Sunday, September 24, 2017

America's diva lends elegance and sparkle to ISO's Opening Night Gala concert

It's not often that a serious new work is the main feature of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's annual Opening Night Gala
Renee Fleming, known the world over, made her local debut Sunday.
concert, but so it was Sunday evening when Renee Fleming sang a three-year-old song cycle by Kevin Puts, "Letters from Georgia."

The 45-year-old composer was in attendance for the local premiere of his setting of letters by the 20th-century master painter Georgia O'Keeffe. Beforehand, he was brought onstage for a brief conversation about his composition with conductor Krzysztof Urbanski, who must be credited with having achieved a heightened comfort level speaking to audiences from the stage as he begins his seventh season as ISO music director.

It was remarkable from the Hilbert Circle Theatre concert's first notes that the orchestra was in a mood to bring an extra glow to songlike music. The aura of the guest star must have been working to account for the lyrical portions of Leonard Bernstein's Overture to "Candide" having such a firm, blossoming sound. Not that the dominating peppiness of the much-loved piece was absent, but a collective, coordinated relaxation into the work's melodic richness was evident.

Moments of lyricism impelled from within fill the five-part cycle. They helped establish the atmosphere of O'Keeffe's beloved Southwest in the first song, "Taos." The composer's subtlety in broadening the texture, sometimes thinning it out to encompass paradoxically both breathlessness and deep breathing, is displayed again and again. In "Taos," the lengthened phrases of "I just feel so like expanding here — way out to the horizon" were given sufficient amplitude by the soprano soloist and from the podium.

There were many touches of humor in "Violin," when the artist confides her roughness practicing that instrument, an offhand confession underlined by scratchy solos in this performance by Zach De Pue, who was probably thinking back to the grin-and-scratch directive under which he performed as a five- and six-year-old with the family band.

When putting some anxiety into his music, Puts shows restraint. There's a large, swelling sound from the soloist that Fleming handled smoothly at the start of "Ache," the third movement. And, without shifting the mood, dialing back the accompaniment to a piano in the second paragraph of O'Keeffe's love letter worked very well. Then the stage is set for a natural gathering of intensity as the movement reaches its climax.

"Friends," the penultimate song, is fully understated in its projection of loneliness, with brief solo passages for De Pue (this time allowed to move beyond scratching to his customary lyrical aplomb) reinforcing the feeling of isolation. The movement ends with quietly interwoven clarinets, wondrously played in this concert. "Canyon" is a finale without any obvious feeling of triumph, yet it ascends to convey the artist's seasoned acceptance of life's fragility amid the inexhaustible beauties of sky and prairie.

The ISO's fitness for the occasion was further signaled in its adept coloring of the many exciting contrasts of texture and feeling in Verdi's Overture to "La Forza del Destino." Again, the swooning episodes were vividly rendered, making the storm-and-stress portions sound all the more invigorated.

The Verdi served to enable Fleming to rest a little after the Puts work and to change gowns. She continued to make a firm impression in three selections from other Italian opera composers: Arrigo Boito, Giacomo Puccini, and Ruggero Leoncavallo.

The distracted mental state of Marguerite in "L'altra notte in fondo al mare" from "Mefistofele" was precisely projected, as the aria showed off the expressive weight of Fleming's low register. "O mio babbino caro" from "Gianni Schicchi" brought out an amazingly girlish sound from the 58-year-old soloist, ending with a marvelously held "pieta." After a picturesque rendition of Leoncavallo's "Mattinata," it was time for some encores.

Fleming was generous in response to the tumultuous ovation. The Song to the Moon from Dvorak's "Rusalka" was wistful and crystalline, and "I Could Have Danced All Night" paid a forward tribute to Fleming's Broadway debut next year, with the soloist enveloping the hall in extra charm as she invited an audience singalong.

But the biggest pleasant surprise of the evening was her imaginative take on Gershwin's "Summertime," with some variation on the original line quite appropriate to the idiom. Her phrasing was exquisite, especially near the end, when I detected from Urbanski's body language that he was as blown away by her performance as I was.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra adds to its distinguished record with the premiere of 'The Gennett Suite'

Over its 23 years of existence, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra has accumulated an impressive record as a repertory band with a difference — an ensemble with as much in the way of creative as re-creative credentials.

The latest in its too infrequent schedule of concert appearances came Friday night at Indiana Landmarks Center on the penultimate day of the 2017 Indy Jazz Fest. Brent Wallarab, the co-founder and chief arranger, conducted the first performance of "The Gennett Suite," a celebration of a historically significant record label based in Richmond, Indiana. The outgrowth of the Starr Piano Factory, Gennett in its heyday also had a New York studio (Duke Ellington was among the future stars to have recorded there). Yet the discography of its home studio in the eastern Indiana town is quite distinguished on its own.

It was that activity in the early to mid-1920s that is highlighted in Wallarab's stunning three-movement suite, which puts some
Mark Buselli directs jazz studies at Ball State University.
of Gennett's famous first recordings in totally new contexts, with tight harmonies, a smattering of dissonance, and occasional bitonality. Because the first Gennett issues came in 1917, Wallarab's suite is primarily a centennial tribute to an early label, short-lived but significant; the updating of the Gennett sound is of course an unquestionably right decision.

The year 1917 turned out to be an important milestone for jazz, worth observing 100 years later. Not only were Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Ella Fitzgerald born in 1917, but Storyville (New Orleans' red-light district) was closed down then, prompting a migration of important musicians northward, where they established themselves in Chicago. Among them were Joe "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong, making the recording opportunity Gennett extended to them practicable. Indiana-based musicians were also attracted to the opportunity to get their music preserved nearby while it was fresh.

Retired as a professional trombonist, Brent Wallarab focuses on  arranging and education.
Coincidentally, since our subject is recording, the first jazz record was made in January 1917 in New York, by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. A cut-up sort of ensemble whose legacy was tarnished by one of its leaders' inaccurate and probably racist claim that jazz itself originated with him and his colleagues, the ODJB today is practically a footnote in jazz history.

The whole matter of race and the "invention" of jazz is also clouded by the stance of Jelly Roll Morton, who is honored in the third and concluding movement of "The Gennett Suite." Morton's importance to jazz far exceeds the ODJB's, but as a proud Creole and reflective of New Orleans' virtual caste system, he was disdainful of black musicians. And he, too, thought he had invented jazz.

Gennett specifically marketed some of its product as "race records," and thus (unsurprisingly) there's no escaping the role of race in the popular arts, marketing divisions and so many other kinds of division in American society.

Now that Jelly Roll has come up, let's start with that finale, which involved fleshing out two famous Morton tunes from the piano solos that Gennett recorded on two successive days in July 1923. It's one of the particularly inspired portions of the suite. The slowing down of "King Porter Stomp," permitting the opportunity for the arrangement to build from Luke Gillespie's opening solo, was a great stroke. A hint of the heat to be put under the arrangement at its climax came in Rich Dole's glowing trombone solo. Jeff Conrad's muted trumpet solo and some soaring work by Tom Walsh on soprano sax were further high points. Then all was prepared for the last tune, "Grandpa's Spells," to bring the whole suite to a brilliant end, capped by a tense pause followed by a couple of full-ensemble blasts.

Walsh had another exciting solo in the first movement, Part 2, on "Chimes Blues," with a pertinent use of "stop-time" ensemble work, in which the tempo is maintained with regular ensemble punctuation behind the soloist marking the way forward. The wonderful band buildup behind Walsh's dialogue with trumpeter Jeff Conrad included duetting imitation and contrast. Part 3 also had some impressive soloing in dialogue, from trombonists Brennan John and Tim Coffman. The vehicle was the evergreen "Dippermouth Blues."

From the first, it was clear that Wallarab would want to do more than bring forward old music spookily preserved in musical formaldehyde. The creative arranging that has contributed so much to the stature of the BWJO — and the eagerness of many musicians over the years to participate in it — was fully in evidence in "The Gennett Suite." Interplay among the sections sometimes involved real counterpoint, with lines poised against each other more than momentarily. No inspiration was allowed to get stagnant through repetition or the manipulation of cliches. The listener was able to find bursts of familiarity continually enlivened by new contexts.

Wallarab told me after the concert that further performances of "The Gennett Suite" are not scheduled, and no recording is planned. His hopes lie in that direction, of course, and so presumably do those of many who heard the premiere Friday night. At least some sense of the permanence of Wallarab's contributions to jazz in the area, and those of his colleague and BWJO co-founder Buselli, was provided to the appreciative crowd by the induction of both men into the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Not quite for kids, Phoenix's 'Fun Home' is still a family show for all kinds of families

The saddest stage of memory loss is probably when family memories disappear. It's a sure bet you'll be able to test your hold on your
Alison at work on words and drawings from life.
own — the good ones and bad ones alike —  if you go to "Fun Home," the award-winning musical now making its local debut in a Phoenix Theatre production.

The unique appeal of this show is that its evocation of family life is specific, even peculiar, and at the same time contains so many circumstances of family life in general to speak to. Based on the graphic novel of the same title by Alison Bechdel, "Fun Home" is set in a small Pennsylvania town. Provincialism provides ballast for the risky cosmopolitanism of Bruce and Helen's marriage, but also exposes its fault lines. Bruce is a pillar of the community — a whiz at home restoration, a high-school teacher, and the proprietor of a funeral home. He's also subject to fits of temper and more damaging difficulties with self-control.

Bechdel's autobiographical narrative, focusing on what she learned about herself and her parents' troubled relationship, is shot through with her artistic as well as personal development. This has landed her in the thumbnail-sketch position of "lesbian cartoonist," as she sums up at one point when contrasting herself with her father. They are alike in both harboring same-sex attraction and thus struggling to resolve identity issues.

Alison's resolution occurs in college; Bruce's never arrives, from which difficulty his tragedy ensues. To give depth to this story, with its layers of mystery and revelation, Alison is given threefold representation. Small Alison displays the rambunctious tomboy, sensing her orientation early; Medium Alison is a college freshman resisting who she is and dreading coming out to parents she sees as repressed (Helen) and controlling (Bruce).

The design of the show is winning, because the significance of art and the powers of observation that an artistic sensibility requires provide framework, impetus, and setting for Alison's maturation. Lisa Kron's book balances the stages of Alison's awareness adroitly; the three-way division of the character allows the mature Alison to observe and comment on her younger selves. Her awareness of Bruce's hidden life becomes part of her insistence on establishing personal integrity. That project never took hold in the divided consciousness of her father.

Phoenix founding member Suzanne Fleenor directs the production, which benefits immeasurably from Cynthia Collins' portrayal of Alison. On opening night Thursday, Collins wore Alison's years of painful and triumphant self-knowledge authentically. Experience, ultimately liberating but sporadically shattering, seemed etched in her face. Kron had the brilliant notion to cross the temporal planes at one point so that the middle-aged Alison is riding in a car driven by her father in place of the Medium Alison she was at the time, hoping for a frank talk with Bruce about sexual identity. The full ache of this unsatisfactory conversation came through in the scene, keyed to the song "Telephone Wire."

The songs (by Kron and Jeanine Tesori), with accompaniment by an ensemble upstage and aloft, reflected well both the intimate and exuberant moments of this peculiar household's life, carried out in a museum-like setting keenly represented here by Jim Ream's elaborate, looming set. The  musical style is a mix of arioso and set-piece songs, quite well-paced and able to highlight the emotional temperature of the action at every point.

Though many songs that can stand alone have come from the musical stage, I prefer to receive them as necessarily embedded in the drama and serving as integral a purpose as, say, the set and lighting (credit to Jeffery Martin here). So, one reason why the show's hit "Ring of Keys" works so well as Small Allison's wide-eyed prepubescent realization of her identity is that the melodic line has little pauses before each item the budding lesbian cartoonist admires about the deliverywoman she sees one day. What she sees and what she feels are well-joined in "Ring of Keys." The song serves the drama impeccably. Its rendition opening night by Amelia Wray was, like her whole performance, winning in every phrase, gesture, and facial expression.

Centering Ivy Moody's performance as Medium Alison was another ideally placed song, "Changing My Major," an ecstatic celebration of first love. Something about the staging here, however, was a little off-putting. The college student's new girlfriend, Joan (given worldly wise acuity by Teneh B.C. Karimu) was partly in view on the bed behind Medium Allison; the unevenly covering blanket may have been an accident. In any case, it seems to me we should hardly have been aware of the actual Joan so that we could sink into Medium Allison's erotically charged description of her.

The songs reach deeply into the characters, such as Helen's "Days and Days" (strongly rendered by Emily Ristine) and Bruce's "Edges of the World" (a high point of Eric J. Olson's performance). They also take detours into pizazz, such as the three kids' mock commercial "Come to the Fun Home" and the full-company fantasy production number, "Raincoat of Love." Kron and Tesori give their regards to Broadway just enough, stopping short of anything that would  undercut Alison Bechdel's absorbing story. This virtue is capped by the beautiful trio that ends "Fun Home," sung by the three Alisons. With their arms spread wide, you are likely to feel they are inviting you to spread your arms as well — if only in memory.

{Photo by Ed Stewart]

Thursday, September 21, 2017

'Loyal Cuban guy' proud of his American success as 'straight-ahead jazz drummer' makes Indy Jazz Fest visit

Ignacio Berroa spent ten years as Dizzy Gillespie's drummer — a hiring milestone for the superstar musician who had long the Jazz Kitchen,  Gillespie didn't engage him to play Latin percussion, but to be the sole man behind the trap set driving his band no matter what the musical idiom.
Ignacio Berroa focuses fruitfully at the Jazz Kitchen.
cultivated the fusion of Cuban music and bebop. As Berroa put it plainly Wednesday night when he brought his Cubop Quintet to

In its short first set as part of the 2017 Indy Jazz Fest, the quintet sailed through a half-dozen tunes associated with Gillespie, who came into his own with the birth of bebop in the 1940s and remained active until shortly before his death in 1993. Near the end, as was clear in a Clowes Hall appearance I reviewed for the Indianapolis Star, he had next to no breath support for the instrument on which he remains one of the handful of major innovators. The 19-year-old Indianapolis festival has taken note of the birth centennials of Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and (somewhat meagerly) Thelonious Monk.

Berroa's group sounded fully compatible Wednesday, projecting the self-confidence of a much more seasoned ensemble. Musical director John Zappa played a blazing trumpet, nimble like Gillespie's but with a stinging tone effectively recalling Indianapolis' own Freddie Hubbard.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with him in the front line was J.D. Allen, a tenor saxophonist whose playing ranged over the instrument's entire compass; he was thrilling in the lower register, and generally eschewed the piercing, partly shredded sound at the top, except for "A Night in Tunisia" — giving free rein to a notion that ought to have been resisted. His solos generally followed the reassuring Lester Young dictum: "Tell me a story."

Hard-digging pianist Mike Darrah showed lots of rhythmic punch throughout the set. I liked how he helped define the rhythmic contour through slight hesitations punctuating the line. I treasured his Monk-like solo on "Ow," one of the few Gillespie tunes I'm certain was played in the first set. There were no tune announcements except before the one that didn't need it: the finale — "A Night in Tunisia."

I connected with Gillespie's "Ow" in part because of its basis in the chord changes of "I Got Rhythm." That Gershwin song has more abundant "contrafacts" (the term used for jazz melodies based on other songs) than any other. I thought I was hearing "Whispering" as the underpinning of the next-to-last piece, so I'm guessing that was "Groovin' High." Dizzy Gillespie is part of the wide spectrum of my jazz listening, but I often come across familiar music that I can't put a name to. That's how things stood Thursday night; the first three pieces I'm not about to hazard a guess about. Contributions and corrections are welcome!

"Salt Peanuts," one of the few Gillespie tunes I never fail to recognize (who can forget President Jimmy Carter's rendition of the refrain during a jazz celebration at the White House?), was quoted briefly in Darrah's solo in the opening number.

Bassist Aaron Jacobs stayed mostly in the background, but seemed to be lending unerring support to his colleagues.

Berroa took his only extensive solo to launch what I think was "Groovin' High," starting on tom-toms and cohesively expanding his patterns to the whole kit. His accompaniments were always geared to what the sidemen were doing. I particularly liked his vigorous comping — always complementary, never dominating —  behind Darrah on "Tunisia," a predictably high-spirited version that ended on notes of splendor in out-of-tempo cadenzas by Zappa and Allen.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The President Addresses the UN General Assembly, the world gasps

I've used this tune before, but it really fits well in responding to Donald Trump's blustering address to the United Nations the other day. To be sure, there's a bad moon rising.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Randy Brecker: Indy Jazz Fest welcomes back to Naptown a durable trumpeter-bandleader-composer

Randy Brecker and I are contemporaries, so it was a coincidental boost to my mental hold on youth to appreciate how robust a
Portrait time at the Jazz Kitchen: Kenny Phelps (from left), Rob Dixon, Randy Brecker, Nick Tucker, and Steve Allee.
trumpeter he remains after decades before the public.

The trumpeter turns 72 at the end of November; I dialed up that number on Sunday at the Jazz Kitchen, where Brecker was the Indy Jazz Fest's guest star with a band of local all-stars known as the Indianapolis Jazz Collective.

A clever composer with a puckish sense of humor, Brecker opened his first set leading the quintet through his "There's a Mingus Amonk Us," the punning title reflecting inspiration from 20th-century jazz titans Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. Both the bassist and the pianist were highly influential to jazzmen during the formative years of Randy and his brother Michael, a powerful tenor saxophonist who died 10 years ago.

The tune starts out Monkish, with quirky harmonies and short phrases, then easily passes into the smoother but characteristically rambunctious style of Mingus. There were solo choruses all around, then exchanges — first eight bars each, then four,  between the hornmen and pianist on one hand, the drummer on the other. This is often the kind of format that pick-up small groups employ to get everyone used to each other; it quickly appeared that minimal rehearsal beforehand had been sufficient to get the band into high gear.

Brecker obviously admired his sidemen for the occasion: tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon, pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps. He expressed his pleasure in between songs along with a few brief stories on his works' origins. "Shanghigh," for example, not surprisingly came out of an experience involving recreational drugs in China. Disco music was involved at the time, and so this peppy piece proceeded over a a steady disco beat.

Dixon, playing a horn new to him while his regular axe is in the shop, sounded remarkably at home. Though he always sounds like himself, he seemed to be channeling the Brecker brothers' roots in Philadelphia r&b and back beyond that to John Coltrane (who was based in the City of Brotherly Love for a while). There were "sheets-of-sound" aspects in his solo that channeled early and middle Coltrane, modified by Michael's bar-walking affinity for funky pop, a genre adapted profitably for jazz in the 1970s by the Brecker Brothers band.

Also notable in "Shanghigh" was the firm yet understated underpinning Phelps gave to Tucker's solo. The coming-together of disparate experiences continued with  "O Corko Mio," an attractive piece written by Brecker's wife, Ada Rovatti, an adept saxophonist who's part of the trumpeter's regular touring band. The theme is rooted in aspects of Irish folk music, the band having been working in Ireland at the time she wrote it. In one of his well-articulated solos, Brecker drew on both the florid lyricism of his wife's Italian homeland and the modal characteristics of the Celtic tradition. I liked the witty manner with which Allee climaxed his solo with chiming chords. Phelps followed with an effervescent solo before the end.

Brecker graciously included a piece each by Allee and Dixon. Allee's "Ebony" had the urban elan of his memorable compositions for "New York in the Fifties," the TV realization of a Dan Wakefield memoir. Dixon's enchanting "Twilight Dusk" brought forth from the saxophonist a solo that made his ownership of the material crystal-clear. There was some simultaneous improvisation in the hornmen's paraphrased return to the tune near the end.

In between, everyone got a chance to stop reading charts to offer "Body and Soul," which drew particularly rich lyricism from Brecker. The well-received set ended with a romp through Brecker's "Free Fall," which righted itself superbly after a false start.

Apart from his well-preserved chops and the oomph and brilliance that continue to come out when he plays, Brecker also struck a chord with me when he made gentle fun of the ubiquitous shortening of the city's name to "Indy." "We used to call it Naptown," he said in his first spoken interlude to the full house. He used the old nickname without a trace of disparagement, but accompanied "Indy" with a little eye-rolling. Exactly!

"Naptown" never implied that Indianapolis suffered from narcolepsy, I believe, while "Indy" always sounds a  bit like baby talk to me. Hey, I'm an old man. I don't have to make my peace with "Indy." So, kudos to the Indy Jazz Fest for bringing Randy Brecker back to Naptown.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Dr. Lonnie Smith heats up the Jazz Kitchen to complement the current weather's warming trend

The distinctive Hammond B-3 master out of Buffalo, N.Y., made a return visit to the Indy Jazz Fest two years after his
Dr. Lonnie Smith takes care of business with evident joy in IJF appearance.
last engagement, distributing fitful elegance and pervasive powerhouse effects during a second set Saturday at the Jazz Kitchen.

Dr. Lonnie Smith, with a title that has become part of his name and an honorific by extension of the high regard in which he is held, brought his touring trio to the Northside club for two sets.

He mingled with patrons between sets, and cemented his rapport with the public during a climactic piece in which he walked the aisles playing his growling, rumbling, wailing electronic cane.

These were characteristics of his appearance in 2015 as well, when, I must admit, my overall impression was more favorable. Introduced by Tony Monaco, an Ohio organist with quite a local following who shared this weekend's "Organ Summit" festival programming, Smith and his trio presented an emotionally expansive but tidy hourlong set to conclude his latest appearance here. The organist is on tour with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Xavier Breaker.

The trio opened with "Mellow Mood,"  a cumulatively fiery piece that (Smith admitted with a chuckle) didn't stay true to its title, not that anyone minded. It proved an exciting opener, with Kreisberg's long-lined solo yielding to Smith's overarching mastery. He has a way of driving a figure almost into the ground just before he varies it. At his best, Smith has a superb feeling for dramatic effect: In the second number, "Alhambra," he made the most of an upward-creeping pattern on the bridge. His solo reflected that later in gargantuan terms, rumbling up from the depths of the keyboard. The trio put together a climax as if out of nowhere, capped by organ trills, before moving into double time near the end.

Smith erects signposts on the way to key changes that build audience anticipation. Surprises abound when a ballad is undertaken; the fourth song in the set, for instance, metamorphosed subtly when Breaker introduced a strong backbeat pattern.

Stretching his audience's ears considerably, Smith turned to other electronic keyboards for a long introduction to a fast-moving piece. The introduction — with its drifting, otherworldly manner and crunchy harmonies, through which was threaded a synthetic muted-trumpet solo — sounded like a lost Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration from a couple of galaxies over.  Then, after the aforementioned ballad, Smith ended the set with his "cane scrutiny" number before returning to the Hammond B-3 to wrap things up.

Good showmanship, as usual, from the doctor. But to me there was less clarity than on the Dr. Lonnie CDs I'm familiar with or to the best of my concert recollection from two years ago. Some of the reliable mannerisms of his style seemed more to be felt than firmly etched this time around. Though not lacking in energy and flashes of imagination, the hard-hitting Breaker didn't strike me as an ideal partner for the guitarist, who was always intense but a model of debonair control. Fortunately, Smith was able to mediate between them with an old pro's zeal and savoir-faire.

The trio worked compatibly enough, but not at the same high level as formerly. Yet, with a half-century career for him to build upon, there can be no doubt that experiencing Dr. Lonnie Smith is like visiting a monument — the kind that will never be removed from its pedestal.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]