Climate change is so real I crash landed in the January grass

I had no anticipation except for perhaps a few pretty pictures when I brought my camera along on my cross-country skiing outing yesterday at Lincoln Park in Milwaukee. And yet, I almost gave up before I started. I drove up and saw that the front of the course and practice green were all literally green in January. The temperature hovered around 40 and, wearing my Christmas present – a long “Weatheredge Plus” Eddie Bauer jacket  with hood – I was actually overdressed, as the recent snow was melting very fast. I walked further onto the course and realized enough negotiable snow remained, and embarked on my first skiing outing of the year.

However my body and brain were not ready for the odd patchwork quilt of snow and thatchy grass I was skiing on. A fairly substantial downward incline from the woods on the right side of the golf course’s Par 1 hole, down to the fairway, looked like an enjoyable glide. So I pushed over the precipice and let the skis carry me down the snow and to the edge of a bare grass patch halfway down the hill. Caught by the grass, the skis slowed precipitously, but my body’s speed and momentum did not. I tumbled forward over the skis and down onto the mess of snow and muddy grass. One ski pole flew about eight feet away.
DOH! I might have thought for a moment and anticipated this.

But, no, I learned the hard way, and gradually. I actually fell a couple more times under similar circumstances, but this is partly due to being a little out of practice in cross-country skiing. Normally I do not fall on this nine-hole ski tour, or perhaps just once.

I soon realized this was a literal punch-in-the-gut example of climate change, or global warming. Last year and the year before, when I also took a few pictures here, there had been plenty of snow on mild and amenable winter days. See the two pictures below to compare, first the selfies both taken on the same 6th hole tee vista, and then the views from there of the fifth and six fairways at Lincoln, in 2018 and 2016.

Weather patterns here and around the continent seem in a full regression to a sorrier distance from environmental normalcy and balance. Most all scientists, of course, have plenty of explanation for all this, with consumption of fossil fuels as a primary culprit in this global crisis. Donald Trump’s rejection of the Paris Accord also pushes planet Earth on a long slippery slope in the wrong direction. Virtually all the world’s nations, activists and worthy legislators carry on against climate change, regardless. But this is a tough, tough battle, which environmental scholar/activist Bill McKibbon calls plausibly “World War III.” This post will lead you to his recent essay in The New Republic:

World War III is here and it’s not with North Korea or Russia or any human enemy…

As for my ski outing, I’ll let the pictures do the talking (mostly) from here.

Even the brilliant sun didn’t diminish the snow two years ago on the 6th hole’s playable ground (February 16, 2016, above). Compare to the 2018 selfie scene above.

Likewise, see the snowy 5th green and fairway from the tee of the 6th hole at Lincoln Park, on February 16, 2016

Here’s the same 5th green and fairway from the tee of the 6th hole at Lincoln Park yesterday, January 19, 2018

Here’s the view looking down on Lincoln’s par-3 6th hole yesterday where, two years ago, this scene was covered in snow in February.

As the sun set, I had a long ski hike back (above) from the 6th hole to the club house and parking lot, but the relatively treacherous patches of grass forced me to not build up too much speed on the snow, at least for this out-of-practice cross-country skiier.

But I learned a thing or two while getting plenty of good exercise.

p.s. Monday: Jan 22: The drizzling rain has reduced the snow to a few measly shrinking islands. I was lucky to get that ski outing in. How many more skiiable days will we get this year? Much more importantly, northerly environments need a certain amount of snow yearly to protect flora and fauna from harsh, crippling cold snaps.

Best jazz albums of 2017 often found the big picture in all its ugly beauty

Best jazz albums 2017

Jazz musicians thought big in 2017, perhaps realizing that if a reality TV/star/oft-bankrupted real estate developer could be president, certainly a thoughtful jazz musician could reach for a large statement, beyond the notes and chords. And thus, many notable albums writ large, whether culturally or politically. In my choices for the year’s best, I strove, as always, to judge an album on the intentions –  and the merits that arose thereof.

Nevertheless, if an ambitious thematic work persuaded, and with compelling music, the impact was hard to deny. So you had albums with social or political agendas such as Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening: Emerging Worlds; Ted Nash’s orchestral Presidential Suite, with accompanied readings of presidents and prime ministers by other well-known leaders; and the always activist-minded Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra’s Time/Life emerging as perhaps the final statement of one of our most beloved musicians, who died last year.

Less overtly political, but as musically ambitious in content and scale as any was Brian Lynch’s Madera Latino, (pictured above) a Latin jazz reinterpretation of one of the still under-sung masters of modern music, trumpeter Woody Shaw.

In contrast to Lynch’s muscular front lines, often with three brilliant trumpets was the comparative intimacy of the duet album Masters in Bordeaux by French pianist Martial Solal and American saxophonist/flutist Dave Liebman. This showed that ultimately jazz is about dialogue, whether between two (here from different continents) or, by extension, ever-increasing groups of speakers, implying a template for the democratic process, as I have written about in depth in my forthcoming book, Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.

So I encourage you to explore at least some of these titles for their layers –  musical, textual and political. You’ll be a richer, more-informed arts patron and citizen. I hope that an informed citizen on the wings of a culture vulture and are two sides of the same coin, and fly high enough to gleam in the sun and draw from that fiery natural energy to expand our powers of healing, production and progress in these uncertain and often-dismaying political times.

Here are my choices for best jazz albums of 2017 in order of preference. I include links to my reviews of albums I covered in some depth during the year:

Brian Lynch – Presents Madera Latino: A Latin Jazz Perspective on the Music of Woody Shaw (Hollistic MusicWorks) The Milwaukee native has reached the jazz mountaintop after a humbly serious career of historically-minded music making with a dazzling two-disc set, which Illuminated one of his great models, trumpeter Woody Shaw. It ranged from the elder’s inherent lyricism in “Sweet Love of Mine” to a wide expanse of his meatiest, most forward-thinking post-bop jazz. Accordingly, The Jazz Journalists Association chose this as album of the year and Lynch as trumpeter of the year. Kudos to Brian (no relation to the writer).

Here’s a nifty video on the Madera Latino recording sessions:

Nicole Mitchell  – Mandorla Awakening: Emerging Worlds (FPE)

Flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell brings her utopian vision to Milwaukee

Tom Harrell – Moving Picture (High Note) review/preview:

As the days dwindle down, jazz heats up in Milwaukee

Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra – Time/Life (Impulse!)

Ted Nash Big Band  – Presidential Suite (Motema)

Chris Potter – The Dreamer is the Dream (ECM)

Martial Solal & Dave Liebman – Masters in Bordeaux (Sunnyside)

Miguel Zenon – Tipico (Miel Music)

Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band –  Body and Shadow (Blue Note)

Fred Hersch – Open Book (Palmetto)

BEST JAZZ VOCAL ALBUM

Jackie Allen – Rose Fingered Dawn: The Songs of Hans Sturm (Avant Bass)

Jackie Allen mesmerises with personal vision and poetic music

BEST VOCAL RUNNER-UP:

Father Sky – Father Sky (Self-released) Sleeper album of the year.

Father Sky is soulful music to your ears and to the earth

BEST HISTORICAL ALBUM

Thelonious Monk – Les Liasons Dangereuses 1960 (Sam) If anyone ever understood, “ugly beauty” – as we hope to put a palatable face on contemporary America – it was Monk, who built an aesthetic on the notion, and even wrote a tune titled “Ugly Beauty.” Here he’s in his prime, for a soundtrack that was never used but for it’s lack of invention and quality.

RUNNER-UP

Idrees Sulieman Quartet – The Four American Jazzmen in Tangier, featuring Oscar Dennard (Sunnyside)

On “Dog,” bluesman Charlie Parr sees canines on a par with humans

Charlie Parr  Dog  (Red House Records) 

The great contemporary country blues artist Charlie Parr manages a trick of sly self-portraiture in his new album. His ingenious title song emanates from a dog’s point of view. The hound objects to a human-centric injustice, as Parr sings, “You say that I need to be trained/ when I’m only doing what nature demands.”

That could also be Parr, seemingly born to play nothing more schooled than the most elemental blues, often a one-chord vamp adorned with a repeated fingerstyle arabesque,.three chords at the most. At song’s end, he lets on: Rain down the water that created us both/ My old man’s soul in this old dog’s coat/ And a soul is a soul is a soul.

Image result for charlie parr dog

Charlie Parr’s album “Dog” is available both as a CD and a vinyl LP, from Red House Records.

Most every song has such a verse of rough-hewn poetry, like several in the naked lament of a failed, perhaps suicidal, father in “Hobo.” This feels like Parr’s most personal album, with most songs either in the first person or, as in “Rich Food and Easy Living,” he enters at the song’s last moment to possibly save the indulgent, prodigal woman from herself.

He can also project others’ plights authentically, as in “Salt Water,” which conveys the utter desolation of so many hurricane-flooded people still hanging on today in Texas, Miami and Puerto Rico:

Heavy air has invaded my past/ and stolen my family / they’re swirling above me / high in the mist / but I don’t know if I’ll see them again

Here and elsewhere, Parr’s plaintively mangy voice wholly befits his material. On the stunning “Sometimes I’m Alright,” his faltering pipes sound like his spirit is draining out of him with each exhalation. The Minnesotan knows all about the cold winter of a soul.– Parr admits he struggles with clinical depression, and did during the uphill making of the album. On “Lowdown” he tells the story of a deluded loser while inserting a one-line first-person refrain to embody Lowdown’s pathos. Parr’s own struggle only enhances an immensely impressive album, blessed with help from several excellent musicians who lend musical body without fleshiness. It’s just pointed, raw-to-the-bone, heartfelt blues.

Parr’s steel resonator guitar playing adds much of the earthy character and energy of his music, Courtesy sweetpeafestival

Among his uptempo songs, the defiantly scrambling “Another Dog” captures the essence of a high-spirited canine with a buzzing, Eastern-toned guitar mode; and “I Ain’t Dead Yet” bristles with Dylanesque attitude and wit:

Well I ain’t dead yet

Lemme have them flowers right now

I can’t smell ‘em so good

when I’m locked in that box

underneath the ground

I ain’t dead yet

gimme my flowers now 

Thank the god of dogs (or is it the dog of gods?) that down-in-the-dumps Charlie Parr ain’t dead yet, not by a long shot.

__________

This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express

 

 

 

 

Searching for Harry Frishman, a splendid climber and mountain guide

The Middle Teton’s summit in winter of 2014, but probably similar to what it looked like when Harry Frishman climbed it in January of 1982. Courtesy splitdecisionsdotorg.wordpress.com

I recall Harry Frishman, for all his courage, as a man of almost Zen-like serenity. In the summer of 1980, he expertly guided his son Cullen, Mike Pellman and me up a climb that was the climax of my mountaineering experience. He instilled confidence in me with his forthright but calm demeanor. We were attempting to climb Peregrine’s Arete, only the third-party to ever tackle this peak in the Tetons. Because the great mountaineer Yvon Chouinard had discovered the peak not long beforehand, we had no very detailed information on the climb route.  Harry, an Exum mountain service guide, had never seen this rock before

“We may just end up doing a first climb ourselves,” Harry said at the time, stuffing the rough directions he’d received from Chouinard back that his pocket. He began climbing with a graceful poise (story continued below).

Exum climbing guide Harry Frishman muses quietly as we ride a boat across Jenny Lake to encounter rarely-climbed Peregrine’s Arete in the Tetons, in the summer of 1980. Perhaps he was contemplating the tragic climb in Nepal he was planning for three weeks later.

Guide Harry Frishman, right, and his teenage son Cullen pause atop the summit of Peregrine’s Arete.

Your disheveled blogger, Kevernacular, struggles to gather his wits atop Peregrine’s Arete, after two nasty falls which left him dangling over eternity at the end of a rope.

Natural foods store owner Mike Pellman was Harry Frishman’s other client on our climb in the summer of 1980. Here’s happy Mike on the summit. Photo by Kevin Lynch.

Peregrine’s Arete, in the foreground, isn’t as majestic as some of the  taller Teton peaks, but it was the most difficult climbing challenge of my life.

Here’s guide Harry Frishman at the top of a pitch on Peregrine’s Arete.The climb provided some excellent views, on the left is Hanging Canyon from the Arete, and on the right is a view of the ground of Grand Teton National Park, far below.

It was a memorable and really tough climb on which I took two nasty falls on the same pitch, a long vertical crack which is visible in the photo of the arete above. Something flashed before my eyes as I fell my death, unsurprisingly, but no one else. I recall saying out loud to myself and the mountain later, as we descended, “I’m thirty years old, I’m too old to be climbing this mountain!” I fully recount the climb in a long feature article I wrote about it for The Milwaukee Journal Discover section. You can access the full article below.

But why do I bring this up at this point in time? It certainly was a sort of happenstance, but I had to tell the story.
I had recently asked my girlfriend Ann Peterson if I had ever shown her the Journal article and she told me she had read it a few years ago, but she was disappointed because she never knew what happened to my guide Harry Frishman.
At the end of my Journal article I wrote an epilogue. Three weeks after our climb of Peregrine’s Arete, Frishman traveled to Chinese Nepal to climb 24,790-foot Mount Minya Konka, with Yvon Chouinard and several other climbers. An avalanche swept the climbers 1,500 feet down the mountainside. One of the climbers died of a broken neck.

But this was before the Internet, so I was unable to get further information about the climb at the time.
Yet now, Ann’s comment about Harry’s fate spurred me to Google his name recently. Sure enough, he had survived the avalanche in China. But I found an article about a climb he did in January 1982 on The Middle Teton, back in Wyoming.

The Middle Teton is the third tallest peak in The Tetons. A distinctive feature known as the black dike appears as a straight line running from near the top of the mountain down 800 feet.[6] (See photo below) The black dike is a basaltic intrusion that occurred long after the surrounding rock was formed.[5]

Here’s the Middle Teton in August in the mid-1970s. Note the large face, one of the most imposing in North America, and the distinctive black dike on the face. Photo by Kevin Lynch

This peak poses a special challenge, even to the most skilled and experienced climbers, like Harry and his companion, Mark Whitten. They decided to climb the Northwest Ice Couloir. The story gave me chills in more ways than one. I had always been intrigued by ice climbing but had never gotten around to doing it. The challenge, different from rock climbing, is that your body grapples not only with gravity but the vagaries of frozen water as a climbing surface.

In the story I discovered, Craig Patterson, a Grand Teton National Park Ranger, interviewed Mark Whitten after the climb. Patterson recounts:

“This route is described in Leigh Ortenburger’s A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range as ‘a difficult high-angle snow and ice climb.’ It is rated at Grade II, F6. Both Frishman and Whitten had extensive mountaineering experience. That morning they left the Lower Saddle and began ascending the Northwest Couloir. They decided to climb unroped, although they carried a rope with them. They also had crampons and ice-climbing tools but no hard hats.

 

The Northwest Ice Couloir of The Middle Teton, where Harry Frishman and Mark Whitten climbed, without ropes, in January 1982. This photo shows a lead climber — a belay from below secures him, relatively speaking. Photo courtesy www.mountainproject.com

Around 11:15 a.m., Whitten successfully reached the top of the couloir, with Frishman close behind. A few feet from the top, Frishman slipped. He was unable to self-arrest on the steep ice and fell approximately 2,000 feet to his death. Whitten was unable to reach Frishman, so he ran out to the Moose Visitor Center for help.”

Reading the story, I felt the wind knocked out of me. My eyes welled up a bit. Harry Frisman had always remained a vivid memory, a quiet but gracious man.

(Here’s a link to Patterson’s story, including more details about Harry’s fall: Middle Teton ice climb )

I’ve read that Harry was also a big practical joker. So you can rarely capture a person with one charcterization, such as the uncanny calm I sensed in him as he led us up our climb, two years earlier.

Fate had played a practical joke on Harry, the biggest joke of all, bigger than any mountain he had ever climbed. Our Peregrine’s  Arete climb was graded an F6, like the Middle Teton, maybe a F7, Harry had speculated at the time. But that was in late summer. I wonder now why the two climbers decided not to use their ropes and belay up on the icy, treacherous coilour. Harry was 38, older than the 20-year-olds who typically feel invincible. He was also father and a husband. But his was the climber’s life and its awful, inevitable risk.
He had survived a far more ominous climb and avalanche in Nepal. So maybe he felt he had the upper hand on fate as as he came a few steps away from the Middle Teton summit that cold January day.

Harry Frishman and his bride Libby, also a climber, when they married in Kathmandu, Nepal in 1972. Photo courtesy http://stephenbodio.blogspot.com

____________________

Photos by Mike Pellman, unless otherwise indicated.

Here’s my article about the Peregrine’s Arete climb with Harry Frishman in 1980:

 

Stumbling upon Winslow Homer on a November trip to the great lake front

 

 

Kevernacular with Winslow Homer’s “The Berry Pickers” (as it were) in its new home. With Cookie Monster as security guard. Photo by Ann Peterson

Late autumn, it was a surprisingly alluring November day, and I wanted to get to our great lake. I’d felt cooped up by various tasks and distractions on my computer. So I got on my bike and headed from my Riverwest home for Lake Michigan at Atwater Beach in Shorewood.

Little did I know, something like a force of fate led me, in more ways than one – a Winslow Homer-like instinct towards the vast waterfront, to perhaps find inspiration or replenishment, as I had in a recent visit to the Shorewood Nature  Preserve on the lakefront, which I documented on a previous blog.

For me, it’s also a Melvillian instinct, which I’m susceptible to, given my deep, rather scholarly interest – some might call it an obsession – with Herman Melville, which has led to me to write a novel-in-progress about the great writer. As Ishmael famously observes in the opening page of Moby-Dick : “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…Then, I count it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can.”

Homer, an East Coast dweller who drew deeply from his close proximity to the ocean, was also inspired by the experience of an English seaport town which helped forge his mature style. The latter point is the premise of a major Winslow Homer exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum opening March 1, 2018, for which I will write a preview article for The Shepherd Express newspaper and a more in-depth review on this blog.

Melville and Homer were also sea-loving 19th century contemporaries in forging original American art forms, as part of the so-called “American Renaissance.”  Each was arguably the greatest 19th century Americans at their art and craft, and both largely self-taught. 

Winslow Homer, 1867, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, from catalogue of exhibit “Winslow Homer,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art and Yale University Press, 1995.

It was surprising, but not really, how many people were down on Atwater Beach that afternoon. Some hardy souls even braved the water trying to catch a few waves to surf on. The lake has a powerful draw for many people. I wondered fancifully how many of these were astrological “water signs” like I am.

After my interlude atop the bluff, I headed back down Capitol Drive and noticed that the mild weather had prompted the second-hand shop Chattel Changers to put out some of its wares on the street. If you’re not in a rush, this place is always a temptation for bargain-hunters of interesting and distinctive used and antique items largely acquired from estate sales and consignment. Plus, I have a personal affinity for this place as years ago it housed The Hayes Gallery, where I had a two-man show of my sculpture, my first gallery showing after my graduation with a BFA at UW-Milwaukee.

The place has an amazing amount of merchandise crammed into its two floors with artwork, furniture, oddities and knick-knacks of every imaginable sort and a number of items of quality craftsmanship. I was actually looking for a gift for someone and, sure enough, I found it, though I can’t reveal that item here.

Chattel Changers. Courtesy Chattel Changers Facebook page.

I wandered a bit deeper into the basement when something caught my eye. It looked like a large, framed watercolor painting. It was well-hidden, behind two lamps with fulsome shades. But what struck me immediately was the style of this scene, a depiction of two young women and children hunting for wild berries along a windy coastal spot.  “That’s a Winslow Homer,” I said almost aloud to myself.

I had been a fan of Homer’s for a long time and had even once travelled to New York partly to see and write about a major Homer exhibit in 1996 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which included most of his masterpieces, many utterly drenched in ocean experience and drama, such as “Gulf Stream,” “Breezing Up (a Fair Wind), “Undertow,” and “The Life Line.”

My pulse quickened: Even from behind the lampshades, this looked just like a large Homer watercolor, and a scene set on a the Atlantic ocean shore. The label identified the title as “The Berry Pickers” and, yes, Homer’s signature was quite legible in the lower right corner, with the date “July 1873” inscribed. Could this really be a Homer watercolor? It’s well-known that many art treasures hang in the homes of any number of Milwaukee area residences. Could this watercolor have somehow snuck past the discerning eyes of whomever purchases and prices items here? The label said $53.85, but if you know Chattel Changers they have a system of reducing item prices over time with the actual dates of ensuing price reductions listed on the label.

I stood admiring the scene. Two young women stand at the far left, one holding a small pail in her hand. The ocean wind is clearly high from the hat of each woman. The end of an ornamental ribbon flies horizontally from each woman’s hat lid, a deft way to convey the presence of that powerful force of nature. The woman in the foreground leans back against a large boulder, as if to steady herself against the wind. Below the women, several children search knee- or elbow-deep in the underbrush, hoping to pluck the small, precious fruit.  On the horizon, the silhouette of a steep hill stands over the edge of the oceanfront horizon. Wispy clouds waft above the berry pickers. The composition, earthy colors and textural qualities add up to something truly beautiful, in Homer’s surprisingly modern manner (more on this later).

I wondered what exactly to do. I peered suspiciously around the room. A few bargain-hunters lurked in the basement room. One woman looked back at me inscrutably. Why exactly did they linger here?  I took a deep breath and made a decision. I was traveling by bicycle, so I decided to pay them to hold the gift item, which was too delicate and unwieldy to carry in my backpack, along with some groceries I needed. So I told the cashier I’d be back the next day for it, without mentioning the Homer artwork downstairs.

But I figured it had been here for a while, and I hoped to God that – as obscured as it was by the two large lamps – it would be a safe bet to be there tomorrow.

I slept fitfully that night, and I thought: “Fool! Why didn’t you ask them to hold it for you?” I returned in my car in the morning, shortly after they opened.

I went down the stairs and into the back room. Sure enough, the Homer artwork remained, waiting for me, like a gorgeous but impatient blind date, who didn’t know me from Adam.

With some contortion of effort, I reached past the two bulbous lampshades and managed to pull “The Berry Pickers” down off the wall and take a better look at it under direct lamplight.  On the back I saw a large label: “‘The Berry Pickers,’ Winslow Homer. The Colby College Museum of Art.’ ” 1

I turned it back over and saw that the aqueous, gestural quality of the watercolor seemed quite real. I could also see portions of the loosely-rendered outlines of the figures and the landscape that Homer had sketched out in pencil or graphite. Then, I looked closer at the paper itself. I could detect no texture characteristic of watercolor paper, nor had it any signs of aging, for ostensibly being 144-year-old paper. I let out a wistful sigh, and realized I was looking at a reproduction, although a very good one. Nevertheless, this was a sturdily-framed reproduction that, at a glance and even an extended appreciation, looks for all the world like a large and real Winslow Homer watercolor.

I figured, I’ve got to get this for $50, and I’d find a place for it on my already art-filled walls. I got upstairs and asked for the gift item they had held for me. Then I asked what precisely the cost was for the Homer watercolor reproduction. The woman did a little calculating and said, “Twenty dollars.”

Twenty dollars.  My disappointment over the possible steal of a lifetime rekindled in  realizing I could own this handsome, quite lovely Homer image in my home for a mere twenty bucks. And here, a few blocks from Lake Michigan, this was the sort of find you might expect to luck upon in a similar shop a few blocks from Homer’s beloved stormy Atlantic Ocean.

Though I own plenty of original art, I’m hardly too proud or well-off to frame and hang good reproductions. Among my personal favorites are of Sam Francis’s great 1958 abstract-expressionist painting “The Whiteness of the Whale,” named for a famous chapter in Moby-Dick, as well as a reproduction of Honore Daumier’s marvelous painting of social-commentary art “Third-Class Carriage,” from 1862, which I’d given to my mother long ago as a gift, and received it back when she passed away in 2009.

I loaded up my car with my treasures and headed home.

Part Two:  A Close Look at Winslow Homer’s “The Berry Pickers.”

Why Was I so captivated by my newly-purchased reproduction of Homer’s “The Berry Pickers”? One overarching reason is that Homer’s work is akin to the innovative American literary breakthroughs of Melville, Whitman, Thoreau,  Dickinson, and Poe, which continue to stimulate and even challenge us today. Homer embraced, interpreted and captured the richness and wildness of a New World that was still only partially tamed. He captured America asserting its power in its relation to the world and understood coming to terms with its relationship to the rough grandeur and beauty of the American landscape and its mighty surrounding oceans. That amounted to a distinctively American style and sensibility, one that had shed the dominant conventions and presuppositions of European culture.

Being largely self-taught, he took from certain timeless values of Western culture while reasserting his own native instincts and talents.
Although the subject matter of the berry pickers is hardly heroic or dramatic, it describes an aspect of our relation to our indigenous natural setting and resources. And for me, Homer found liberation in his creative quest, and anticipated European modernists in his stylistic innovations by several decades.
Take a closer look at “The Berry Pickers.” Homer delights in the opportunity to use watercolor on a large and fairly expensive scale. And he understands implicitly when less is more, and the way you can use negative space as part of your storytelling and composition and visual dynamics.

Notice the two details of the watercolor I have highlighted here. In the first, (above, with his signature at the bottom), you see a rather footloose and fancy smattering and smearing of brushwork and paint in suggesting the summery field blooming with wildflowers and fruit. The bounty, and the berry-picking figures in the lower right corner are represented by suggestive smudges and globs with only roughly-hewn renderings of their sun hats clearly specifying their presence. Branches of the trees counterpoint with their own and nearby leaves, in a loose, dancing fashion as they rise above the horizon. And yet Homer is hardly above inserting a touch of playful humor with the small bird that alights upon one of the branches, perhaps waiting to snatch a juicy morsel that falls free amid the joyous picking.

In the second detail (above), you see that Homer actually leaves unpainted large portions of the shoulders, arms and hats of the young hunters in the foreground, freely rendered such as they are. These two whole lower sections amount to a daring, even radical artistic gambit, for 1873. See the yellow-dressed girl’s hair, also very loosely rendered, as are her garment’s folds and bunches. This all forms a meandering abstract pattern that engages the mind and senses. It is almost as if the figures themselves are at one with the freely-growing wilds of the field.

I think this is the sort of close adherence to formal coherence in a loose, articulate yet expressive manner that even the rigorously formalist abstract-expressionist art critic Clement Greenberg would have approved of.
Similarly, the relation between the standing woman in the foreground and her dress, with her jagged cast shadow set against the hulking boulder, is another striking compositional bon mot. The hat ribbons fluttering in the wind inject an element of natural power and action to this enchanting scene.

And yet, Homer also holds his work loosely  together along  the classical composition “golden mean” by breaking the composition in two-thirds portions, horizontally and vertically. The shore beneath the waterline delineates the horizontal division and the subtle-but-striking presence of the big, pointed mound in the background suggests the division vertically. In effect, the whole scene hangs on that grid.

Overall, Homer clearly strove here to capture a living, breathing scene of beauty. This is a work of abundant lyricism and life and, for sure, something one can easily live with on one’s living room wall, day after day after day.

And all that for twenty dollars.

____________

  1. Winslow Homer’s original watercolor of “The Berry Pickers” now resides in The National Gallery in Washington, though at the time my reproduction was framed it evidently was the property of the Colby College Museum of Art, in Waterville, Maine.

Photos by Kevin Lynch, unless otherwise indicated.

 

 

 

 

Flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell brings her utopian vision to Milwaukee

Nicole Mitchell. Photo by Lauren Deutsch courtesy chicagojazz.net  

Nicole Mitchell Quartet, Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 E. Locust St., Alternating Currents Live Series, 7 p.m. Sunday, December 10, $8 general admission, $7 student & seniors, $6 WPBC members

Alex Wing– bass
Felton Offard – guitar
Jovia Armstrong – percussion
Nicole MItchell – flutes, compositions

Flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell sounds like the pied piper to a new future, a utopian dream melding human courage, advanced technology and nature.

She’s extraordinary because, despite its radiant qualities, the flute has occupied a comparatively humble place in both jazz, classical and pop music, all too often being a refuge, and a musical ghetto, for women musicians.

In the post-bop jazz era, the instrument found some footing, as some multi-instrumentalists helped advance the flute’s sonic and expressive possibilities, including Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy, and Lew Tabackin, and Herbie Mann showed the flute could thrive in funky groove-oriented realms. Flutist Jeremy Steig revealed a more adventurous imagination, perhaps a precursor to Mitchell. In the 1970s, a black female jazz-pop flutist also emerged, Bobbi Humphrey.

Starting in the late 1970s, James Newton expanded on the more classical flute technique Hubert Laws had applied to jazz and became among the first to make ambitious, stately and highly-textural original statements focussed on the instrument, and to extend the jazz tradition.

In recent times, however, no one has taken the slender, silver sound-mover further than California-born Chicagoan Nicole Mitchell. She reminds us the flute conveys among the most celestial of sounds but also, in its closeness to pure breath, among the most human and organic. The elastic space across that spectrum actually holds powers of great, moving evocation and beauty, a region she has consistently explored and expanded.

Nicole Mitchell. Courtesy www.chicagojazz.net

She’s become also an increasingly conceptual artist. Now, her most recent album, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE Records), amounts to a stunning and transporting culmination of her efforts to weave a majestic tapestry of jazz, gospel, experimentalism, pop and African percussion — through albums such as Black Unstoppable (Delmark, 2007), Awakening (Delmark, 2011), and Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler (Firehouse 12, 2008), which received commissioning support from Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works.

Mitchell also has served as the first woman president of Chicago’s internationally-influential  Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Among AACM musicians who also advanced the role of flute are Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton. But the expansiveness of Mitchell’s vision seems more akin to pre-AACM space-jazz bandleader Sun Ra and perhaps Pulitzer-winning AACM brass player-composer Wadada Leo Smith.

None of these predecessors diminish the originality of Mitchell’s artistic quest. She is currently a Professor of Music, teaching in “Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology,” (ICIT) a new cutting-edge graduate program at the University of California, Irvine. Mitchell has received the DownBeat Critics Poll and the Jazz Journalists Association awards as “Top Flutist of the Year” for four consecutive years (2010-2014) and again in 2017, from the JJA. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago commissioned Mandorla.

“Mandorla Awakening II” album cover. Courtesy FPE Records.

In her liner notes, Mitchell describes Mandorla as a society formed on “an obscure island in the Atlantic” in 2099. Amid the “inevitable decay” of contemporary society, “a vibrant, diverse, and technologically adept culture emerges…an egalitarian society designed by people who had survived the destructive forces of the egos war and the global virus .”

The more specific musical story poetically describes Mandorla as possible by the striving for “the sound of truth” generated by “sticking our hands in the black soil” and allowing birds to “sing interlocking songs of imagination.” The sound seems “the one thread we hold to pull (to safety) our loved ones dangling over the cliff, close to peril and poverty.”

So one can readily imagine interlocking birdsong evoked by her flute, but the album’s larger ensemble canvas also entails, in the piece “Timewrap,”  (Or “timewarp?” her titles tend to wordplay),  a moan, engendered from the history of slavery, from blood in the fields, from perhaps Toni Morrison’s ghostly, tragic Beloved. “That moan was a seed of liberation.” Mitchell writes. “That moan love for life. That moan is determination. That moan has been a grain of sand that calls our destiny and survival of humanity.”

So Mandorla opens with “Egoes War,” a pulse, big sonic texture, a thick wash of electronic and acoustic effects. A forlorn theme emerges on flute, sounding both ancient and futuristic. The guitar is a space traveler or an ego tripper. (Alex Wing, who plays guitar, oud, and theremin on the album, will be part of Mitchell’s quartet here, along with guitarist

Felton Offard and the album’s percussionist Jovia Armstrong). This piece does sound warlike, but strangely beautiful. Mitchell’s tone and wary flute theme spiral into the toxic haze like a shaman-goddess working to ease the bloodletting, perhaps allowing a purging of toxins. A descending line repeats like a gentle, insistent jeremiad. Percussion work sizzles and crackles like wildfire of fear and perhaps hope.

The second piece “Sub-Mission” starts tentatively, with shakuhachi flute, oud, and other AACM-ish “little instruments.” The foundlings of the vibrant, multi-cultural “technologically adept” culture are emerging on the remote Atlantic island. Mitchell’s flute sounds like an explorer on this island, a violin also wends its way through the uncertainty, the flute emboldens with full-throated courage. Then, a pirouetting, lyrical dance arises among the instruments, followed by a somewhat ominous interlude set against Tomeka Reid’s cello, which spawns its own strange beauty. This all suggests facing the challenge of letting go of old ways and submitting to the possibility of a new, enlightened society.

Plenty more ensues in Mandorla Awakening, including several vocals to advance the drama and storyline. But I’ll leave the discovery of that to you, and to those parts of Mandorla that may ensue at Sunday’s concert.

In this age of Trump and regressive, authoritarian politics, her sort of creative consciousness feels urgent, replenishing, empowering.

Make no mistake; Nicole Mitchell is out there, forging ahead, her talismanic flute catching the light of a new dawn.

Delving down into The Shorewood Nature Preserve

 

You step into a moderately steep descending path, which immediately lends a sense of adventure and discovery. The ravine’s deep walkway is not unlike one in Lake Park, off the par-3 golf course. But this is decidedly a road less-travelled than Lake Park’s.

Yet this site is not remote, the entrance located on Lake Drive, at the east end of Menlo Blvd., a few blocks south of Atwater Beach, which is at the end of Capitol Drive. The preserve’s path has big shouIders, full of tall, wind-whispering trees. And today, early on a late November morning, we soon see the vast, flat-line horizon of Lake Michigan glimmering through the leafless forward branches. To finally reach the water level, you carefully step down a slight drop off of about 25 or 30 feet, manageable for most without ambulatory problems. Or you can burrow through some adjacent underbrush to avoid the cavity.

We have reached the Great Lakefront destination spot of The Shorewood Nature Preserve.

My companion, Ann Peterson, said when as she first arrived here last summera huge heron, perched on the water’s edge, took flight with deliberate, ponderous elegance, not because Ann scared it by her presence, she believes.

It’s been noted as a great location for bird watchers, as hundreds of exposed rocks on the north portion provide perches for birds.  “Since Hurricane Sandy, Chicago lowered the water level in Lake Michigan and there are hundreds of exposed rocks, making good perches for water fowl,” reports a woman posting on the Milwaukee Area Parks website. “You can see geese, sea gulls, and ducks.”  However, in warmer weather the smell there can also reflect that populating as well, but not on our icicled November morning.

 Beach rocks at Shorewood Nature Preserve in 2012. Photo courtesy milwaukeeparks.blogspot.com, 

But things have changed since then, it seems. Another friend, who discovered the preserve a few years back, said that the preserve had a beach of appreciable size leading to the water’s edge. There’s far less beach now. Now you get to the bottom and you meet the water, almost suddenly. My companion Ann says the “discovery” effect is more dramatic in the summer when Lake Michigan is hidden by three foliage until you get to the bottom, when its grand beauty spills out onto your senses. On our late fall morning, the sky rapidly shifted from blue emblazoned with streaks of illuminated clouds (below), to impressionistic washes of gold and autumnal azure, engulfing fishing boats on the water.

There’s a small “fee” for the preserve visit: a slightly heaving breath and heart, by the time you climb back to Lake Drive.

Here’s a brief photo essay from our visit to The Shorewood Nature Preserve on Saturday morning, Nov. 25:

Shorewood Nature Preserve Morning

November Icicles

Fishermen’s Morn on the Great Golden Pond

A Sun-blessed Surf

November Sky, Rolling Waves, and a Dedicated Angler

A Moment of Solitude

From the Bottom, The Path Down to the Great Lake (drop-off in foreground) 

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All photos by Kevin Lynch unless otherwise indicated.

 

World War III is here and it’s not with North Korea or Russia or any human enemy…

This is a digital projection but major coastal cities will be vulnerable to major floods if climate change continues apace and unchecked, says Bill McKibben. courtesy neatorama.com

Right now, World War III rages across the globe. And while the US President whistles through the battlefield like a world-class fool, even all those nations who agreed to the Paris Accord aren’t doing enough. That’s the dire warning of Bill McKibben’s deeply knowledgeable and far-reaching jeremiad from 2016 which grows more urgent and relevant each passing week, literally.

“Enemy forces have seized huge swaths of territory; with each passing week, another 22,000 square miles of Arctic ice disappears. ” he writes. “Experts dispatched to the battlefield in July saw little cause for hope, especially since this siege is one of the oldest fronts in the war. ‘In 30 years, the area has shrunk approximately by half,” said a scientist who examined the onslaught. “There doesn’t seem anything able to stop this.’”

McKibben notes that the gargantuan enemy isn’t angry at us, or otherwise emotionally or psychologically motivated, which can lead to mistakes, like Hitler’s many in WWII, or would likely happen to Kim Jong Un, if the North Korean dictator tries to use a nuclear weapon.

Rather, McKibbon notes, the enemy is indifferent, just as Nature was in Moby-Dick, our greatest American parable, among other things. Except Nature is now on a tsunami roll, far more destructive than it ever was in the mid-1800s, when Melville published his book.

The natural environment of Arctic wildlife disappears at a catastrophic rate week after week. The implications for the earth and civilization are staggering. Courtesy Huffington Post.com

Worse, North America’s corporate and governmental technological efforts are going in the wrong direction, as the massive oil spill of the new Keystone pipeline in North Dakota recently showed. One the eve of the decision to grant final approval to build the pipeline, it’s almost as if Nature – in the form of 210,000 gallons of gushing crude oil – sent a very pointed, and sprawling, message. Here’s a New York Times report on the spill:https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/17/us/keystone-pipeline-transcanada-leak.html

McKibben has been our greatest scholar, writer and activist on environmental crisis for a long time and remains at the peak of his powers. 1 He was one of Bernie Sanders’ primary civilian expert consultants for his presidential race, when Sanders accurately declared climate change was the greatest threat to the world.

“World War III” is McKibben’s term, but he says we can still win the war but only if we mobilize in the way that is comparable, to an exponential degree, to our belatedly successful technological manufacturing response in the face of Nazi Germany virtually swallowing up all of Europe. Except now, most major nations will need to do the same.

Back home, even coal miners and their champions need to read this article and understand that the change necessary will only benefit coal miners, in terms of financial security and personal safety. The only constant in life is change, the truth we must all face up to once again. Now that the season of catastrophic weather –- hurricanes and hellish wildfires of unprecedented magnitude – we need to marshall our forces with clean, renewable energy production, which will also create thousands of new jobs. Even if there is a seasonal ebb and flow, natural catastrophes will only worsen if we don’t do something ambitious – aimed at the big, harrowing picture, at the long, serious, precipitous haul.

Wildfire photo courtesy images2.naharnet.com

Please don’t judge the war by my introductory words. But take Bill McKibben very seriously because he knows more about this than virtually anyone. McKibben is not an environmental extremist; he is an environmental realist  And he writes a very compelling story, full of historical and scientific perspective.

And this war is not a metaphor. It’s as real as Hurricane Harvey. As real as death. McKibben’s article is very readable, but a long one, only because we need some substance to get to the truth of a global war.

Here is McKibben’s story: A World at War

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  1. Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of the climate group 350.org.

Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer venture deep into darkness past and coming

Sister singer-songwriters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer have recorded their first duo album, mostly brilliantly realized covers. Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

Album cover courtesy rollingstone.com

Album Review

Shelby Lynne/Allison Moorer Not Dark Yet (Silver Cross)

The lateness of this first, yet seemingly natural, collaboration of sister singer-songwriters carries old, heavy freight. Both witnessed their father kill their mother, then himself, in the backwoods of Alabama. Decades past, finally realized, Not Dark Yet reveals both as artists mature enough to transmute tragedy into a deep array of poignant expression. The album cover does depict three figures wholly shrouded in shadow, a teenager and an adolescent frolicking while a third person plays guitar.

Lynne is a fairly straight country artist and younger sister Allison (the ex-spouse of Steve Earle) is decidedly alt-country. And yet, they avoid the sentimental pitfalls common to country autobiographical song with a brilliant array of covers of other singer-songwriters, save one song by Lynne. The title song, one of Dylan’s best late period creations, clearly encounters trauma’s impact: “Feels like my soul has turned into steel/I’ve still got the scars the sun didn’t heal.” Yet it has graceful depth, an offhanded philosophic recognition of darkness’s inevitability in life. Here and elsewhere, their voices’ blood-matched closeness plumbs their souls and touches the listener.

Their oblique approach to their parental loss dwells in their rendering of  Townes Van Zandt’s chilling “Lungs,” uttered from the strangely-elevated viewpoint of a person dying of lung cancer: “Jesus was an only son and love his only concept/strangers cry in foreign tongues and dirty up the doorstep.”

Or perhaps they’re searching for their martyred mother in Jessi Coulter’s “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes.” Here their vocal harmonies are soul-straining but wrenchingly radiant, entwining each other like tendrils of a crown of thorns. Or hear the yearning of Jason Isbell’s “The Color of a Cloudy Day”: “I can never find you in my dreams,” an obsessively repeated refrain. Nirvana’s “Lithium” activates a chemistry that seems to reach into the sisters’ shared historical essence. A forlorn, layered spirituality dwells in this album, an acceptance of the larger mysteries.

And yet, such fathomless beauty and tenderness carries through their lovely, life-worn voices that one feels them, not merely as orphans, but as women artists who have lived, lost and learned. This is among the year’s most indelible roots music albums.

And it’s an activist statement: They list the contact information for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence  beneath the inside-cover song titles and credits.

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A shorter version of this review was first published in The Shepherd Express

Melville speaks across generations of American veterans

The sky hangs shrouded in greys today, and the ground increasingly blanketed with fallen, dying leaves, even as flashes of fading autumn glory continue to cling to trees above.

That all seems very appropriate for Veterans Day today. I hung out my 13-star American flag, signifying America’s founding colonies.
And my soul feels heavy today, but not overcome. I offer this post humbly to honor all veterans, living and dead. But I am personally prompted by two veterans who have passed away, and not in the romantically heroic manner of a battlefield death.

The first was my late cousin John Zeh, who served as a gunner on a helicopter in the Vietnam War. John survived the war, but upon returning back home after his service the Agent Orange poisoning his body began to take its toll, and he died. It was the byproduct of rampant napalm spraying of Vietnam by the U.S. during the war, ultimately an insidious sort of “friendly fire.”

Sadly John Zeh is not listed among those late veterans names etched in the beautifully magnificent and understated Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, an oversight in my opinion. John was a great guy, a good husband and father, and a funny fellow, and is still deeply missed.

*

In 1971, my late cousin John Zeh sits in the middle foreground, after his return from Vietnam War service. He wore a wig due to baldness incurred by chemotherapy for Agent Orange, the Vietnam War-era affliction which ultimately killed him. This happy occasion also includes (from left) John’s brother Bill Zeh, my sister Anne, myself, my sister Betty, John’s wife Karin Zeh and their child Teri, and my sister Sheila. 

The second departed veteran was a very close friend of mine, Jim Glynn who died in October of 2004 of bladder cancer, which I am convinced arose from his need to use catheters for all the post-war years he lived vibrantly as a paraplegic disabled veteran. Jim is well-known in the Milwaukee music community for his popular, long-time eclectic jazz radio program on WMSE, also as a flutist-percussionist, and a grade-A culture vulture who consistently, despite his disability, directly supported and attended countless arts events in our community.

Disabled veteran Jim Glynn, right, served as the best man for my wedding in October 1997..

Jim also served during the Vietnam War although he was stationed in Europe. One day he was riding in a Jeep which lost control. He was thrown from the vehicle and the catastrophic injury to his legs left him paralyzed, unable to walk ever again, without crutches.
I recently had the pleasure to selected some CDs from his magnificent music collection, which he bequeathed to me, but his sister Shannon has kept it stored for some years and we agreed to allow it to be offered among certain friends and disc jockeys. It was a joy to see his collection again. The collection reportedly will be digitally filed and made available online by WMSE. Roaming through the boxes of CDs was a sweet experience that also reached in and pressed on my heart like a great elegy.

I have done radio music programs in the past and I hope to do a music program after I finished my novel about Herman Melville. I look forward to the opportunity to play some of the music from the Jim Glynn collection.

Speaking of Melville, I offer, on this Veterans Day, one of his wonderful poems “Shiloh: A Requiem” from his book of Civil War poems, Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, from 1866. It’s an alternative viewpoint to the brilliant and overwhelming immersion of Ken Burns’ recent documemtary TV series The Vietnam War. I also offer this because I think the poem resonates to America today, even though Melville wrote it shortly after the Civil War, and with that great conflict as his subject. Yet the poem reaches far beyond its time, because America today is stricken with great internal conflicts, mired in the same subjects the Civil War was fought over — the profound American stain of racism, and the desire to “preserve the Union” as President Lincoln put it.

Today we suffer from deep schisms over race, that lacerate the nation’s soul, and from the way the current presidential administration seems, for so many, like an increasing threat to our sacred American democracy and way of life, as exemplified by our national motto E pluribus unum: From many, one.

Melville’s complex attitudes toward war were far less optimistic and patriotic than Walt Whitman’s better-known Civil War poems, “Drum-Taps” from Leaves of Grass.

In addressing Melville’s point of view, I turn to the great poetry critic-scholar Helen Vendler from “Melville and the Lyric of History,” one of the supplemental essays in the Prometheus Books edition of Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War.

Vendler’s quote here references a couple of other poems in Battle Pieces which I invite you to investigate but her interpretive points apply aptly to Shiloh: A Requiem:

“Melville can never focus on one aspect, is never content to be single-minded: the costs borne by the brave men drowned in the Tecumseh must haunt the close of Melville’s victory narrative, just as the college colonel, in the brilliant poem of that name, cannot forget, as he leads his exhausted but victorious regimen home, the unspeakable truth that came to him in battle.

“And just as “The March into Virginia” began not with epic narrative but with reflection, enclosed not with narrative but with the tragic knowledge gained both by those who perished in those who lived to fight another day, so “The Battle for the Bay” begins in wisdom, continues with narrative, and ends in the tragedy that must qualify every deeply-felt battle song, even one of victory.” 1

Shiloh is not a poem about victory, it commemorates fallen veterans on both sides of the war. This reflects, to me, the most generous and courageous of spirits as a poetic observer, even if it was too challenging and equivocal for much of Melville’s readership then, and it remains, at times, challenging for contemporary readers. But Battle-Pieces is immensely worthwhile and enjoyable, one of the still-underappreciated masterworks of perhaps the greatest of American creative writers.

Shiloh: A Requiem (April, 1862)

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
      The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
      The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
      Around the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
            And natural prayer
      Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
      Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
      But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
      And all is hushed at Shiloh.
Finally, as a Veterans Day postscript, I offer you an opportunity for a bit of activism, specifically this petition for a cause to benefit severely disabled veterans.
Peace,
Kevin Lynch
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Online Melville text courtesy The Poetry Foundation.
 1. Helen Vendler, “Melville and the Lyric of History,” supplemental essays to Herman Melville’s Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War,  Prometheus Books, 2001, 260-261.