Special guests from the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Performing Arts were welcome as the openers at Summerstage for the Martha Graham Dance Company on July 24th 2013. The MACPA dance trio, clad in white, performed a piece called “If”, choreographed by Maeghan McHale, that was somewhat brief, but given the importance of the 90-year-old MGDC, that was understandable. The interesting performances scheduled by the MGDC were (in order) “Acts of Light” from 1981, “Lamentation Variations” (from the 1930 work) and “Chronicle” from 1936. The red costumes worn by the dancers in the first piece fueled the “lovers” desires, and you could see the passion on their faces. On the flip side, the costumes for the “Chronicle” piece evoked militaristic themes in their stark black or white scheme and there were a few moments at the beginning when I thought of Stormtroopers (from Star War, though the color distribution was flipped). Given that the piece is described as “Graham’s stirring response to the rise of fascism in 1936 and to the unmatched power of the collective will”, its fitting that I thought of the (fictional) empire. Overall it was a nice evening and a nice way to catch something different, one of the great things Summerstage promises.
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On August 17, 1959, Columbia Records issued what would become one of the best-selling and most influential recordings in jazz. Over the next half-century, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, featuring a cadre of up and coming jazz stars including those named Coltrane, Evans, and Cannonball, wriggled its way into nearly every aspect of popular culture—filling in the backgrounds of numerous movies and TV shows, seeping into the music collections of every romantically-inclined college student, and rising to the top of countless all-time greatest lists. As Ashley Kahn describes, in the introduction to his excellent and exhaustive book, Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, people seem to vividly remember the first time they heard Kind of Blue in the same way that they remember significant life events. The album means that much—to jazz, to music, to popular culture, and to history.
It’s no surprise, then, that the centerpiece for the 41st Barcelona International Jazz Festival should be the 50th anniversary of this landmark piece of American musical history, with a number of musical tributes by artists from around the globe. The most significant of these tributes in the month-long festival was the November 9 concert by drummer Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band.
Cobb, at 80 years of age and the only musician from the Kind of Blue sessions that is still living today, is perhaps the least known of the album’s legendary cast of stars. Whether due to personal style or personality, or simply due to the enormous personalities of Davis and his other bandmates, Cobb’s stick work on Kind of Blue is the least discussed and most underrated piece of the album’s deceptively simple musical puzzle. In hindsight, Cobb seems like the only true choice for Kind of Blue. His subtle, subdued polyrhythms, exquisite brushwork, and lockstep time-keeping are the record’s bedrock, the foundation from which all the magic takes place.
The grand setting for Cobb’s performace was a perfect match for Kind of Blue. The Palau de la Música Catalana is perhaps the most stunning Modernista edifice in a city teeming with them. The ceiling, with its myriad stained glass faces, threatens to drop like a single tear onto the eager audience. Brightly colored tile mosaics sweep across the theater’s walls, insulating you from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona’s neon nightlife. An enormous stampede of horses hangs ominously over the stage. All in all, it’s the perfect stage on which to take stock of a jazz masterpiece.
Despite a perfect setting, an eager audience, and superior musicians, the actual concert, entitled “Kind of Blue @ 50”—which started with an up tempo version of “So What”, ended with Davis’s arrangement of the Thelonius Monk standard “‘Round Midnight”, and included by-the-book versions of the four remaining tunes on Kind of Blue—was forgettable. The star-studded band—Buster Williams on bass, Larry Willis on piano, Javon Jackson on tenor saxophone, Vincent Herring on alto saxophone, Wallace Roney on trumpet, and Cobb on drums—was never completely in sync, and seemed genuinely afraid to explore Davis’s sparse compositions. “So What” and “All Blues” felt rushed. Transitions between solos on the remaining tunes were shaky, especially considering these musicians have been performing these songs together since May.
Throughout the concert, Roney, Jackson, and Herring would walk to the side of the enormous stage whenever they weren’t playing, and these roundtrips distracted from the music, which most of us are used to hearing in clubs with no stage at all or lounges with stages barely big enough to fit six musicians. Only Roney’s work on “Blue in Green” and Cobb’s solo on “Flamenco Sketches”—his only solo of the night—seemed to exude passion for the music. None of the musicians addressed the audience in the sold out hall until the 90-minute show’s conclusion, when the fit-looking Cobb, dressed in suspenders and a baseball cap, sheepishly thanked the audience for its extended ovation. There were no stories from Roney about his studies with Davis in the ‘80s, from Jackson about the influence Davis’s music has had on his playing, or from Cobb about working with Davis during the Kind of Blue sessions. Perhaps fittingly, there was just the music.
In hindsight, any performance of Kind of Blue, especially one that closely adheres to the album’s arrangements, is bound to be disappointing. As listeners, we’ve had 50 years to inhale every note, every harmony, every chord change (of which there are comparatively few) on the recording. Even the mistakes—those glorious missteps—like Davis’s apparent slip-up 2 minutes and 13 seconds into “So What”, have come to be cherished and attributed to musicians finding their footing on the wholly new and rocky terrain of what would come to be called modal jazz, what would lay the ground work for the free jazz and fusion and jam bands and classical minimalists and movie music to come. So it seems unlikely that any performance of the music on Kind of Blue could live up to the original recording—the best a musician can do, and what Cobb’s band certainly accomplished, is to evoke in the listener that feeling that he or she had when he or she first heard Chambers’s introductory bass phrase on “So What” as recorded way back in 1959. And at the end of the night at the Palau de la Música Catalana, uproarious applause rained down upon not a performance, but the artistic legacy of what one musician and his bandmates did some 50 years ago.
For the last decade the city of Chicago, and the Chicago Cultural Center, has devoted a week to showcasing an array of international music. Appropriately titled the Chicago World Music Festival, the event attracts musicians from around the world to local Chicago venues, spreading diverse and unique music across the city. This year 55 performances were featured at 21 venues citywide.
On September 23rd I attended one of the performances at Martyr’s, a bar on Chicago’s near-north side. On the bill was Rahim Alhaj of Iraq/USA, and Hanggai from China/Mongolia/UK. I had no idea what to expect.
I arrived at Martyr’s halfway through Alhaj’s set. The bar’s main floor, which is usually open, was lined with tables, chairs, and stools and every seat was occupied as people began to congregate around the perimeter of the bar. The room was dimly lit with candles on every table; the audience was absolutely silent, completely mesmerized by Alhaj’s playing.
As Alhaj performed original and traditional compositions on the oud, a fretless pear-shaped string instrument, he told stories of music and exile in Iraq. His strumming was completely beautiful and full of feeling. In between songs Alhaj interacted with the crowd, asking them to keep a clapping beat and follow specific rhythms which he accompanied.
After a quick stage change it was Hanggai’s turn. Decked out in colorful robes, Hanggai blew the crowd away almost immediately. Consisting of five members from Beijing, the band played a mixture of traditional Chinese instruments and western rock instruments: electric guitar, electric bass, acoustic guitar, a standard drum kit, a tobshurr (a strummed two-stringed lute), and a horse-hair fiddle called a morin khuur. The band’s repertoire was inspired by native Mongolian folk traditions and rock music, resulting in reinterpreted traditionals from their indigenous grasslands. Songs covered themes of ancient traditions, especially the importance of protecting them, “playing, singing and drinking,” and the humor of love. Performed compositions included: “Drinking Song,” “Borulai Lullaby,” and “My Banjo and I.”
Topping off Hanggai’s beautiful melodies was a combination of crooning and hoomei, a traditional throat-singing technique. The music was truly transcendent, encompassing the power to carry the listener to a different place. In between songs the band frequently expressed their gratitude and appreciation for being a part of the festival and the excitement of performing and visting America for the first time.
Their set ended with a standing, cheering and whistling ovation from the audience. The crowd’s calls were answered with an encore with solo throat singing accompanied by the morin khuur. The full band eventually returned to stage, which prompted several audience members to get out of their seats, dance and cheer Hanggai on.
The Little Dog Laughed appeared two years ago on Broadway to great acclaim, and was heralded as a tight and enthralling comedic endeavor and described as a play about the ills—and wonders—of the entertainment industry. It is undeniably an impeccably written show filled with the kind of lines that simply require straight-faced genuine delivery to illicit laughter. But often, it is the kind of laughter that comes when we recognize an important and uncomfortable truth, not necessarily something outright funny. With each actor fully utilizing the richness of these moments, the production of the Little Dog Laughed at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in Cape Cod, directed by Daisy Walker, seemed to reveal as much about basic human nature as it did about the entertainment business.
The play, by Douglas Carter Beane, features cutthroat agent Diane, played with passion, enthusiasm and myopic devotion by Elizabeth Atkeson, who fears her client, rising star Mitchell, will destroy his career by failing to hide his “recurring case of homosexuality.” While in New York for an award’s ceremony, Mitchell becomes romantically involved with a young male prostitute, Alex, who has a sort-of girlfriend, Ellen (Stacy Fischer) but is, in reality, grappling with his own sexuality and falling very hard for Mitchell.
Much has changed politically and socially since the play first appeared on Broadway in 2006, and for that reason, Diane’s heartless insistence that homosexuality is a career-breaker is even more startling. Her character is also a lesbian, and her point of view is made all the more chilling because of Atkeson’s impeccable commitment to the whole truth of her role. Her seamless transitions between a woman who grasps the nuances of human nature better than Jung and power-hungry business without the faintest concern for another human provide the greatest elements of humor in the role. She never once tries to play funny, and is thus captivating.
As Mitchell, Robert Kropf, is so unassuming and charmingly tentative that we almost forget that he, and his character, are actors. His deliberations and waffling make it hard to judge him and make the moments when he jumps into “actor-mode” all the more chilling. The irony is that is Mitchell’s true self is as single-mindedly self-absorbed as Diane’s; his human moments are folly. He’s mirrored by David Nelson as Alex, who enters the stage smooth and aloof, and literally unfolds on a clear, visible and enveloping trajectory throughout the play.
Nelson’s ability to represent these changes both physically and vocally provides the play’s clearest arc, pushing him into the role of main protagonist by the end. He serves as perfect complement as Atkeson, who pulls the audience into her tornado of determination but refuses to budge for anyone or anything. Ultimately, her commitment, as misguided as it is, makes her the only character with integrity.
Under Walker’s direction, all actors make great use of the sleek, modern set, designed by Kevin Judge, which represents a hotel room, restaurants, offices, subways and a grungy apartment in Williamsburg. The hotel room is the featured section, and is done with perfect realism, down the to mini bar. Its vitality makes is easier to believe that two simple stairs downstage represent a subway car. Atkeson’s mobile phone headset, and her fierce concentration make us willing to believe she is New York, LA, on a side walk or a boardroom without much questioning. Overall, Walker has pulled together a remarkably tight piece of regional theater.
And perhaps the intimacy of the setting allowed for even more exploration of the plays nuances. It was consistently funny, but held sadness and sacrifice waiting in the wings at all times. The show’s ability to carry such complexity represents great achievement, commitment and talent from all involved.
// Notes from the Road
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