Wednesday, July 01, 2020

100 Operas in 100 Days

I visited the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville years before I attended my first opera production.  Raised on Waylon and Willie rather than on Puccini and Rossini, I didn’t hear opera as a child.  I’ve grown increasingly self-conscious about my ignorance of the form with each passing year.

When the Metropolitan Opera beneficently opened its archives to encourage patrons to remain quarantined during the pandemic, I reckoned it was time to get educated on the cheap.  (Tickets to the opera’s weekly live broadcasts are ordinarily $25.)  The free streams represent an attractive substitute for my compulsion to take in live music several nights a week.  Committing to a lengthy opera has a way of ordering an evening.  (The remarkable forbearance of my quarantine partner should also be noted.)

I enjoyed Gaetano Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment” on Monday, June 29.  It was the 100th opera I watched in 100 days.  The romantic comedy went down easily.  Having taken in plenty of Donizetti in the past three months, I was perfectly attuned to the opera’s cadence and flow.  And I knew from recent experience I’d delight in the performances of the young stars Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena.

The process wasn’t always painless.  I wondered what I’d gotten myself into back in March.  Even though I’ve attended seven or eight productions since seeing my first opera in 2010, the operatic rituals and format remained foreign.  As I suggested last month, opera’s high body count, unapologetic lustiness and preponderance of drinking songs kept me in the game. 

I’m not giving anything away by pointing out the moldy fustiness of too many productions.  Not only does the sight of a powdered wig sap my spirit, the inherent dorkiness of opera nerds- please slap me if I ever utter the exclamation “toi toi toi”- is insufferable.  But I like challenges.  Powering through all four hours and twenty minutes of Hector Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” and every bit of Richard Wagner’s  three-hour and 43-minute “Lohengrin” made me feel invincible. 

Moments of transcendence compensate for the frequent bouts of tedium.  “Salome” altered my consciousness.  I felt the heavens open during Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten.”  And I feel better about my time on earth having seen Leontyne Price in “Aida,” Luciano Pavarotti in “Tosca” and Joyce DiDonato in “Cendrillon.”  Becoming conversant in “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Turandot” and “La Traviata” also made me a significantly more informed consumer of popular music.  With all due respect to Irving Berlin, Stevie Wonder and John Legend, Mozart, Puccinni and Verdi did it first.  But let me be clear: my newfound expertise elevates rather than diminishes my appreciation of less rarified forms of music.

What happens when the epidemic ends?  I can’t readily afford nice seats for productions at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, let alone at the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera.  And my closet doesn’t contain much in the way of formal wear.  Even so, I won’t be intimidated even if I wear jeans and a t-shirt while sitting in the uppermost balconies at opera houses.  I’ll almost certainly have taken in more (virtual) operas than any member of the audience. 

Until then- and as long as access to the operas continues- I’ll keep learning.  I’m alarmed by how much I loved all four hours of the ‘80s-tastic production of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” (opera #101) last night.  Valhalla!  Incest!  Predeterminism!  Valkyries!  I’m bracing myself for tonight’s showing of Dmitri Shostakovich’s insanely freaky “The Nose.”

(Screenshot of Pretty Yende and Maurizio Muraro in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “La Fille du Régiment” by There Stands the Glass.)

Sunday, June 28, 2020

June Recap: A Monthly Exercise in Critical Transparency

The absence of Ambrose Akinmusire, Armand Hammer, Hum, Norah Jones, Ingrid Laubrock/Kris Davis, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Sara Serpa, Teyana Taylor, Kahil El’Zabar and 6lack on the following lists reflects the crushing avalanche of outstanding music released in the past four weeks.

Top Five Albums
1. Moor Mother and Nicole Mitchell- Offering
My review.
2. Brad Mehldau- Suite: April 2020
Quarantine-era solo piano from the modern-day Gershwin.
3. Bob Dylan- Rough and Rowdy Ways
God might smite me if I failed to recognize the prophet.
4. Bobby Watson- Keepin’ It Real
My review.
5. Run the Jewels- RTJ4
A timely torrent of rage.

Top Five Songs
1. Beyoncé- “Black Parade”
Ankh charm.
2. City Girls- “Jobs”
I won’t apologize.
3. Megan Thee Stallion- “Girls in the Hood”
Another hot girl summer.
4. John Legend featuring Rapsody- “Remember Us”
Hot buttered corn.
5. John Prine- “I Remember Everything”

Top Five Livestreams
1. Alicia Keys and John Legend- Verzuz battle
2. Bang on a Can Marathon- Iva Bittová, Roscoe Mitchell, Terry Riley, etc.
3. A Night For Austin- James Taylor, Alejandro Escovedo, Bonnie Raitt, etc.
4. Roots Picnic- Roddy Ricch, Lil Baby, Black Thought, etc.
5. Kandace Springs- Blue Note at Home

I conducted the same exercise in May, April, March, February and January.

(Screenshot of Alice Coote in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Hansel and Gretel by There Stands the Glass.)

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Album Review: Moor Mother and Nicole Mitchell- Offering

I walked out on Moor Mother at the Big Ears Festival last year.  After enduring 20 sweaty minutes of what I perceived as self-indulgent industrial art-rock in an overcrowded room, I bolted for another option.  Her compelling work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago aside, I’ve remained skeptical of the artist also known as Camae Ayewa.  I have no reservations about Nicole Mitchell.  Her set with Tomeika Reid and Mike Reed at Big Ears was transcendent.  And like Ayewa, she performs in the current incarnation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.  Consequently, I didn’t know what to expect of Offering, a recording of the pair’s ostensibly improvised 2019 collaboration at Le Guess Who festival in the Netherlands.  The spoken word of Ayewa simmers with quiet intensity.  While Mitchell also plays flute, the electronics manned by both women regularly veer into musique concrète freakouts.  Ayewa is affiliated with the Black Quantum Futurism collective.  The label encapsulates the aesthetic of an album designed to captivate daring listeners who admire the most challenging works of John Cage, Amiri Baraka, Alice Coltrane and Angel Bat Dawid.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Aggressive Ambiance

Snow Catches on her Eyelashes fooled me twice yesterday.  After intently listening to the album by longtime collaborators Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang on headphones, I set it as background music through a speaker as I read.  Rather than recognizing the recording had concluded, I twice assumed the hum of an air conditioner, the drone of a refrigerator and the rumble of traffic were components of the album’s aggressive ambient music.  Dissevered from headphones or a sound-proof room, the pristine sound field created by Aarset, a Terje Rypdal-style guitarist, and Bang, a sampler/producer favored by chamber-jazz luminaries including Tigran Hamasyan, spills into space like water from a leaky cup.  My appreciation of the Norwegians’ project represents an evolution of my affinity for sinister sounds in the quarantine era.  The disquieting Snow Catches on her Eyelashes is less harsh than the industrial noise I favored three months ago.  My favorite track?  It’s the one combining electrical murmurs and birdsong at the end of the album.

I reviewed Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Hero Trio at Plastic Sax.

Last night’s showing of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2017 production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” was the 93rd opera I’ve watched in the past 93 days.  John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” streams tonight.

(Original image of Akko by There Stands the Glass.)

Friday, June 19, 2020

Album Review: Groupe RTD- The Dancing Devils of Djibouti

I swipe a couple dozen new albums and a towering stack of digital singles into my streaming queue almost every Friday morning.  It’s not unusual for me to forget why a particular title initially came to my attention.  I was stumped, consequently, when I finally checked out Groupe RTD’s The Dancing Devils of Djibouti earlier this week.

I initially reckoned it was a reissue of 1970s recordings by an Indonesian party band.  But the Bollywood elements belied the assumption.  Is it Indian?  That wouldn’t account for the Jamaican or Ethiopian jazz components.  And what about the clue provided by the name?  Pathetically, I needed to reference an atlas to locate Djibouti on a map.  The African country on the Gulf of Aden is just 18 miles southwest of Yemen.

The ensemble’s base in a global crossroads accounts for the unlikely array of styles, but learning The Dancing Devils of Djibouti was recorded in 2019 shocked me.  Dated keyboard textures and the dampened sound field make the recording an anomaly in the space-time continuum.

A 60-second promotional video overstates the quality of the album while offering tantalizing glimpses of the musicians.  The Dancing Devils of Djibouti isn’t the most transcendently uplifting or irrepressible dance party released in 2020, but exploration of the novel hodgepodge is a mandatory trip for aural globetrotters.

Any album with song titles like “King Tubby,” “The Euchirist,” “Flavor Flav,” “Slew Foot” and “Ramesses II” merits my attention.  Shrines, the word-drunk release by the underground rap duo Armand Hammer, sounds as if it was recorded in a cloud of noxious smoke.  Mask off.

I caught 23 sets of Sunday’s Bang on a Can Marathon.  My ten favorite performances: Iva Bittová, Roscoe Mitchell, Terry Riley, Rhiannon Giddens, Don Byron, Conrad Tao, Tomeka Reid/Vicky Chow, Ailie Robertson/Gregg August, Paula Matthusen/Dana Jessen and Helena Tulve/Arlen Hlusko.  Iva Bittová’s stunning Czech folk drones led me to Bartók: 44 Duets for Two Violins.  The new reissue of a magical 1997 album is even more psychedelic than the Armand Hammer title referenced above.  Here’s appropriately loopy archival footage of “Pillow Dance”.

(Original image of a flight board at Ben Gurion Airport by There Stands the Glass.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Top Songs, Albums, Livestreams and Concerts of 2020 (So Far)

The Top 25 Songs of 2020 (So Far)
1. Zsela- “Drinking”
Misery loves company.
2. 070 Shake- “Guilty Conscience”
Pop perfection.
3. Pongo- “Uwa”
Pure joy.
4. Little Simz- “Might Bang, Might Not”
“A one-woman army.”
5. Thundercat featuring Steve Arringtona and Steve Lacy- “Black Quails”
“Am I keeping it real?”
6. Future featuring Drake- “Life Is Good”
Is it, though?
7. Sleaford Mods- “Second”
8. Mozzy featuring King Von and G Herbo- “Body Count”
Let the bodies hit the floor.
9. Earl Sweatshirt featuring Maxo-  “Whole World”
10. Bob Dylan- “Murder Most Foul”
He contains multitudes.

11. Six9ine- “Gooba”
I wish I didn't love it so much.
12. Polo G, Stunna 4 Vegas & NLE Choppa feat. Mike WiLL Made-It- “Go Stupid”
13. Roy Ayers, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge- “Synchronize Vibration”
Everybody loves the sunshine.
14. J Balvin- “Amarillo”
Not-so-mellow yellow.
15. Playboi Carti- “@Meh”
16. Ashley McBryde- “First Thing I Reach For”
Downward spiral.
17. Kehlani featuring Jhené Aiko- “Change Your Life”
Essential R&B.
18. Moneybagg Yo featuring DaBaby- “Protect Da Brand”
Goon squad.
19. Sam Hunt- “Hard to Forget”
There stands the glass.
20. Laura Marling- “Strange Girl”
Trouble child.

21. Sa-Roc- “Hand of God”
22. Against All Logic featuring Lydia Lunch- “If You Can’t Do It Good, Do It Hard”
Can’t stop. Won’t stop.
23. Terrace Martin featuring Denzel Curry, Daylyt, Kamasi Washington and G Perico-“Pig Feet”
24. Chloe x Halle- “Don’t Make It Harder On Me”
25. Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela- “Agbada Bougou”

The Top 25 Albums of 2020 (So Far)
1. Peter CottonTale- Catch
My review.
2. Jay Electronica- A Written Testimony
My review.
3. Beatrice Dillon- Workaround
My review.
4. Flying Lotus- Flamagra (Instrumentals)
My review of the original album.
5. Bad Bunny- YHLQMDLG
My review.
6. Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist- Alfredo
My review.
7. Clarice Jenson- The Experience of Repetition as Death
My review.
8. Ambrose Akinmusire- On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment
The best working band in jazz.
9. Run the Jewels- RTJ4
One-two punch.
10. Jennifer Curtis and Tyshawn Sorey- Invisible Ritual
Avant-garde hoedown.

11. Mac Miller- Circles
His self-awareness is devastating.
12. Jóhann Jóhannsson- Last and First Men
My review.
13. José James- No Beginning No End 2
Even the Billy Joel cover pleases me.
14. Gil Scott-Heron- We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven
An almost perfect tweak.
15. Childish Gambino- 3.15.20
My review.
16. Blackstarkids- Surf
Kansas City N.E.R.Ds.
17. Nicolás Jaar- Cenizas
Dark shadows.
18. Nine Inch Nails- Ghosts VI: Locusts
My review.
19. Jeremy Pelt- The Art of Intimacy, Vol. 1
Heartbreakingly gorgeous.
20. Kaja Draksler Octet- Out For Stars
My review.

21. Bad Bunny- Las Que No Iban a Salir
Even Bad Bunny’s YHLQMDLG also-rans are excellent.
22. Sara Serpa- Recognition
Anti-colonialism chamber-jazz.
23. Yaeji- What We Drew
Forward-thinking electro-pop.
24. Mike and the Moonpies- Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart
My review.
25. Kassa Overall- Shades of Flu: Healthy Remixes for an Ill Moment
Exhibit #2,637 in the case of the jazz/hip-hop continuum.

The Top 10 Concerts of 2020 (So Far)
1. Post Malone, Swae Lee and Tyla Yaweh- Sprint Center
My review.
2. Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin- Folly Theater
My Instagram image.
3. Roddy Ricch with Cuuhraig and Xslapz- Uptown Theater
My review.
4. Luciana Souza, Chico Pinheiro and Scott Colley- Folly Theater
My review.
5. Jerry Hahn, Gerald Spaits and Todd Strait- Black Dolphin
My Instagram clip.
6. Pavel Haas Quartet with Boris Giltburg- Folly Theater
My review.
7. Bill Frisell’s Harmony- Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
My review.
8. Miranda Lambert with the Randy Rogers Band and Parker McCollum- Sprint Center
My review.
9. The New Pornographers with Diane Coffee- The Truman
My Instagram clip.
10. Joseph with Deep Sea Diver- Madrid Theatre
My Instagram clip.

The Top 10 Livestreams of 2020 (So Far)
1. Bang on a Can Marathon #1 (Mary Halvorson, Vijay Iyer, Meredith Monk, etc.)
2. Bang on a Can Marathon #2 (Iva Bittová, Roscoe Mitchell, Terry Riley, etc.)
3. Daniel Barenboim- at Pierre Boulez Saal
4. Post Malone- Nirvana at home
5. Stacey Pullen- Movement at home
6. A Night For Austin (Alejandro Escovedo, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, etc.)
7. Molly Hammer- at the Gem Theater
8. KC Bands Together (Samantha Fish, The Greeting Committee, Krystle Warren, etc.)
9. Bill Frisell- Blue Note at home
10. Kandace Springs- Blue Note at home

(Screenshot of Roscoe Mitchell performing on the Bang On a Can Marathon by There Stands the Glass.)

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Album Review: Mike and the Moonpies- Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart

It didn’t seem extraordinary at the time, but Saturday, October 19, 2019, was one of the best days of my life.  While my life partner attended to work in Austin, Texas, I hit a day show at Independence Brewing.  Mariachi Las Coronelas was particularly charming.  I continued honky-tonking at a matinee show by the Cornell Hurd Band at the Continental Club.  My subsequent peregrinations up and down Congress Avenue included an avid discussion about the exorbitant pricing in a rare book shop and refreshments with new friends at Güero's Taco Bar.

My wife joined me at a Rodney Crowell concert when the sun went down.  We danced in the aisles to hits including “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried”.  Inspired by liquid courage, we dared to spend the remainder of the evening doing the Texas two step on the crowded dance floor of the Broken Spoke.

“Bottom of the Pile,” the opening song of Mike and the Moonpies’ Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart, revived the memory of that glorious day.  The tribute to a bar “where the air is stale from the smell of beer” and patrons entertain themselves by “dancing on a hardwood floor” is one of ten previously unreleased songs written by the late Gary Stewart.  The Texas band led by Mike Harmeier sounds uncannily like vintage Stewart.

The unapologetically grim “Drinkin’ Thing” and “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” were among the Stewart classics in heavy rotation in my childhood home.  The cautionary cheating and drinking songs scared me then.  They terrify me now.  The material on Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart isn’t top-shelf Stewart, but listening to one of my favorite country bands rendering second-rate but still memorable Stewart compositions significantly increases my odds of having a day to remember.

I last attended a performance of live music on March 7, a devastating setback for a guy who shoots for catching 365 sets each year.  I partly offset the deprivation by contributing to a The Kansas City Star feature about the state of the locally based live music industry.

After I take in a stream of Handel’s “Rodelinda” tonight, I’ll have seen 85 operas in 84 days.  I’d pledge to stop at 100, but I began to really get into the form around #65.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)