he was writing on his own – rootsy folk rock he wrote for guitar – and I was giving him tunes that had more jazz to them. But the elements I brought fit what he was writing. We write in different ways but everything we did for this album began with his lyrics and my music, though in the process we added each other’s work, too.

CulturalOyster: Why did you name the album for the third track?

Rost: Honestly, it was the most interesting title. It has a nostalgic feel and the song has a lot of nostalgia – we’re both in our 50s and we like the music of our youth – a lot of that comes out in the music we make.  The story behind it is that I had written a song called “Moonless” that had a line about the indigo cusp of July. Eric liked that and he thought I could write a whole song based on that line. So later, when we were working on new songs for the album I said why don’t we write Indigo Cusp, but it just came out Violet. 

CulturalOyster: What was the hardest part about putting the album together?

Rost: Working long distance had its challenges. We met in Washington to lay down the basic tracks, with Baltimore musicians – we had a couple of days to rehearse and one to record – a twelve hour session. It was very concentrated and tiring, but also very exciting.  And then Eric and I both did overdubs from home – I did some by myself and some with Kenny Koeppler at Sound Garden on Atwood. So there are some Madison musicians on the album – Elise Nims, who helps run the Foundry and who’s played in symphony orchestras around the state, plays oboe on one track, and there are Madison-based backup singers on several tracks –Bootsy La Vox, who fronts a David Bowie tribute band, and John Crossman works with me in our acoustic trio Two Johns and a Nancy, and Stephen Lee Rich, who used to be known as a yodeling cowboy.
To make everything work we had to learn to communicate about music with words – and it can be easy to misinterpret. The song “See You Again” has a call-and-response chorus at the end – I tried to explain in words where it needed to go and it got put in the wrong place. It took five or six passes to get everything the way we wanted it, but we just talked and emailed all the time and despite all the complications the sound is really cohesive.

CulturalOyster: What’s the future of the Rost/Agner collaboration?

Rost: I know we’ll continue to collaborate – there’s more to come, but it’s open-ended right now.  We’ll have to wait and see what happens.
__________________________________ interview by SK

Monday, February 17, 2020

Sweet Honey: Healing for Troubled Times

                                    Howard T. Cash photo, courtesy of SHIR website 
Sweet Honey in the Rock is honest and true in a vanishing universe of honest and true things. Last seen in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater a decade ago, the world-famous a capella group of African-American women returns on February 29, Leap Year Day, to Overture Hall, capping Black History Month. The 2020 theme has been African Americans and the Vote, so Sweet Honey’s sweet inspiration is right on time this urgent election year.
                         Carol Maillard. Howard T. Cash photo
  What other musical entity is as deeply enmeshed in our national history as Sweet Honey, whose polyphonic vocal harmonies are born of West Africa, two-plus centuries of Black American music, the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the bitter edges of current events?  If you’re new to Sweet Honey, please take a minute to read about Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the group in 1973 and retired in 2004. There’ve been lots of personnel changes over the years, though the current group of four voices includes Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson, who’ve been  there, on and off, since the beginning. I had the good fortune to interview Maillard on the phone last week.

CulturalOyster: Your website says this is your 45th anniversary tour.  I don’t want to ask about the whole history of the group – that would be a book, or maybe two.  But is there one thing you can say about Sweet Honey that just nails it?

Maillard: Actually we’re in our 46th-47th year.  There’ve been lots of changes.  No one has been with the group for its whole history.  I was in it from ’73 through ’77 and then I was doing my acting career in New York, but every now and then when they needed a substitute I’d come back. And then I came back full time in ’92, so about 27-ish years. 
From experiencing what people say I think we keep going because we bring our energy into the community. Lots of artists have booking powerhouses that organize their tours – we don’t have that. Our fans have a need and they may express it to a theater or an organization to get us to appear there. We’re invited. We get around the world because people ask us to come. That has a lot to do with our longevity and with the spiritual need of the communities we visit. Not a lot of artists have that. The music of the group is a mission – we bring people to awareness of their own voice and power – the things they need to make themselves feel whole. It’s about healing – people heal by speaking up. It is really important. People and communities have a voice, and they need to use it. 

CulturalOyster: You often sing lead. Last time you were here you led one of those rafter-raising, soul clapping, call-and-response gospel tunes that epitomize what I need from music, and I’ve been trying to track it down ever since. All I know to call it is “I’m Goin’ Home One Sweet Day.”  It blew me away – I wrote about it in my year-end review. What is that song?

Maillard: Oh, that’s Thomas A. Dorsey. I’m not sure of the right title. I guess it has two. “If You See My Savior” is one; the other is “Standing by the Bedside of a Neighbor.” That may be the official title. Bernice was the original performer; we recorded it, I think you can find a YouTube video with her singing the lead.

I had an incident once – I had taken over the lead for that song and always introduced it as “Standing by the Bedside of a Neighbor.” We were on the Bobby Jones Gospel Hour on BET and we were talking, I did an interview and then he said “and now Sweet Honey’s gonna sing “If You See My Savior” – he started it with those words and I started singing the second verse, which starts like that, and I didn’t know how to get out of it! I was thinking “you’re not on the right verse, the others are answering you but you’re not in the right part!” All this was going on in my head while I was singing and I finally I busted out laughing. I went “hold it everybody, stop!” We stopped the song and the filming and I said “he started with those words and I’m in the wrong place!” The audieuce fell out laughing! 

CulturalOyster: You released an album, Love in Evolution, in 2016 – that’s the newest one I know of. Since then you’ve been working with a bass player – a guy – Romeir Mendez. How does that change the feel of Sweet Honey?

Maillard: That’s nothing, everybody’s on this earth and we love everybody, we love the proper male energy, I’ll put it that way.  It doesn’t really shift the energy of what we do. Romeir is a wonderful young man, he understood right away he was a complimentary voice. He’s grown and we have grown learning to to work with him. He plays on pitch, and that really does have an effect on us, ‘cause we can sing with each other anywhere, above the notes or below, we just have a way of doing that – the voices are very much a unit. It doesn’t matter if we have the right pitch vibration or not. We have a way of going right where the person leading us goes and we have a tendency to veer, or speed up or slow down – the audiences only hear trained musicians, it sounds great, but the main thing with Romeir is he keeps the pitch and rhythm and he keeps things fresh.

CulturalOyster: We’re living in dark times right now – much different than when you were here in 2011. Your music has always been political – sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, in the uplift you bring to keep us from going down.  So I’m curious – how do the times we’re living in right now influence the repertory you’re working with on this tour?

Maillard: I think a lot of the music the group has done since it’s inception has a timeless feeling. Some of it is very art historical. You call up what you need to help you need to get through and make the next step forward, so sometimes we won’t want to do a particular song, or somebody will say we should bring that song back out because it’s relevant. When you introduce the song, that’s where you can bring it into contemporary times. We are wading in the water right now, and the waters are troubled.

CulturalOyster: I think of your repertory as having two basic threads – there are contemporary, topical songs that address what’s going on in both rhythm / genre and words, and then there’s the deep gospel repertory, as old and primal as dust even when the songs are recent. What unifies these two threads? Or are there more threads, or is there only one?

Maillard:  I think it really is multifaceted. We draw from our culture and our history and we come from people who are resilient and strong. When I think about what our ancestors experienced – that horrifying boat trip – the ones who survived had to learn to protect themselves and we still have to teach our young men and women how to survive in this world, to be aware that anything could happen to you at any time because of who your people are. I think all of us of African descent around the diaspora have come to bless this planet, I’ll just say that. Our struggle inspires our resilience and sometimes we take that for granted but we’re still here and we’re not goin’ nowhere. Everybody needs to calm down and be together and make all that greed and power and racism and sexism and all these things that isolate everyone go away. The world has to become more equal, more tolerable for all people.

CulturalOyster: Is there anything I should have asked but didn’t? 

Maillard: Hmm. We love hearing from fans. Like I said, we really do exist because of the audiences, the people who invite us. We want people to know we’re on social media and we love it when people respond – if they post comments or pictures they take, which we know they’re doing.
And please ask the people of Madison to go out and do something kind, especially for someone they don’t know. Ask a kid at a bus stop how they’re doing.  Tell somebody hey, walk in health. Give a dollar somewhere. It’s a good mantra for us this year, with all this craziness going on.

__________________________________________________ interview by SK

Thursday, October 24, 2019

It's Finally Here -- Pilobolus's Shadowland: The New Adventure

                                                               © Beowolf Sheeha
I’ve been waiting since February 23, 2017 – the day I saw Pilobolus’s Shadowland at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall – for the arrival of Shadowland 2 (The New Adventure).  Finally, it’s here.  Shadowland 2 plays Shannon Hall next Friday, Nov. 1.  I can hardly wait.
Let me explain. I’ve followed dance/theater company Pilobolus – the name, biologically speaking, belongs to a genus of fungi that grow on, well, cow poop – since its beginnings, in the early ‘70s. In the twenty-first century, though, the troupe turned toward TV commercials for financial support, famously putting out an award-winning Hyundai ad in 2006 – a shadow play that became the foundation for Shadowland – and, because I’m a dance snob, I lost interest.
Then Shadowland came to the Union Theater, on that fateful February day, and I fell head-over-heels in love with the production. The story, written by "Spongebob Squarepants" lead writer Steven Banks, with a score by singer/songwriter David Poe, was about a teenage girl transformed into a dog who trots through a series of truly perilous adventures rendered in a mind-blowing mix of shadow and revelation. Shadowland 2 has the same technology, and Banks and Poe had the same roles in putting it together.  Still, I had my doubts.  Could Two possibly be as good as the original?
To get a handle on this show I spent some time on the phone with co-artistic directors Renée Jaworski and Matt Kent, neither of whom was among the collectively run troupe’s original founder/directors (all of them now retired), though both boast long Pilobolus histories. Their enthusiasm was contagious, their approach to dance theater so creative and righteous, that I emerged convinced I’ll love Two, too – maybe even as much as the original.

CulturalOyster: Lets talk about Shadowland: The New Adventure.  It started touring, I think, around the time we saw Shadowland 1 in Madison.  I’m happy to be able to see Two, but I was crazy about One – I could see it again and again, in part because it’s about a dog, and the Shadowland dog was practically a ringer for my own beloved pooch in both looks and spirit. People love and relate closely to dogs – so can the sequel, which is not about a dog, possibly be anywhere near as good as Shadowland 1?  Do audiences love it as much?

Jaworski: It’s different, and what I think people take away is different as well. Shadowland 2 doesn’t have that mushy feeling – what people connect to instead is the need to fight and resist and hold on to your individuality and do the right thing. It’s really a direct commentary on resistance – it’s about what you’re willing to stand up for. 

Kent: It’s a different kind of story than Shadowland 1. It’s about two goofballs trying to survive in a world that wants everyone to be the same. They work in a factory where peole just move boxes – it’s an oppressive work environment, and they have a bully boss.  Even the male lead in the story can’t really muster his power – what elicits the response that leads to change in the heroine is the impulse to nurture, when she finds a magical tiny bird in one of the boxes. It needs her and that makes her stand up – and together they go on a crazy journey.
I will say – to me – this is truly my subjective opinion – in America, Two seems to have connected in a way that One did not. One is a story about coming of age, and it’s pretty dark, but people don’t realize how dark it is. We met a college student once whose girlfriend brought him to the show and the dancers were going on and on about the shadows and dance techniques and the young man said he found it interesting that everyone was applauding as this girl – the dog – was being abused. He hadn’t known that dance could raise questions about abuse. In Shadowland 2 the story is much more direct.

CulturalOyster: Beyond the story, is the technical approach you use in Two similar to what you did with One?

Jaworski: We do use the same approach, but we also have some new tricks up our sleeve. 

CulturalOyster: The special end of Shadowland 1 – the way it was about Madison – was heartfelt, touching, a delight. It made me cry. Do you still do customized endings?

Jaworski: We still make what we call the encores specific to the town – they’re a sort of tribute to the town we’re in.

Kent: People love that so much and we are so blessed to have performers that can do that in every town they go to. They have to put it together the day they’re there.  We really trust these guys to make something great on the spot. There’s this glimmer of fun at the end that people take away, along with the real-world relevance of the show.

Jaworski: It’s sometimes irreverent – and it’s always playful.

Will there be a Shadowland 3?

Jaworski: Never say never.  At this point we’re not sure how long the novelty of it will last.  Other people are doing shadow now.  It might be time for us to innovate again.  We’re always excited to get into the studio and be novices again.  We’re always looking for new ways to work.

Kent: If there was a shadow story that excited us we would do it.  We did Two because there was demand for it. Next time, it would be if we found something to say in that technique.  But right now we’re going in another direction. The next story show we’re working on is a collaboration with [British synth-pop duo] the Petshop Boys and the choreographer [Venezuela-born iconoclast] Javier de Frutos. Steve Banks, who wrote both Shadowlands, also might be involved.

Jaworski: Its working title is Tales from the Underworld. We’re imagining an evening of stories about the underworld – the dark and light of it.

Kent: The company is going to be 50 next year and we’re doing a Big 50 tour – we’re going to be doing the underworld piece for that.  The other thing we’re looking at is going to be about borders and – the wall.  We’ve been working with Nortec Music Collective in Tijuana – the name’s a mashup of norteño and techno.  It’s great – it’s got that techno beat and they play these norteño instruments like accordion and tuba. It’s like being on another planet where nobody owns art or feeling and everybody wants to dance together. 
To get ready for that we’re going to go to border towns and do workshops to make work together. What does it look like to keep someone out, and what does it mean to get into America?  The collaborations on those themes will allow us to show multiple perspectives onstage.
            We’re really excited to try these things.  They’re in the same spirit the company’s always had, but they take us in new directions.  To go out and crowdsource collaborations has limitless potential. It applies the idealism of the ‘70s collaborations that company started out with to contemporary issues. Renée and I are not interested in being museum curators, trying to do pieces made in the past. The old works will be sepia-toned with certain nostalgia – but we want to keep Pilobolus alive and breathing.

__________________________________________________  interview by SK

The day of the show, Pilobolus leads a free movement workshop for people with diverse abilities/disabilities at the Memorial Union’s Festival Room.  The class is limited to 20 – there may still be time to register.  If you’re interested, the person to contact is WUT’s Community and Campus Relations and Engagement Director Esty Dinur:, 608-262-3907

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Maestro and Chanteuse -- Sandoval and Monheit return to Madison next week

Because Madison still isn’t a real city, the legendary trumpet player Arturo Sandoval hasn’t played here since his pre-New Year’s Eve show at Overture Hall in 2007. He returns, to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall, on Friday, October 25, with special guest Jane Monheit, who last sang here, as far as I know, exactly a decade ago. The show’s billed as “Ultimate Duets.” 
Since these artists rarely come through town, we have a lot of catching up to do. Here’s a summary: In 2009 Monheit (who ex-Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddens had once called a “wannabe”) was just stepping into the big leagues with her ninth album, The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me, an eclectic set of standards and mainstream pop. Her most recent record – her eighteenth, recorded (with Nicholas Payton on trumpet) in 2016, when she was 39 – is The Songbook Sessions, a set of tunes from Ella Fitzgerald’s repertory. And on the snowy night of his last Madison appearance Sandoval was touring his fourth Grammy winner, Rumba Palace. Today he’s got ten gilded gramophones, and in 2013 President Barack Obama – oh, how we miss him! – awarded Sandoval, who fled his native Cuba in 1990 while on tour with Dizzy Gillespie, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Sandoval, 70, might be the busiest player in the music business. When I interviewed him in 2007 he was in a cab, rushing to the Miami airport.  This time around we’d had a phone interview set up for an early afternoon slot a couple of weeks ago, but when I dialed his number at the appointed hour he didn’t pick up. I left a voicemail and contacted his manager, who promised to try again – though the very versatile trompetista, who’s written at least twelve film scores, was still tied up in a recording session somewhere in Hollywood.
As I was emailing with his manager, a text came in from Sandoval – he was in a cab on his way to LAX to catch a flight to Croatia. From there he was heading to Brasil; Madison is his first stop after his international tour. “I have a couple of minutes now,” said my iPhone screen.
“OK,” I texted back, “I’m calling.” And that’s how I grabbed another interview-on-the-fly with the maestro.

CulturalOyster: Ultimate Duets, recorded last year, is disc number 44 for you.  I thought it was an album, but it turns out to be a bigger, ongoing concept.  What led you to the idea of doing duets?

Sandoval: Oh, because I never did such a thing before. I thought it’s about time to do something different. I love that almost all of my albums are different – I like to keep my sound as fresh as possible.

CulturalOyster: The duos on the album are with singers I might not expect you to team up with, but I’m a big fan of some of them, Juan Luis Guerra, Stevie Wonder – but the tune that really got me was where you do “Quimbara” with the ghost of Celia Cruz. What did it mean to you to do that?

Sandoval: We extracted only her voice from a live performance she had done. We put everything else – a new big band arrangement – on top of that. You know, I love her. I had the opportunity to play with her a few times. She was a beautiful human being. I felt like if I wanted to do duets she had to be part of it, she had to be there. 

CulturalOyster: You’re teaming up with Jane Monheit for the Madison show.

Sandoval: She’s going to sing some of the songs from the Ultimate Duets album. She’s an excellent singer – very musical, very professional, and I really enjoy working with her. We’ve done duets tours a few times already – this will be the third or fourth time.

CulturalOyster: As far as I know you and Jane haven’t recorded together yet, and there’s no substantial video of the two of you together on YouTube that I can find – so how do you two sound together?

Sandoval: Oh, I prefer to hear the opinion of the audience – my opinion is irrelevant, it’s what people get from it that counts. I hope you will enjoy it. Listen, we are already at the airport, I have to go now.

CulturalOyster: Maestro, thanks for taking my call.

                           _________________________ interview by SK