Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm

The value of gateway artists is under-appreciated.  If it took Vanilla Ice for listeners to get to A Tribe Called Quest, so be it.  A lot of St. Paul & the Broken Bones fans surely make their way to Otis Redding.  That’s fantastic.  In my case, the Clash introduced me to Augustus Pablo.  I discovered Bob Wills via Merle Haggard.  I found Willie Dixon via the Doors.

I’m not annoyed that Nubya Garcia’s debut album Source is being hailed as the 2020 equivalent of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.  Jazz needs stylish young artists to give the popular press and jazz neophytes something to rally behind.  Besides, Source is pretty good.  

After enjoying Garcia’s fashionable dispatch from London, I hope a few adventurous listeners turn to the like-minded new release by Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids.  Inspired by his mentor Cecil Taylor, Ackamoor founded the Afrocentric spiritual jazz collective almost 50 years ago.  Now 69, Ackamoor and his longtime collaborators retain their vitality on Shaman!.  The joyous grooves and inclusive sensibility are the best kind of communal folk music.


I decry the blatant abandonment of social distancing on Kansas City’s jazz scene at Plastic Sax.


Opera update: I’m currently 80 minutes into my 153rd opera in the past 153 days.  A French staging of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”- #151 in my streak- receives my unqualified endorsement.  The creepy bits are skin-crawling and the comedic scenes are outrageous.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

Monday, August 17, 2020

Album Review: Bill Frisell- Valentine

I’ve said it a thousand times: jazz isn’t merely something that happened long ago.  Just as giants like Django Reinhardt, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor transfigured past decades, equally brilliant improvisors continue to push the music forward.  Bill Frisell is one such modern master.  The guitarist’s new album Valentine- his 42nd album as a leader by my count- is yet another stunning triumph.  Abetted by bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston, Frisell continues to find fresh and engaging ways to expand his unique conception.  The incorporation of the pop and folk sounds of the early 1960s with the innovations of guitarists ranging from Wes Montgomery to Jimi Hendrix doesn’t seem particularly promising, but Frisell has successfully mined the genre-fluid terrain for decades.  My immediate affinity for Valentine is partly due to catching Frisell perform most of the selections live in the past 24 months, but I can’t imagine anyone not admiring of his gorgeous interpretations of the familiar melodies “What the World Needs Now is Love,” “Wagon Wheels” and "We Shall Overcome".


I kvetch about politicians’ gaffes at Plastic Sax.


Robert Wilson’s version of John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” at National Sawdust’s virtual festival last week was my first encounter with the absurdist treatise.  I was particularly amused by the unexpected references to Kansas.  The state is “like nothing on earth!”


I read Keri Hulme’s The Bone People several months ago.  Inspired by the novel’s frequent references to recordings by Julian Bream, I began exploring to the guitarist's vast catalog in earnest.  I quickly fell under his spell.  Bream died last week.


I took in 22 performances of the August 16 edition of the Bang on a Can Marathon.  My five favorite sets: Sarah Cahill (performing Annea Lockwood); Kaki King (original compositions); Rebekah Heller (performing Marcos Balter); Craig Taborn (original improvisation); Oliver Lake (original compositions).


Opera update: The BBC’s version of “Porgy and Bess” was the 145th dose of my daily injection of opera.  I’ll share two takes.  I realize mine isn’t among the most important voices in the ongoing debate about “Porgy and Bess,” but I’m now able to authoritatively attest that the principle characters are as fully realized as any figures in opera.  They’re more respectfully rendered than the individuals portrayed in similarly agrarian Italian operas like “L’Elisir d’Amore,” “Ruggero Leoncavallo” and “Cavalleria Rusticana.”  Secondly, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” is the equal of any Puccini aria.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Fun House

There’s a scene in a post-apocalyptic movie in which a solitary survivor watches a film of a rock concert in an abandoned theater.  The document of carefree hedonism makes his stark reality seem even bleaker.  That’s how I feel when I listen to Live at Goose Lake: August 8, 1970  The recently released lo-fi document of an infamous set by the Stooges at a Michigan rock festival may as well emanate from a different universe.  

The correlation between the fictional end of the world and today’s pandemic is all-too obvious.  As in the movie, the prospect of another massive music festival seems remote.  But it's not just the coronavirus.  The idea of 200,000 people congregating to hear bands with guitars play rock and roll is ludicrous.  That’s probably never going to happen again in North America.

The Stooges’ outmoded style is made even more obsolete by the honking of Steve Mackay’s saxophone.  The unconventional instrumentation makes Iggy Pop’s berserk interjections even funnier.  The backstory of the essential- albeit superannuated- release on Third Man Records is fascinating.


I review Brian Scarborough’s fine new album Sunflower Song at Plastic Sax.


Opera update: I’m up to 143 operas in 142 days.  Danielle de Niese’s breakout performance in Glyndebourne’s 2005 production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” provided four of the most entertaining hours of my quarantine.  The free stream is available for three more days.  And all self-respecting Kansas Citians- as well as history-minded feminists- should want to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art's imaginative staging of Virgil Thomson’s “The Mother of Us All."

(Horrifying original image of Detroit Rock City by There Stands the Glass.)

Monday, August 10, 2020

Song Review: Caroline Shaw and David Lang- "When I Am Alone"

I love "WAP" as much as the next red-blooded fan of pop music, but the actual song of the year is "When I Am Alone" by Caroline Shaw, David Lang and Jody Elff.  Lang wrote the song last year for an art installation in St. Louis.  After Shaw recorded the vocals, Elff helped Lang arrange the 22-minute opus that now serves as a disarming commentary on social isolation.  Simultaneously hilarious and spooky, “When I Am Alone” is to 2020 what Laurie Anderson’s like-minded "O Superman" was to 1981.

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

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Album Review: Luke Bryan- Born Here Live Here Die Here

I love women, beaches and alcohol.  So why does Luke Bryan’s latest batch of songs about lust, sand and booze infuriate me?  It’s not that I reflexively reject the superstar’s form of bro-country.  While I don’t often listen to Bryan for pleasure, I’ve given at least two of his concerts favorable reviews in The Kansas City Star.  I’ll never tire of drunken singalongs amid tens of thousands of people in arenas and stadiums.  

Yet I consider Born Here Live Here Die Here a proxy for the flagrant disregard of pandemic safety guidelines I’ve witnessed outside my home for five months.  I haven’t been to a social gathering, bar or restaurant- let alone a concert or an airport- since mid-March.  Meanwhile, a daily block party rages in my neighborhood.  A steady parade of walkers, joggers, skateboarders and cyclists winds its way through the gathering.  Needless to say, no one’s wearing a mask.  The anti-social distancing soundtrack is dominated by contemporary country.

None of this is Bryan’s fault.  Anticipating how fun its songs would sound performed live, I might have raised a toast to Born Here Live Here Die Here a year ago.  Yet in this climate, innocuous party songs like “One Margarita” fill me with impotent rage.


I survey the month’s Charlie Parker centennial celebration events in Kansas City for KCUR.


Opera update: My marathon currently stands at 139 operas in the last 138 days.  Teatro La Fenice’s bold production of "Il Sogna di Scipione" was one recent highlight.  Mozart really is the best, isn’t he?  And Howard Moody’s manipulative but effective "Push" deserves to be performed at churches, synagogues and high schools throughout the world.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Dust in the Wind

I enjoyed every minute of Kansas’ 16th studio album The Absence of Presence last weekend.  Even though the band retains only two members from its 1970s heyday, the new release is an impressive facsimile of the majestic pomp of Kansas’ prime.  Receiving the awful but not unexpected news of the death of my friend R. prompted the listening session.

R. was my best friend for three or four years ending in 1977.  He loved prog-rock and jazz-fusion.  R’s unusually kind and accommodating father escorted us to my first large-scale rock concert in 1976.  Fleetwood Mac, R.E.O. Speedwagon, Heart, Head East and Henry Gross were on the bill of Summer Jam at Royals Stadium, but R. was all about Kansas’ set.  We’d later see concerts by the likes of Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer together.  Encountering another kid in my new neighborhood with a similarly severe music obsession altered the trajectory of my life.

Although I always preferred Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Earth, Wind & Fire and the country music I was raised on, R. expanded my horizons.  An aspiring drummer, Bill Bruford, Billy Cobham, Phil Collins, Jack DeJohnette, Carl Palmer and Tony Williams were among his favorite musicians.  Watching R. attempt to play along with tracks like “Nuclear Burn” and “Tank” introduced me to jazz and classical music.

My bond with R. inevitably decayed after my family moved again.  Our infrequent communication in the intervening years focused on girlfriends, wives and work rather than music.  R.’s death leaves me with only one surviving close male friend from my childhood and teen years.  As with my other pals, R. succumbed to substance abuse.  Dust in the wind, indeed.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

Monday, August 03, 2020

Suburban Lifestyle Dream

I was an hour into The Capitol Transcriptions 1946-1949 when I encountered the President’s incendiary “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” tweet on July 29.  I was already feeling self-conscious about my affinity for the collection of whitewashed jazz, but not even the boastful coward’s divisive comment could tear me away from the recently released three-hour and thirteen-minute collection of rare Peggy Lee tracks.

On the digital-only set consisting of “records exclusively for radio airplay and not commercial sale,” Lee and (I’m guessing as credits aren’t available) West Coast jazz musicians work their way through 72 songs with the efficiency of clock-punching office workers.  The informal approach is effective.  It’s easy to imagine the optimistic post-war recordings as part of the soundtrack for tens of thousands of young white couples shopping for homes in newly developed American suburbs.

I’ll always associate Lee with “If That’s All There Is?”  The nihilistic 1969 hit scarred me as a child.  Hearing her as-yet unblemished voice sail over commercial-minded jazz shocks me.  She articulates the heartbreak of “Cottage for Sale” and the romantic ode “The Way You Look Tonight” with equally affectless tones.  Lee’s impassiveness works because the songs are so good.  The flat approach also sidesteps cringeyness on problematic selections like “Porgy.”

Interestingly, Lee’s effectiveness fails only when the whitewash fades.  She blatantly copies Billie Holiday on “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” and assumes a put-on sacred tone on an awkward version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”  The bizarre inclusion of a dreary organ ruins several other tracks.  Yet at its best- such as on the cheerful interpretation of the fiancé-outing “My Sugar Is So Refined”- The Capitol Transcriptions 1946-1949 gives me a sudden urge to construct a white picket fence around my conventional suburban home.

I rarely leave my (suburban) home for non-essential outings, but I felt obliged to check out the Saxophone Supreme: The Life & Music of Charlie Parker exhibit at the American Jazz Museum.  I share my impressions at the Kansas City jazz blog Plastic Sax.

Even though opera is inherently absurd, productions openly acknowledging the ridiculous nature of the form are few and far between.  Opera Ballet Vlaanderen’s outlandish interpretation of Franz Schreker’s obscure 1932 opera “Der Schmied von Gent” (#130 of #133 in my daily opera binge) is hilariously irreverent.  Ignore the conformists who insist opera newbies be initiated with “La Boheme.”  All my ostensibly opera-averse friends should begin here.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)