Wednesday, July 29, 2020

July 2020 Recap: A Monthly Exercise in Critical Transparency

Don’t let my uncharacteristically buoyant selections fool you- I’m no less agitated than I was three months ago.

Top Five Albums
1. Westside Gunn- Flygod Is an Awesome God 2
My review.
2. Asher Gamedze- Dialectic Soul
Better git it in your soul.
3. Lianne La Havas- Lianne La Havas
My review.
4. Mike Dillon- Rosewood
My review.
5. Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Brian Blade- RoundAgain
My review.

Top Five Songs
1. Genevieve Artadi- “Godzillaaa”
A purposeful grimace.
2. Ray Wylie Hubbard featuring Paula Nelson and Elizabeth Cook- “Drink Till I See Double”
Honkytonk humor.
3. Illuminati Hotties- “Freequent Letdown”
Not a pick-me-up.
4. Flo Milli- “May I”
Can she kick it? Yes, she can!
5. Elle King- “The Let Go”

Top Five Livestreams
1. Bobby Rush- at home
The bluesman meets the moment.
2. Snoop Dogg and DMX- Verzuz rap battle
Murder was the case.
3. Charlie Parker Centennial Tribute featuring Bobby Watson and Deborah Brown- Gem Theater
Kansas City’s finest.
4. Guitar Elation- Black Dolphin
Funkshun junkshun.
5. Little Freddie King- Louisiana Music Factory
Eightieth birthday party.

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

(Screenshot of Isabel Leonard in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette by There Stands the Glass.)

Monday, July 27, 2020

Infinite Opera

After withstanding three productions of “La Boheme,” a trio of “La Traviata”s, two versions of “Aida” and seven hours of Der Ring des Nibelungen during my quarantine-inspired opera binge, I was ready for a reset.  My viewings of “Infinite Now” and “The Ice Break” over the weekend felt like the rewarding payoff of my self-directed 18-week crash course.

“Infinite Now,” a 2017 avant-garde freakout composed by Chaya Czernowin, is a cacophonous examination of war’s horrors and contemporary anxiety.  Only the most intrepid listeners are probably capable of enduring more than five minutes of the plotless 150-minute (semi)opera.  Fully acclimated to sonic hardship, I embrace the ways in which the Opera Ballet Antwerpen production builds on the disruptive innovations of Berg, Britten and Corigliano I’ve come to admire.

Michael Tippett’s “The Ice Break” premiered in 1977, but I suspect the Birmingham Opera Company's 2015 production is the first time it made any sense.  Staged in an industrial warehouse in which the members of the audience stand and swill beer when not being pushed about by stagehands, the depiction of social unrest looks as if it could have been filmed in Portland last weekend.  It’s astonishing.

My streak won’t end tonight.  I can’t resist watching the Metropolitan Opera’s free stream of the charismatic Natalie Dessay starring in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”  Rather than inviting you to join me in relishing the diva’s ghastly meltdown in the 127th opera I’ll take in in 126 consecutive days, I double-dog dare readers to instead dip into the free streams of “Infinite Now” and “The Ice Break” linked above.

I applaud Black Dolphin’s free livestreams at the Kansas City jazz blog Plastic Sax.

(Screenshot of Opera Ballet Antwerpen’s production of “Infinite Now” by There Stands the Glass.)

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma

People keep asking what I think of Taylor Swift’s new album.  Although I prefer Shirley Collins’ wondrous new release Heart’s Ease, I’ve invested more time than I’d care to admit playing the spot-the-influence game with folklore.  I’m genuinely happy for Swift fans hearing the eclectic folk-pop sounds of the ‘70s for the first time.  To that end, I created a 47-minute Spotify playlist of songs that may have inspired folklore.  Those unwilling to click on the link should know the first five songs are by Janis Ian, Peter Gabriel, Joan Armatrading, Phoebe Snow and Jimmie Spheeris.  Fashion-conscious folks shouldn’t get too excited- the sixth song is Air Supply’s “Two Less Lonely People in the World.”

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

Friday, July 24, 2020

Album Review: Juice Wrld- Legends Never Die

My spouse promptly turned the substantial contents of a medicine cabinet over to authorities after the funeral of a parent last year.  I pouted for a couple days.  I haven’t consumed a single pain-numbing pill stronger than an aspirin since undergoing knee surgery more than a decade ago.  I felt a profound sense of despair when I was unable to renew my opioid prescription.  Juice Wrld’s new posthumous album makes me thankful for the integrity of the orthopedic surgeon and my life partner.  Legends Never Die is a cautionary tale about the dangers of the intoxicants.  Hearing the troubled kid born Jarad Anthony Higgins repeatedly address the physical and psychological consequences of his pill dependence is unnerving.  He died a week after his 21st birthday in 2019.  Juice’s polished sing-song raps make Post Malone sound like Mozart but the musical simplicity of songs like “Can’t Die” resonate with Juice's peers.  Legends Never Die currently tops Billboard’s album chart.

Opera update: After being compelled to cleanse my eyes and ears with Anna Netrebko’s portrayal of Juliet in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” immediately after enduring a recent work with the cringey tone of a ‘70s after-school TV special yesterday, I’ve taken in 123 operas in the last 122 days. Opera Philadelphia’s production of Lembit Beecher’s “Sky on Swings” is a recent highlight.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Album Review: Lianne La Havas- Lianne La Havas

I fully realize I’m often viewed as an eccentric misfit.  My longstanding indifference to conforming to societal expectations grows even stronger as I age.  I’m accustomed to being the age and/or racial outlier at events.  Social media statistics, celebrity gossip and the latest outrage in the daily news cycle are among the popular topics I happily ignore.  Still, I welcome occasional opportunities to feel like a regular guy.  My instant affinity for the sophisticated adult pop on Lianne La Havas’ new self-titled album gives me a sense of belonging.  The singer-songwriter’s extreme normcore sound is tailor-made for people in my demographic.  In the tradition of the storied chanteuses Carole King and Robert Flack, Lianne La Havas songs like “Can’t Fight” and “Paper Thin” are in keeping with similarly age-appropriate favorites by K.D. Lang, Shelby Lynne and Lizz Wright.  La Havas’ lovely form of easy listening is talkin’ to my generation.

I review Mike Dillon’s remarkable new album Rosewood at Plastic Sax.

Opera update: Programmers at the Metropolitan Opera began slipping reruns into their free stream schedule.  How dare they!  Scotland Opera’s production of Stuart MacRae’s outstanding “Anthropocene” is among the unconventional works I’ve come across since being forced to look further afield.  I’m now at 118 operas in 118 days.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Years Have Changed You, Somehow

Is jazz corny?  The many people who think so aren’t necessarily wrong.  I regularly publish counterproductive screeds about wack forms of jazz.  Yet I’ve taken great pleasure in willy-nilly dips into a few of the ostensibly squarest recesses of the jazz archives during the pandemic.  Here’s a sampling of my rewarding discoveries.

Speaking of corny, get a load of this album title: A Singer, A Swinger, A Gasser!.  Yet there’s nothing hokey about vocalist Annie Ross’ 1959 collaboration with saxophonist Zoot Sims.  A straightforward reading of “I Don’t Want to Cry Anymore" is among the astonishingly moving tracks.

I’ve never hidden my distaste of organ jazz.  Yet Departures, the recently reissued 1969 album by British organist Don Shinn, is an unlikely mashup of Martin Denny-style exotica and Ray Manzarek-esque pomp.  The three newly recorded bonus tracks are less essential.

More exotica: the unfortunately titled “Chung King” from Guitar/Guitar, a 1963 pairing of Charlie Byrd and Herb Ellis, is an unorthodox trip.

A profound interpretation of “Sophisticated Lady” induced tears of ecstatic joy the first time I heard The Duo.  The privately commissioned 1999 meetup of pianist Mulgrew Miller and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen was recently made available to the general public.

My sincere admiration for Mac Miller’s new posthumous album Circles reflects my morbid fascination with recordings by dying musicians.  The jazz canon is loaded with devastating death knells.  I recently happened upon Lester Young’s Laughin’ to Keep from Cryin’, a session recorded 13 months before the saxophonist’s death in 1959.  The heroics of pianist Hank Jones can’t disguise Young’s agonizing frailty on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”.

Four months ago, I bragged about buying a deeply discounted ticket to a Daniil Trifonov concert.  The presenter announced a date for the rescheduled performance: April 24, 2022!  Here’s hoping I’m still alive 21 months from now.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

Monday, July 13, 2020

Good Timing

Rolex watches don’t tempt me.  I’ve never even touched one of the expensive status symbols.  And while I haven’t been inside one of the luxury cars, I’m sure top-of-the-line Mercedes sedans merit their price tags.  I have the same sort of conflicted feelings about RoundAgain, the new album by the reunited quartet of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade.  I was initially floored by the shimmering summit of four of the world’s best musicians.  Yet I grew increasingly irritated by the quartet’s relentless perfection with each subsequent listen.  Is there such a thing as being too good?  Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard, the second most notable acoustic jazz album released July 10, is far from flawless.  The sound is surprisingly sketchy for a Blue Note Records release, and the quintet of pianist and bandleader Gerald Clayton, saxophonists Logan Richardson and Walter Smith III, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Marcus Gilmore occasionally flirts with chaos.  While it’s clearly inferior, I find the slightly derelict Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard more interesting than the crystalline RoundAgain.  Then again, I wear a $50 watch and prefer Fords to Ferraris.

The latest diary entry essay at Plastic Sax addresses the reevaluation of my priorities during the pandemic.

Opera update: I eagerly devoured all four hours of last night’s free stream of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”  The tally currently stands at 113 operas in 113 days.

(Original image of the primary clock at Grand Central Station by There Stands the Glass.)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Gunns Blazing

I’m led to believe the career of the Buffalo rapper Westside Gunn has an elaborate backstory.  The details don’t particularly interest me.  I only care about the enormous pleasure I derive from his hilarious 2020 albums Flygod Is an Awesome God 2 and Pray for Paris.  The ridiculous recordings scratch an itch the similarly playful but unapologetically infantile raps of hitmakers like Roddy Ricch and Lil Uzi Vert don’t reach.  In addition to doing an even better Ghostface Killah impression than Action Bronson, Westside Gunn relies on dusty soul and jazz samples evoking the glory days of Gang Starr and Ultramagnetic MC’s.  Yet the genuine sense of menace place Flygod Is an Awesome God 2 and Pray for Paris squarely in the here and now.

Opera update: Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” is the 111th opera I watched in the past 111 days.  I was disappointed to learn it’s not about the Pacific Northwest.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Album Review: Rich the Factor- Blaccfish

I revisited the music of DJ Screw upon discovering George Floyd was affiliated with the innovator.  DJ Screw’s vast canon remains impenetrable to most sober non-Texans.  I come by my enthusiasm honestly.  As a travelling salesman calling on Southwest Wholesale in Houston in the ‘90s, I was present during the chopped-and-screwed revolution.  Full disclosure: Robert Guillerman once offered me a job.  (I regret passing on the opportunity.)

My affinity for the chopped-and-screwed sound prepared me for the similarly disorienting music of Rich the Factor.  While Rich’s sound owes as much to Oakland as Houston, the rapper’s slow and murky style makes him the Kansas City version of DJ Screw.

The grimy new Blaccfish- Rich’s second, third or fourth album of 2020 (his output is difficult to track)- differs little from the hundreds of hours of music he's already released.  He continues to obsess over Sade, status and his hometown through a stupefied filter in which time, space and gravity are uncertain propositions.  Blaccfish is best experienced through a thick cloud of smoke and a greasy layer of sweat in a slow-moving car in July.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

Monday, July 06, 2020


What were our parents thinking?  Not only did they supply us with bottle rockets on the Fourth of July, they occasionally watched as my friends and I fired the projectiles at one another in adrenaline-fueled battles.  We stored our caches of cherry bombs for more sinister purposes.  I somehow made it through the 1970s with all ten fingers intact.  Given my childhood misadventures, I’m not bothered by the annual amateur pyrotechnics that light up neighborhoods like mine every July.  In an ongoing observance of Lee Konitz’s recent death, I listened to his 1958 experiment An Image for the first time as I lounged outdoors on Saturday, July 4.  Even through the rat-a-tat-tat of firecrackers and Roman candles, I immediately realized the album is unfairly neglected.  The 46-minute third stream synthesis may not be American in the sense of Mount Rushmore and Lee Greenwood, but An Image is certainly as American as Ellis Island and Aaron Copland.

I reviewed Steve Cardenas’ Blue Has a Range at Plastic Sax.

Bailing on an insufferable version of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” starring Beverly Sills in favor of the San Francisco Opera’s production of Carlisle Floyd’s interesting but deeply flawed “Susannah” allowed me to keep my uninterrupted opera-a-day streak alive.  It now stands at 106.

KCUR’s sister station 91.9 Classical KC launched today.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

Friday, July 03, 2020

You Better Watch Your Speed

Even though I’m a jazz-blogging opera freak living in a classic rock town, I don’t feel like a misfit.  I love Def Leppard, Bob Seger and Led Zeppelin every bit as much as my neighbors who will blast the classic rock staples at their outdoor parties this holiday weekend.  I just have no interest in enduring “Fly Like an Eagle” again.  As with every piece of music I’ve heard more than a few dozen times, the Steve Miller Band hit is permanently etched in my brain.  Still, I recently verified my fealty to classic rock by investing seven precious hours on a pair of new collections of unreleased recordings from 1970.

When it comes to the Grateful Dead, I’m an American Beauty guy.  I’ve found swiftly diminishing returns after the band’s artistic apex.  The Angel’s Share, two-hours and thirty-two minutes of outtakes from Workingman’s Dead, confirms my bias.  It’s of little of interest to non-obsessives.  I’d rather listen to an entire Phish concert than endure the more than a dozen aborted takes of “Easy Wind” again.

I’m hardly a Frank Zappa enthusiast, so I’m not sure what’s up with my affinity for the new four-hour-thirty-minute The Mothers 1970 boxed set.  Zappa’s self-congratulatory smarminess still repulses me, but the musical brilliance exhibited by the guitarist and ringers including George Duke and Aynsley Dunbar makes a significant chunk of the four-hour and thirty-minute set engaging.  Unsurprisingly, the best tracks are instrumentals- “Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar,” indeed.  The credible Thelonious Monk ripoffs and bursts of proto-punk are my kind of classic rock.

(Screenshot of Patricia Racette in the San Francisco Opera's production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Il Trittico” by There Stands the Glass.)

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.)