Steve Earle: The Hard-Core Troubadour Carries Wounds in his Outlaw Heart

Steve rocks

Steve Earle (right) and two of the Dukes rock out at a recent concert at the Minneapolis Zoo.  Dukes’ fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore and guitarist Chris Masterson also played a short opening set in their duo incarnation, The Mastersons. All photos by Kevin Lynch 

Apple Valley, MN – Steve Earle continues to amaze, for the depth of his musical and songwriting talent, his passion, righteousness and intellect.  Especially the way he often weaves these things through any given song.

He’s also a rare bird for his self-described working-class redneck cultural background. Our overheated stereotyping today might peg him as one of the anti-intellectual, blind-faith types that walk the Donald Trump lockstep. But Earle’s a patriotic lefty and an author with so much to give in mind and heart, and this was abundantly clear when he performed Sunday night at the Weesner Amphitheatre in the Minneapolis Zoo.

His extremely generous set displayed the range of style and attitude he’s cherished for.

A key moment arrived when he recounted his experience of beloved singer-songwriter Guy Clark’s death, which began with a story about high school teachers who showed Earle the way. Fellow Texan Clark had battled cancer for a decade, and lost his soul mate Susanna Clark a few years earlier. Earle recounted waking up in Nashville, and joining other mourners to sing Clark’s songs. In his new album’s liner notes, Earle explains how he packs grief in his back pocket: “It’s no secret that loss comes naturally to those of us who wander the outer edges of the wide world. We’ve not only come to expect that, most of us have made it our stock and trade to embrace it, savor it, set it to the melody that the North wind whistles and the rhythm of a broken heart.”

When he got home, Earle wrote his song for Clark, “Goodbye Michelangelo.” It shows his well-honed tender side. Plucking a plaintive electric mandolin, he sang: “So long, my Captain adios/ Sail upon the sea of ghosts/ Chase the white whale to the end/ Bring the story back again…You taught me everything I know/ Goodbye Michelangelo.”

Why “Michelangelo”? Clark was an artist-craftsman, a sculptor of guitars, as well as a musical poet like his best friend, and Earle’s first great influence, Townes van Zandt. (Guy’s ashes are accordingly waiting to be incorporated into a sculptor’s bronze statue. For a great example of that three-man connection, hear the album Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark: Together at the Bluebird Café.)

“Michelangelo” graces Earle’s new album So You Wannabe an Outlaw, which is inspired by an original “outlaw musician,” Waylon Jennings. His classic album Honky Tonk Heroes grabbed Earle’s wayward heart again, not long ago when he was searching for an album theme. Jennings’ album was another timeless collaboration of dust-covered compatriots, Billy Joe Shaver and Tompall Glaser. 1

Earle’s a man of brotherhood and sisterhood, and both tendencies are shot through with romanticism, he admitted Sunday, toward the end. He openly recounted circumstances that surround his current situation, not-long divorced from his former musical mate and spouse Allison Moorer. He’s hopelessly star-crossed, it seems, having been married seven times, including twice to the same woman. Despite it all, Earle still believes in romance, not only between lovers, but in the idea that there’s a person out there for everyone. He even helped Moorer finish a song not long ago, which he then recorded and performed, “News from Colorado.” And even if his belief is riddled with holes, he now cherishes the provisional freedom of “watching all the baseball games I want to.”

These reflections led to the new album’s “The Girl on the Mountain,” which echoes Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl,” speaking pointedly of a love he can’t let go. Earle could always soften his boot heel-tough voice and it drags its feet like a hobo here: “Sometimes late at night I pray/She’ll come down to me someday/But the girl up on the mountain never knew.” The ambiguity of that last clause pricks the heart. Did she ever really know how he loved her? Did he ever really have a chance? Would he always lose her to a mountain?

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Steve Earle is a self described “romantic” who’s unafraid to bare his soul in concert.

The new album bears various riches, including two hard-life songs “If Mama Could See Me” and the harrowing “Fixin’ to Die.” The former one walks the fine line between shame and regret: “If mama could see me in this prison she’d a cried but she cain’t,” another canny line about tough realities. What mother can really accept an imprisoned child?

“Fixin’ to Die” recounts a crime of passion: “Fixin’ to die and I reckon that I’m going to hell. Shot my baby in the Heaven-on-the-Highway hotel!” Earle followed it up with the thematically conjoined “Hey Joe,” best known as a cover by Jimi Hendrix. It’s another murder ballad that he and his ace band The Dukes lent great power and even majesty, the broad-shoulders of tragedy. It also included a razor-edged political ad lib: “I’m goin’ down south before that a–hole builds that wall/ So a man can be free!”

Earle mixed in just enough of his superb catalog for variety, including the heavy metal grinder “Copperhead Road,” the pealing mysticism of the minor-key vamp “Transcendental Blues,” the stirring call-and-response of “City of Immigrants” and, in encore, one of his most exhilarating songs, “Johnny Come Lately.”

In the World War II tradition, “Johnny” celebrates returning veterans, even though this tale tells of a Purple Heart Vietnam vet who’s plenty worse for wear. Yet the irony of his troubles make hardly a dent in the hometown hoopla. Wait until he tries to find a job.

Finally, I can’t overlook Earle’s power-packed new song “The Firebreak Line,” which, he said, might be the first and only song dedicated to wildfire fighters. Wildfires continue to ravage droughted areas and threaten property and human health and life. Talk about a new breed of unsung heroes. Until now. “Gotta pray that the wind’ll die/ and it rains down from on high/ raise a glass/ for the hotshots past/ in hotshot heaven up above the sky.”

Even if his personal life – including serious prison time for drug convictions – often plays like a B disaster movie, Earle is a hard-core hero in my book, the sort we need as many as possible of in our blighted culture and politics.

He also displayed his superb musical taste in his choice of opening acts. The first group, the duo called The Mastersons, are actually members of the current edition of the Dukes, and include the excellent guitarist-vocalist Chris Masterson and violinist-mandolinist-vocalist Eleanor Whitmore. Together the couple dealt out piquant harmonies and snap-dragon rhythms.

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The Cactus Blossoms add very original dimensions to their Everly Brothers-esque vocal harmony style.

Harmonies were also the calling card of the second opening group, The Cactus Blossoms, and if you only glanced at the card you’d swear it read “The Everly Brothers.” I’ve never heard a group more perfectly and pointedly capture the gleaming fraternal resonances of that famous duo. And yet, for all that, you found not a single Everly cover in the set of this St. Paul-based group. Their lone cover was an old Kinks song, “Who’ll Be the Next in Line?” And they burn a very personal trademark into their style. For all their soul, the Everly Brothers almost sounded slick compared to this group. Which doesn’t mean The Cactus Blossoms lack for high musical skills. The vocal harmonies are achingly plangent and precise. From their mirror voices and looks you’d swear they’re blood brothers but nope, the singers are Page Burkum and Jack Torrey. And tellingly, they make no mention of the Everly brothers’ style on their website bio page.

What’s different is that the Blossoms slather a thick, hazy glaze of knotty-pine country on their Everly-ish pipes, often delivered at a sleepy shuffle, but with a band fully capable of cranking up for a bluegrass style hoe-down, or personalized Honky Tonk with a hint of burnished class. The overall effect, at its best, is down-home, infectious and quietly thrilling.

zoo amphThe Weezner Amphitheater at the Minneapolis Zoo is a stunningly picturesque concert setting.

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1 Earle historically is a brilliant collaborator, among his highlights have been full album-collaboration with the Del McCoury band, The Mountain, which includes his superb duet of “I’m Still in Love with You,” Iris Dement, reminiscent of his joyous “You’re Still Standing There,” with Lucinda Williams. He recorded “Johnny Come Lately” with the ultimate rabble-rousing Irish bar band, The Pogues.  Then there’s his duet with Allison Moorer “After The Fire Is Gone” from Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute To Loretta Lynn, and several duets with Emmylou Harris and one with his sister Stacey Earle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tonight hear vintage Grant Green and “Emergency!” by The Tony Williams Lifetime performed live at the Jazz Estate

Lifetime-Emergency

Photo courtesy Polydor Records

Emergency! by the Tony Williams Lifetime always had the pressing urgency it’s titled insisted on. But it was also always a cauldron of mystery, rough allure and power. In 1969, it churned the way forward for most of the jazz-fusion era, and distilled as much burgeoning talent into a trio as any group of its era.

That adds up to one of the most promising local jazz events in recent memory. Guitarist Neil Davis will lead a trio that will perform the original two-record set Emergency! live tonight at 9 p.m. at The Jazz Estate.

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Davis is a technically-gifted and historically-curious guitarist and educator, and one of the co-founders of the West End Conservatory and Milwaukee Jazz Vision, the website that promotes and documents local and national jazz in the Milwaukee area.

However, because Davis could not find the proper organist to do the record full justice, he has changed his plans. The night will feature a couple of tunes from Emergency! and be a tribute to the guitarist Grant Green, drawing from the albums Green Street and Standards. The bassist will be Clay Schaub and the drummer Devin Drobka.

The original Emergency! recording included the youthful, oddly disarming vocals of drummer Williams.

“Where am I going?” Williams sings at one point. “Where have I come from? If anyone asks me, I know I can say. ” The listener wonders as well, and perhaps Williams did at times, but you can’t help feel pulled along on this uncanny adventure. Williams’ drums blend whisper-to-roar snare press rolls, and a blistering array of attacks, explosions  and thrumming, throbbing back beats. Yet there are also disarming scenes of quiet otherworldliness.

Williams, only 24 at the time, was boldly charting new ground here. He hired the visionary organist Larry Young and the brilliant British guitarist John McLaughlin, who got his first chance to fuse jazz and rock. He would, of course, become a giant of fusion, especially with The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Here he blended fiery speed with bracing, uncategorizable textures.

Young, a modal innovative stylist on electric organ, summons some of the most ethereal sounds ever mustered from the instrument. At times he sounds like an ice-skating rink organist on acid. But he’s clearly a virtuoso.
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Tony Williams_ Memories Of A Drum Genius – Drum! Courtesy Drum! Magazine

Miles Davis showed up at one of the trio’s first live performance, and was so impressed that he asked the trio to join his band. Williams declined at first, even though he’d been part of Davis’s classic ’60s quintet from the age of 17. But before long, Davis had lured Williams and McLaughlin to help him record his break-out fusion impressionism masterpiece, In a Silent Way. Organist Young would follow along with the drummer and guitars on Davis’s seminal jazz fusion record Bitches Brew. 

But much that was fresh, strange and wondrous about the first possibilities of fusion arose like a dancing, sinuous flame in Emergency!

 

Old Crow Medicine Show proves the “Blonde” tonic still zings after 50 years

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50 Years of Blonde on Blonde – Old Crow Medicine Show  (Columbia Nashville)

Like snake oil healers, Old Crow Medicine Show lays hands on Dylan’s myriad symptoms of unrequited or forsaken love, as detailed in his classic 1966 double album. Their zealously empathetic remake of Blonde on Blonde follows Dylan’s odyssey through the heart’s impossibly verdant wilds.

Since the late 1990s, Old Crow Medicine Show has helped forge the neo-bluegrass, old-timey band style since aped by the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and many more. None possess more joi de vivre or instrumental flair. So perhaps this historical convergence was as inevitable as a rush-hour car crash between a new songwriter in town aiming at outshooting the Music Row scribes, and a car full of Nashville session virtuosos drunk on the real thing.

old-crow-medicine-show-2017Old Crow Medicine Show thrives on a lively, bounding dynamic of soulful ensemble, interplay and solos. Douglas Mason/Getty Images. Billboard.com

That’s sort of what happened in 1966 when Charlie McCoy, Wayne Moss, Kenny Buttrey and other pickers ‘n’ kickers, including blind pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins,  tackled Dylan’s new songs. They ranged from the woozy opener “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35″ where Dylan’s lyric initiated a circular pot party (which the pickers may or may not have realized), to the long, closing meditation-in-your-beer “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

According to Rolling Stone reporter Daryl Sanders, the recording session began by Dylan setting the bar at an almost vertiginous height of poetic intoxication.

“This wouldn’t be another business-as-usual engagement. It was ‘Visions of Johanna’ — seven minutes and 33 seconds of Dylan’s muse at its most unfettered, full of dazzling phrase-making (Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule) and profoundly suggestive pronouncements (‘Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial’). For his part, keyboardist Bill Aikins recalls trying to understand what Dylan was saying in the song. It wasn’t like Nashville session cats — or those in any other city — typically found themselves contemplating lines such as, ‘See the primitive wallflower freeze / When the jelly-faced women all sneeze.’

“I thought it was really … far out would be the term I would have used at the time,” Aikins recalls, “and still today, it was a very out-there song.” 1

Anything but politically correct throughout, the set included the ultimate female stereotyping love song that remains hard to resist, “Just Like a Woman.” Dylan makes us think there’s a grain of truth in there, for the “she breaks just like a little girl” kicker line seems, to this day, an expression of irresistible empathy, love and respect for the woman he’s portraying so incisively, as I hear it.

A few songs earlier the songwriter laid his abject heart on the line, of course, with the stirring “I Want You.”

And “Stuck Inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again)” – with its insouciant, rattletrap groove and hit-the-rickety-breaks release to each new verse, resounds in many geographic and spiritual directions – a private, noirish hell riddled with nightmare details.  “An, he just smoked my eyelids an’ punched my cigarette,” is a surreal yet comically-pointed image worthy of a slightly outre Woody Allen gag. (These two contemporaries remain among our greatest tough-but-milquetoast-statured culture geniuses.)

Or more pertinently to today’s headlines, the “Mobile” narrator reveals one brilliant way to do gun-rage catharsis that all too few have learned from: “He built a fire on Main Street and shot it full of holes.”

Ah, but the musicians on that song may have churned it so well by digging the feeling of cutting – musically and thematically – their peers in a competing Tennessee music city (Memphis, not Mobile).

Let’s down-shift a bit to the present recording. On “Obviously True Believers,” the Medicine Show pickers and fiddlers make us believe the power of their bluegrass/newgrass to hold its own energy in a reflective chrysalis, embracing those original sessions, even to release the music like a new sort of winged beauty.

They’re facing a high bar, here, too. Like The Band (then known as The Hawks), Dylan’s chosen collaborators back North, OCMS is three-lead-singers strong. Nobody today can match The Band’s craggy-hillside three-part vocal harmony, notably when covering a Dylan song or backing him. And no single band matches Rick Danko, Levon Helm, or especially Richard Manuel, as lead singers. Is that unfair to note? The younger band surely and humbly understands how The Band influenced them.

But the remade Blonde is more about solo vocal takes and, in lead turns, these singers (Ketch Secor, Critter Fuqua and Kevin Hayes) vocalize with at least as much passion as Dylan did, but without his accompanying layers of nuanced and biting tonal irony.

I love their ardor and fire, and how they up the ante with energy. Yet, it’s like they’re in love with these songs like would-be or lost lovers. So it’s cool to be aurally reminded of Dylan’s genius and how superbly his songwriting fit the Nashville players’ ratty-holed couching of it. As with any good tribute remake, the new album should send you back to the original, not just to accept this as a substitute.

Dylan let Blonde on Blonde grow across the Tennessee hills and worm itself into the collective consciousness, with roots as abiding as the tides of time. So it was that this project arose, half a century down Highway 61’s ever-worn path, from his native Minnesota to the deepest South where most of his favorite musical vernaculars came from. But he’s too great of an American poet and visionary to leave his roots at that.

Not coincidentally, another American road introduced this great band for me when Ariana Karp, the daughter of my photographic collaborator Katrin Talbot, popped Old Crow’s first CD into the car player some years ago. We were headed East in research quest of Herman Melville, for my book about the great American novelist-poet-visionary never quite recognized as such in his time. Melville is also deeply ingrained in Dylan’s experience, from his evocations of Ahab on Bringing It All Back Home to his description of Moby-Dick in his recent Nobel Prize-winning speech:

“He pursues the whale around both sides of the earth; it’s an abstract goal, nothing concrete or definite. Calls Moby the Emperor, sees him as the embodiment of evil. Ahab’s got a wife and child back in Nantucket that he reminisces about now again. You can anticipate what will happen.”

You sense the affinity of Dylan’s own restless search, to grapple with his own demons just ahead of him, and his better angels following warily behind, a search which has proven amazingly fecund over these years, for avoiding self-destruction. And Ahab’s wife is his own “girl from the north country,” and Dylan’s own is Sara Lownds, whom he had only wed shortly before he took off for Nashville to tip the world’s balance in his sprawling musical adventure.

He’d revisit his exquisitely-doomed Nashville romanticism after recovering from his real-life, near-fatal motorcycle nightmare, to finally record the kinder, gentler Nashville Skyline, which sits in history right behind Dylan’s healed motorcycle ass, even as the mythical John Wesley Harding remains his “healing up” transition album.  What heady times these were for the forming American “roots music” genres (along with The Band’s efforts, among other things) and they were not lost on the members of Old Crow Medicine Show.

You can’t help feeling that way, after hearing this, or perhaps seeing them live (they just performed the album in Milwaukee on June 9) as this is a triumphant live recording at the Country Music Association Theater Fame in downtown Nashville. Nearby stands The Johnny Cash Museum dedicated to the only actual country music contemporary of Dylan’s who could go toe-to-toe with him in Cash’s lifetime, and on Nashville Skyline. OCMS band member and album annotator Ketch Secor conveys how the band grappled with time’s motion captured in amber, which itself bounces and tumbles down the river. Secor writes: “50 years is a long time for a place like Nashville, Tennessee. Time rolls on slowly around here like the muddy Cumberland River. But certain things have accelerated the pace of our city. And certain people have sent the hands of the clock spinning. Bob Dylan is the greatest of these time-bending, paradigm-shifting Nashville cats.”

So a paradigm shifted in the slightly askew but inevitable collision that produced a strangely beautiful music that few ever anticipated, maybe not even Dylan himself, then a 25-year-old explorer of American vernaculars and poetics. The shift seems signified in the slightly out-of-focus photo of Dylan on the album cover.

rs-240573-Blonde-On-BlondeThe original cover photograph of Dylan’s epic “Blonde on Blonde” double album. courtesy amazon.com

And Secor writes outright he “loves” Dylan twice, and the artistic bromance probably septuples among OCMS members. So we’re talking “doomed,” improbable and inevitable romance, once again, of a different stripe. “The greatest spinner of rhyme and couplet since Shakespeare,” Secor rhapsodizes, and that remains debatable, but also now as inevitable a discussion as the Nobel Prize for Literature for the first pop songwriter. That raised some already high literary brows but solidified the assertion on an international Rock of Ages. So these guys clearly love the songs and cranky old Bobby Dylan, if not various real or mythologized women.

The result is this exuberantly loving re-imagining of the time a pop music artist knew he had two albums worth of strong stuff, especially when he found his Nashville cats. Amid long, arduous sessions often going deep into wee hours, the original studio players had their limits, being accustomed to three-or-four minute recordings. They admittedly seemed to run out of gas in the closing verses of the original 11-minute-plus “Lady.” 2

But Dylan clearly was setting new boundaries for a recorded rock music statement. So, with a gulp of extra literary oxygen at that point, we can see that “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” counterintuitively stands tallest of the songs. The lady-on-a-pedestal looms like a mythic goddess of shadowy ardor engulfing the countryside. 3 This time, the younger band that began by busking on New York city streets in 1998, have plenty of wind to the end.

Dylan asked repeatedly of his lady, “Should I wait?” Through yawning glens the “medicine show” echoes – singing, sighing, crying. Time waits and heals wounds and cultural schisms, over 50 years and beyond.

Today, when the rural South and much of the urban seem worlds apart from Dylan’s hip New York street corners – much less the hallowed judgements of the Nobel Prize – Blonde on Blonde retains a lasting, redemptive power. The twains did meet in 1966, and the times changed forever.

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1http://www.nashvillescene.com/news/article/13038289/looking-back-on-bob-dylans-blonde-on-blonde-the-record-that-changed-nashville

2. How hard did these musicians work to realize the simmering creativity of Dylan, who reportedly worked on little more than Cokes and chocolate bars during the long sessions? They went along with his idea to get a more “ramshackle sound” for “Rainy Day Women,” first by bringing in a trombonist for the song’s “wha-wha” effect, reports Andy Gill in Dylan: Visions, Portraits and Back Pages (Dorling Kindersley, 2005). Then Kenny Buttry disassembled his drumkit and deadened his snare drum to approximate the sound of a marching band drummer. Charlie McCoy also performed a dazzlingly ambidextrous party trick of playing bass and trumpet simultaneously, one in each hand. The ultimate story of the epic Blonde on Blonde sessions is found in Chapter 4 of Sean Wilentz’s remarkable history Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday, 2010).

3. “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is ranked as Dylan’s third-best song ever in the critical anthology Dylan: Visions, Portraits and Back Pages, characterized there as “Eleven minutes-plus of serpentine psychodrama.”

A short version of this review was originally published in Shepherd Express.

A more provocative New York “Julius Caesar” updates the classic story told by Stone Soup Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. Courteswy www.artsintegrity.org

 

In my recent review of Stone Soup Shakespeare’s Saturday June 10 performance of Julius Caesar, I drew some comparisons to Donald Trump and Julius Caesar, and James Comey and Brutus. In response, the troupe’s artistic director Julia Stemper referred me to the controversy over a far more pointed and liberally adapted Julius Caesar in which a clearly Trump-like Caesar is depicted being assassinated, as Caesar is in the Shakespeare play.

The production, at The Public Theater at Shakespeare in the Park in New York, has sparked considerable controversy, including the withdrawal of several corporate sponsors, notably Delta Airlines and Bank of America.

Part of the commotion involves the perception that the play advocates such assassination. The script does addresses the issue of exceedingly “great ambition,” in a Roman general who aspires to become King of Rome. Like former President Dwight Eisenhower, Caesar does have credentials as a truly great war hero and leader, unlike Trump, the real-estate developer of highly-questionable, frequently litigated-against ethical history. Trump’s presidential behavior and decisions have exposed the sort of arrogance, petulance and temperament that have marked his checkered career, doubtlessly fueling The Public Theater’s interpretive angle.

Nevertheless, Caesar is disposed of a third of the way into Shakespeare’s story. Consequently, as I took pains to underscore in my recent review of Stone Soup Shakespeare, The Bard’s play explores ultimately the psychological dilemmas and moral consequences of the assassins, especially Brutus, the most articulate, sympathetic and torn character in the play.

Here’s my review:

Stone Soup Shakespeare sends the fate of “Julius Caesar” to the stars and back

From what Oskar Eustis, director of the Public Theater’s bold production, writes, that focus remains true to Shakespeare in his production.

As director Eustis explained, Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” A statement from The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, adds: “So those criticizing this production for endorsing violence against President Trump seem to be willfully misinterpreting it, for their own political ends.”

In a director’s note for the New York show, Eustic comments further, in referencing the elaborately successful plot to kill Caesar: “Julius Caesar warns about what happens when you try to preserve democracy by non-democratic means and again, spoiler alert, it doesn’t end up too good. But at the same time, one of the dangers that is unleashed by that is the danger of a large crowd of people manipulated by their emotions, taken over by leaders who urge them to do things that not only are against their interest, but destroy the very institutions that are there to serve and protect them. This warning is a warning that is in this show and we’re really happy to be playing that story for you tonight.”

Read in detail the article exploring the controversy here, and feel free to leave comments below:

So Are They All, All Honorable Corporations

Stone Soup Shakespeare sends the fate of “Julius Caesar” to the stars and back

 

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Miquela Cruz, as Brutus, declaims in Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of “Julius Caesar” Saturday at the Shorewood Library. 

 

Their current website epigraph reads: “Men are sometimes masters of their own fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.”

It’s Cassius speaking, in the great play Julius Caesar, not long before “dear Brutus” colludes with Cassius in assassinating Caesar, the powerful Roman general, just returned from a triumphant war against Pompey. Brutus is also Caesar’s dearest friend.

Chicago-based Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of Julius Caesar showed the “men” in firm control of their theatrical fate, despite swirling winds and a couple of wailing fire trucks trundling past the outdoor setting of the Shorewood Library lawn.

Despite the limits of barebones props and sets, the young troupe conveyed the drama, moral conundrums and tragedy of this story of betrayal, political assassination, and profound self-questioning. It was a deeply moving foray into Shakespeare’s tragedies, from a company which has typically toured the Bard’s comedies and fantasies. So,  for this attendee, it amounted to their most gratifying production to date. And the crowd showed great appreciation at the end. 1

Unlike the comedies, this had minimal madcap motion and slapstick. Accordingly, the company presented the text with greater clarity and impact than previously. The Bard’s drama and poetry shone forth like so many faceted jewels.

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Caesar (Julia Stemper) begins to feel the pressure of political unrest, and perhaps a hint of his looming fate, in Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of “Julius Caesar.”

Especially after the dreadful, bloody or heroic deed, Brutus must wonder if the difficult answer about his fateful decision dwells only in the enigmatic glimmer in the sky. Indeed, Brutus’s closest ally in the murder plot, Cassius, is a head-spinner, alternating between such reflective illumination and utter hotheadedness, a contrast well-drawn by Josh Pennington.

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Cassius (left, Josh Pennington) consoles Brutus (Miquela Cruz) who has just lost his closest friend, Julius Caesar, in an assassination they both participated in. 

Regarding Cassius’s epigrammic comment: Does the “fault” lie in their life-snuffing act or in Caesar’s exceedingly “great ambition” to become Rome’s emperor, which compels Brutus to betray Caesar most of all?

Short of assassination, the play resonates today in the dilemma of Donald Trump and fired FBI director James Comey, especially in Trump’s “hope” — or “directive” as Comey sees it —  that he be utterly loyal to Trump, rather than to his nation and the Constitution. Trump’s fate as president may lie in himself, his own “great ambition” and it’s many seemingly self-destructive faults. And like Brutus, Comey is aiming to act for the sake of the nation. A Brutus utterance might be Comey’s: “For I am arm’d so strong with honesty that (threats) pass by me as the idle wind, which I respect not.” Comey admits being “stunned” and intimidated by Trump in one-one-one meetings.

And yet Comey did finally speak “honestly” in a manner that may seal Trump’s fate, as surely as Cassius’ fury and Brutus’s decisions seal Caesar’s. Certainly Trump has behaved more like a self-indulgent, impulsive Roman ruler than a democracy’s president and guardian, especially in never admitting any wrongdoing, even about his most demonstrably-false tweets. “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins with remorse from power,” Brutus comments.

A difference is that Comey seems hardly as close to Trump as Brutus is to Caesar, whom Brutus feels a truly great man: “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoiced at it; as he was valiant, I honor him; but – as he was ambitious, I slew him.”

In the moment before he’s killed, Caesar unwittingly borrows Cassius’s celestial metaphor to aggrandize himself: “I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.” It’s a brilliant Shakespearian flourish of irony.

Once Caesar lies dead, Brutus is ravaged with self-doubt and recrimination. So Shakespeare dramatizes one of the greatest moral and psychological conundrums a human in a certain position of power might face. As Brutus, Miquela Cruz carries the mightiest role burden with grace and equipoise. She does underplay Brutus’s apparent angst. But, unlike Cassius, it’s in Brutus’s character to strive for a certain balance between extreme emotions, which makes his decisions and actions no easier, as the wrenching ending proves. Under Eric Mercado’s direction, Cruz, along with Julia Stemper as a vivid Caesar, showed how well this company pulls off non-gender-specific casting.

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Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of the tragedy “Julius Caesar” was offset by choreography, song, ensemble chanting and drumming, and an audience member as a surprise performer.

It may seem improbable that this small band of 21st century American millennials, juggling roles throughout, might actually reach into the Elizabethan and Roman Empire eras. Yet, aloft in energy and passion, they rode “the tides of time” back, like mythical birds following the constant currents and the northern star, through history’s ceaseless cycles.

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The sculpture “Congruity” by Narendra Patel overlooks the setting for Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance Saturday of “Julius Caesar.” All Photos by Kevin Lynch

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1 It’s worth noting, despite play’s violence, the company didn’t even resort to stage weaponry. So this managed to be family-friendly fare, as serious as it mostly was. Also, Stone Soup has done staged readings this year of such meaty fare as Richard III and Hamlet, clearly demonstrating their range beyond the comedy that might seem to tour easier to outreach locations they normally pursue.

Here’s a chance to catch up on previously-unposted CC (VS) “best of the year” jazz recordings from 2009

Amina

Calling all jazz fans who need a little assist (or excuse) to search out some perhaps-overlooked gems. Also, because among American “vernaculars,” jazz claims such a profusion of accomplished artists — young, mid-career and mature — there’s always quality recordings worth digging (for).  

I came across this list, which has never been published before — my choices for the best jazz recordings of 2009. It was intended for an trans-Atlantic publication which never got off the ground of its Lindbergian aspirations. I did, however, present the list and comments on the air on WORT-FM in Madison, courtesy of one of that excellent community radio station’s jazz hosts, Alexander Wilding-White.

Special thanks to Alexander. Also, because I haven’t posted much lately in an effort to complete my first book, Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy, I am sharing this now.

You will note, at the end of most of the comments, a track number and a time number, like “5:25.” Ignore these, or  investigate further:  These disc jockey cues indicate specific moments on the recordings I considered highlights of the albums for air-play or listening.

Note finally my “Top 12,” and sundry other categorical winners. I think in such lists the round number of “10” is too arbitrary to not include a few worthy more.

NEW RELEASES 2009

  1. Komeda Project: Requiem (WM)  The slow, vamping tempo and the composed sequence of solo instrumental voices suggests a procession of humanity that could go on forever. The late Polish pianist-composer Krzysztof (pronounced Shis-toff) Komeda wrote many evocative and brooding scores for Roman Polanski films including Rosemary’s Baby and was a giant of European jazz. His personal music, like his commissioned scores, always commanded more arresting attention than your standard Hollywood soundtrack. A balance of personal structure, mystery and lyricism, Komeda Project features Milwaukee-based trumpeter Russ Johnson, among others. I chose this as best of the year before I meet Russ. So it reflects an unbiased assessment of a very special work of art. Requiem is a superb, deeply-knowing and inspired tribute band. First 2:50 of “Dirge for Europe.” (Also worthy is Tomasz Stanko’s 1997 album of Komeda compositions, Litania on ECM.)
  2. Vijay Iyer: Historicity (ACT) In a great year for pianists, Vijay Iyer showed astonishing range on Historicity which includes reworkings of pieces by Andrew Hill, the hip-hop group MIA, Leonard Bernstein, Julius Hemphill and Stevie Wonder along with revisited originals In Iyer’s segue from Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother” to Julius Hemphill’s more ominous “Dogon AD,” notice how the second tune’s intervals suggest an abstraction of Stevie’s melody. But what’s really working overtime is Vijay Iyer’s fearless pianistic and creative intelligence.
  3. Laurence Hobgood: When the Heart Dances (Naim) I once had a conversation with Laurence Hogood, singer Kurt Elling’s longtime pianist and arranger and he proved a man of great creative hunger. He ended up recording a superb duet album When the Heart Dances. The familiar pop song “Que Sera, Sera” was used as a key plot device in the Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. Hobgood and bassist Charlie Haden transform it into their own philosophic reflection. The album’s heart dances all around que sera, sera. First 2:00
  4. Enrico Pieranunzi-Marc Johnson-Joey Baron: Dream Dance (CAM Jazz) Pianist Enrico Pieruanunzi is another exemplar of the deep maturity and vitality of European jazz. Here with Bill Evans’ last bassist and the American drummer Joey Baron, Pieranunzi shows how far beyond his romantic Evans influence he’s gone, without forsaking it. This powerfully sculpted theme is “No-Nonsense.” 1:30
  5. Amina Figarova: Above the Clouds (Munich) Yet another European, Figerova demonstrates how far women have traveled in jazz. Admittedly influenced by Maria Schneider, she has the arranging skill to actually build on that imposing influence. In this sextet and octet recording “Sailing through Icy Waters” she evokes the questing, treacherous expedition of Henry Hudson in 1609, searching for a passage to China. Hudson ended up discovered the great New York state river which bears his name today. cut 9, 1:39 or so.
  6. Jim Hall & Bill Frisell: Hemispheres (ArtistShare) This meeting of two generations of master guitarists worked so well they recorded a 2-disc set. Here the intrepid Frisell adapts Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” one of the most righteously angry songs ever recorded. Frisell played this song at the Barrymore a few years back and never announcing the title. It was chillingly unforgettable. Overall, though, this recording betrays a profound warmth and musical brotherhood between two generations of guitarists. Cut 8, 1:25
  7. Marcin Wasilewski: January (ECM) I heard this superb Polish trio live in Milwaukee last winter and my late father, who died in November, said it was the best jazz he had heard in years. I’m glad he got that last beautiful dose of modern jazz. These comparatively young musicians possess the the derring-do of the best American improvisors but with a distinctly-seasoned European sensibility, like eroding autumn leaves flirting almost defiantly with January’s harshly capricious winds. This is actually the working trio behind the great trumpeter Thomas Stanko. “Cinema Paradiso” 4:20 to 6:03
  8. Josh Berman, Old Idea (Delmark) Cornetist Berman was a surprise hit of the second Madison Music Collective summer concert put together last Aug. by WORT’s own Joanne Powers, who is also a multi-instrumental reed player. Chicagoan Berman drove up as a last-minute substitute for another musician taken ill, and he instantly began unfurling his intensely nuanced mastery of the cornet, a rarely played horn these days. I bought this album from him before he drove back home and it shows his Ornette Coleman influence in a band without a piano but with a vibist. Cut 4: “Nori” 1:50
  9. D. J. Strickland: In This Day (Strick Musik) What amazed me among other things was this drummer-bandleader’s ability to master and adapt the uncanny drumming style of Elvin Jones. Listen, many hip drummers master Jones’ triplets but Strickland also gets Jones propulsive attack of the drumheads and bright-but-dazzlingly-integrated cymbal playing. Track-after-track, I let Strickland’s rhythmic brilliance wash over me, with ears wide open and loving it. In This Day is a deeply satisfying post-Coltrane album featuring Strickland’s brother Marcus on reeds. Here he’s aided by conga player but the rhythmic effect is breathtaking. Cut 1, first 2:20
  10. Tom Gullion: Carswell (Momentous) This band dazzled the crowd at the Madison Music Collective’s opening concert of its summer series at Art in the Barn in Fitchburg. Their funky backbeats and deep grooves worked more like the contagious complexity of the Dave Holland Quintet, rather than sounding like commercial ploys. Well-known Madison-area trumpeter Dave Cooper calls saxophonist-composer Gullion the best musician he’s ever played with. I believe it. Here Gullion and Cooper play “Mellowing” in a quintet that includes Madison’s own Tim Whalen on keyboard. First 1:10 of “Mellowing.”
  11. Kelsey Jillette: The Water Is Wide (CAP) Jillette was the most refreshing vocalist I heard this year. On her ingenious medley of Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” and “What is this thing called Love?” catch her deftly elastic phrasing and warm effervescence. She’s been perfecting her style with a fine band at Greenwich Village’s 55 Bar for two years now. First 1:40 of “Hot House” track 5
  12. Mostly Coltrane, Steve Kuhn (ECM)  The amazingly fecund legacy of John Coltrane, spanning his whole career as a leader, is presented here by an original, harmonically inquisitive pianist. Steve Kuhn played and recorded with Coltrane in 1960, right before McCoy Tyner took over. “Welcome,” with tenorist Joe Lovano, takes a melody that oddly recalls “Happy Birthday” and renders it eloquent, warm and supple, a classic case of a jazzer hipping a square melody. Mostly Coltrane surprises us with all of its late-period Coltrane style and shows how serene balladic ‘Trane could be amid all the free-jazz furor he pioneered and was attacked for. Kuhn reveals how late ‘Trane could be an adventure of deep, chiarscuroed nuance and meditative beauty.

JR Monterose

REISSUE J.R. Monterose: Original Quartet and Quintet: Complete Studio Recordings (Gambit) Detroit tenor man J. R. Monterose was the proverbial musicians musician who spent too much of his career in Europe. Even at a fast tempo his swing snaps, and his ideas are crystal clear and witty. And this tune also includes smart counterpoint with trumpeter Ira Sullivan on a  Monterose original named “Marc V” recorded in Hackensack in 1956.  “Marc V” 2:15.

2. Stan Getz: Apasionado (Verve)

3. Charley Patton: This Is the Blues (Proper)

VOCAL

  • Kelsey Jillette: The Water Is Wide (CAP) Jillette was the most refreshing vocalist I heard this year. On her ingenious medley of Tadd Dameron’s Hot House and what is this thing called love catch her deftly elastic phrasing and warm effervescence. She’s been perfecting her style with a fine band at Greenwich Village’s 55 Bar for two years now. First 1:40 HotHouse track 5

DEBUT

  • E.J. Strickland: In This Day (Strick Musik)

LATIN

Wayne Wallace: ¡Bien Bien! (Patois)

 

____________

1 Kuhn played with the first version of Coltrane’s quartet, in the spring of 1960, during a long gig at the Jazz Gallery in the East Village, before McCoy Tyner took over to finish the run. And that was it. Later Mr. Kuhn’s music followed a path very different from Coltrane’s, one of stricter harmony, piano-trio subtlety and endless curiosity about ballad standards.

Photos courtesy allmusic.com.

The “sweet rain” of musical riches fell on Earth Day – and on a suspenseful Record Store Day

getz sweet rain

The back cover art of “Sweet Rain,” a 1967 album by Stan Getz.

 

Record Store Day: Hunt No. 1, Sweet Rain

The sun greeted Earth Day morning 2017 with warm benevolence and I imagined maybe, just maybe, I could “do it all” today, as my dear paraplegic friend Jim Glynn used to say, and amazingly he usually did, despite his disability. My disability is in my upper limbs, so I was up for this.

I wanted to commemorate and honor Earth Day meaningfully and urgently, because of the how the Trump administration now endangers the earth and its inhabitants with their small-minded head-in-the-sand environmental policies. I’d first planned on driving to Madison for the big rally to celebrate The Earth and to decry policies of Trump and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has decimated the Department of Natural Resources.
But my girlfriend Ann Peterson and I had plans to drive to West Bend to see a superb photography retrospective of Tom Bamberger at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in the afternoon.

So I decided to skip Madison and join the Riverkeepers to pick up garbage along the Milwaukee River, a waterway I have grown to love more than any, especially the stretch of it right below Kern Park near where I live in the Riverwest. I had taken a photo of that portion of the river, which tries to capture its beauty, power, and the life within, for the cover of my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.

MKE river w canoe

Not my book cover photo, but canoers on the Milwaukee River, seen on the river path just south of Capitol Drive, from an old photo scan. Photo by Kevin Lynch

What complicated and enriched the day was that April 22 was also Record Store Day, and I’m an old record freak. I had tried to get a jump on that by doing my record store mining the day before, because the crowds on Record Store Day descend on the best independent stores like locusts.
I knew The Exclusive Company, on Brady Street and Farwell Ave., had recently purchased one used CD I had fondled several times recently and left behind – because of my tight budget. It was The Beatles’ White Album, a two-disc CD set for $5.99 with a slightly water-damaged lyric pages liner booklet.
But my first strategic stop the day before Earth Day/Record Store Day was to Bullseye Records, on Irving Street just off of Farwell, also on Milwaukee’s East Side. It’s not nearly as big as Exclusive Company but they’re both great independent record stores. And Bullseye is more lovable, funky but jammed with a high percentage of quality used CDs and LPs and some choice vintage new LPs, including audiophile-quality pressings, classic Blue Notes and choice imports. They also have some dog-eared copies of several classic record guide books, such as the now definitive All Music Guide, sitting in the bin areas, not to mention a friendly and knowledgeable staff.

Bull's Eye records

The music-loving locusts descend upon Bullseye Records on Milwaukee’s East Side okon the annual Record Store Day, a celebration of America’s independent record stores. Photo courtesy of Bullseye Records Home Page/Facebook Page at: https://www.facebook.com/pg/BullseyeRecordsMilwaukee/about/

I wanted a couple of CDs, a good Stevie Ray Vaughan disc, a gap in my collection heretofore, which I covered with The Definitive Stevie Ray Vaughan, on Sony Legacy, though I suspect I will buy more of Stevie Ray in the future. Also I needed to replace my LP copy of tenor sax great Dexter Gordon’s Our Man in Paris, the superbly ingenious recording he made with Bud Powell, the bebop piano icon. I found those both in Bullseye’s CD bins.
Then I noticed a guy pulling out some pretty cool albums from the jazz LP bins. A lot of the albums had been marked with orange dots signifying they were half-price for Record Store Day weekend. Although I admired his choices, I realized that this hipster was weeding out a lot of the best stuff. So I began browsing the bins a few racks ahead of him. When he went to listen to a few of the LPs on Bullseye’s auditioning turntable I had a chance to go back to the A-through-D’s he’d been first plumbing.

One reason I love Bullseye is because they have a professional-quality turntable and a good receiver with which you can audition used LPs. It’s the only record store in the Upper Midwest I know of that offers that feature (along with a CD auditioning player, both with headphones) which can be an invaluable, especially if you’re on a tight budget like me.

It made me think of my other favorite record store, Strictly Discs in Madison, which has four CD-auditioning players. Strictly Discs is a truly great record store with a lower level filled with used LPs, which seems to be the curiously retro medium of choice for millennials these days. Before I moved back to Milwaukee in 2009, I had sold my LP collection of 4,000 records to Strictly Discs and received a handsome sum in return.

Nevertheless, it was perhaps the most painful and bittersweet day of my life, aside from those in which I’ve lost living people and creatures dear to me, forced partly due to a painful affliction that disables my left hand, making manipulation of LPs on a turntable difficult. I also thought of B-Side Records, the other invaluable music store in Madison, and particularly its owner Steve Manley, now suffering from a life-threatening disease. Besides being a great recorded music expert, Manley had once kindly written a letter to the editor of The Capital Times praising my coverage of the city’s jazz scene for that newspaper.
But I was in Milwaukee today, and, anticipating tomorrow’s Earth Day/art museum trip, I had to get cracking.

Soon enough old LP treasures began surfacing, alphabetically, as I worked through the Bullseye bins. The first was the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Great Black Music: A Jackson in Your House, a reasonably-priced new audiophile quality re-release from the French label, Actuel/BYG Records. This 1969 recording already shows the innovation, imagination, and sometimes madcap wit, and an almost sculptural sense of space this amazing group demonstrated throughout its existence.

Then I found The Bix Beiderbecke Story, both Volume One: Bix and his Gang and Volume 2: Bix and Tram. Cornetist Beiderbecke, of course, was the greatest white New Orleans-style jazz musician in an era of music innovated and dominated by black musicians. It was sweet to find these on LP for very cheap as I had once owned and cherished them.

Next, I found Sweet Rain, a 1967 recording by Stan Getz, the masterful tenor saxophonist at a period when he finally shed the gorgeous wings of the bossa nova craze that made him famous and embraced modern jazz without forsaking his natural lyricism, romanticism and humanity, as evidenced by the back cover photo pictured above. The orange-stickered record, which I nabbed for two bucks this day,  includes piano giant Chick Corea, bassist Ron Carter then with the classic 1960s Miles Davis Quintet, and drummer Grady Tate. The album opener, “O Grande Amore,” switches from a rubato to a fast tempo where Getz shows his debt to Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” harmonic virtuosity, the same Coltrane who famously said he’d give his right arm to sound like Getz. Among other highlights, there’s a startlingly thrilling high note from Getz to end “Litha.” Then there’s the surprisingly funky interludes of “Windows.”

And throughout there’s Senor Corea’s sparkling and incisive Latin-inflected piano comping and fills, like a toreador wielding a lance, but never drawing real blood, yet penetrating deeply the spirit of duende, mostly here its angelic side which, one hopes, outlasts the dark blood-haunted side. 1

Then, I found a record I had been looking for many years and never owned in any form. It is titled The Cry!, the 1962 debut album by the West Coast flute player Prince Lasha featuring alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons, as well as bassist Gary Peacock, who would become famous as a member of the Keith Jarrett standards trio.
I really needed The Cry!, partly because of its plangent and surprisingly lyrical quality for an apparently avant-garde record, and because of a chapter in my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy. The chapter is titled “Hearing the Cry,” and deals with how jazz musicians articulate, in the depths of their tonal utterances, the extreme emotions, especially those that reach back to the field hollers of slaves in Southern cotton fields, before the Civil War. So this album was perfect, both nominally and in its content, especially in the searing playing of alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons.

Other ridiculously inexpensive LP finds at Bullseye were Major Changes by Frank Morgan in the McCoy Tyner Trio. This matched the great bop-era alto saxophonist Frank Morgan, whose tone and style somewhat resembles Stan Getz, and who lived in Milwaukee for much of his life. Here he was matched with the titanic pianist McCoy Tyner who helped to boost Morgan’s lovely style with a bracing and dynamic foundation. The album includes a reading of Jerome Kern’s stone classic “All the Things You Are,” a harmonic jewel which I can listen to endlessly. I love it so much I had quoted it’s Oscar Hammerstein lyrics in the toast I made at my first wedding.

The last one LP I found was the two-CD set on Verve, Masters of the Modern Piano (1955-1966), which includes sterling recordings from Bud Powell; Cecil Taylor with Steve Lacy live at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957; The Dizzy Gillespie orchestra featuring pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams performing her great “Zodiac Suite” at the same Newport Festival; the Paul Bley Trio with Jimmy Giuffre and Steve Swallow, The Wynton Kelly Trio; and The Bill Evans Trio, featuring the glorious “My Foolish Heart,” recorded in New York at Town Hall in 1966. As a guy who once played some jazz piano until my left hand was disabled, this was an essential replacement for the LP I sold to Strictly Discs.

I noticed Bullseye was stocked up with store T-Shirts for the crazy weekend, and the older ones were only five bucks. Terry Hackbarth, the store clerk/consultant, said if you wore the T-shirt in the store on Record Store Day you would get five bucks back with a record purchase. I took him up on whole enterprise, if I could come back to buy my records. He willingly held all the CDs and LPs for me and I said, “I’ll be back, tomorrow.”

Now, after I’d left it unbought twice already, would The White Album still be at Exclusive Company, prominently filed for $5.99? Well, record geek suspense was afoot.

I dashed over to the store, and yes! There was The White Album which I knew, at a 25 % discount off of $5.99, would be gone in the first few minutes of Record Store Day tomorrow. So I snagged it, the only recording I actually purchased that day, hoping things would work out tomorrow.

I woke early on Earth  Day and found Riverkeepers website to register for the clean-up, from 9 to noon, which included a free T-Shirt for participants. Then I made it down to Bullseye Records shortly after 10 AM, when it opened. It was filling up fast with record locusts pawing feverishly through the bins. But my stack of LPs and CDs still sat behind the counter, as I proudly wore my new Bullseye T-shirt with a big honkin’ red-white-and-blue target on the chest, which Luke Lavin, the store owner complimented me on. I reminded him that Terry had told me about the five-dollar deal and Luke said, “Oh yeah, it’s not like we force you to wear the T-shirt. It’s not like there’s a target on your back. There’s just a target on your front!”
Luke claimed he just made that up right there, and that he was “in a zone” today, but I doubted that, though it was a great Bullseye line.

Earth Day: Hunt No. 2, As the Hawk Flies

 

I drove over to Kern Park, parked and arrived at the top of the pathway down the bluff to the river pathway. There stood the Riverkeepers registration stand.  I was too late for a T-shirt but the fact that they were all gone shortly after 10 AM was a good sign. The Riverkeeper captain there said they had more participants show up then she expected.

As I stood there some participants walked up and set a couple of dirty Milwaukee Bucks bobble heads, both which sculpted Anthony Mason, a power forward who played with the Bucks for a short while. They said they had found some syringe needles as well, a sad commentary on the pervasiveness of drug addiction these days.

So I helped myself to a large cup of Starbucks coffee, grabbed a pair of gloves and a big plastic bag and asked the captain where I should go.

“The riverfront actually is pretty well covered but we need help with the bluff.” she said. “If you could just work on the bluff that would be great.” I wouldn’t be close to the wonderful river but working on the bluff appealed to the old mountain climber in me. So I set out due South from that spot and didn’t see too much on the bottom of the bluff. Then I thought that there would probably be plenty of garbage at the top of the bluff, behind the couple of apartment complexes just south of Kern Park. Sure enough, the top of the bluff was full of miscellaneous stuff, such as old plastic bags caught in bushes like bizarre flying machines cruelly grounded.

Other plastic bags peeked from beneath their burial sites and I would pull out most of which was underground. How long does it take for a bluff – ever moving, ever slowly, from the forces of wind, rain and gravity – to bury an errant plastic bag, I wondered. This Earth Day task – far more humble than a big, noisy protest march at the Capitol in Madison – really became sort of fun, something like an Easter egg hunt at a 45° angle.

Then I noticed right at my feet a large bird feather, earth-colored red with white stripes. It was a hawk feather, and considered good luck if you find one. I stuck it in the back of my Nature Conservancy cap, and felt a bit like a Native American, alone in the woods, moving softly in moccasins. I thought about our literal and environmental footprint, and the way litter like this expanded it. I figured, well, if I didn’t get a T-shirt, my labors earned me from providence a feather in my cap, and a pretty cool one at that.

I worked my way back to the stand right around 12 noon, but the Riverkeepers had gone to the afternoon activity which was largely a celebration, in Estabrook Park just north of Kern Park. But I had to get to the photography exhibit in West Bend. So I tied up my bag of junk and left it with other bags, which a young woman assured me would be picked up later. I walked back up the Parkway and started picking up litter that remained, too far away from the Riverkeepers’ realm.

earth day tools

The high-tech tools of the milwaukeeriverkeeper.org. Earth Day clean-up: Garden gloves, big plastic garbage bag, Starbuck’s coffee (not shown). I  was a bit late to the clean-up start to get a Riverkeeper participant’s T-Shirt, so I just wore the Bullseye Records T-shirt I had on, as per the concurrent Record Store Day. I added a hawk feather to my cap when I found the good luck charm amid the bluff below Kern Park. Photo by Kevin Lynch  

The last bit of litter I found was a Life Style brand condom wrapper, 30 feet away from the children’s playground. Actually, it seemed a curious counterpart to the hawk feather I’d found, both endemic to elemental activities of nature, flying and f–king. The feather helps keep the bird safely aloft, the condom keeps a man safely contraceptive. (As I write, The White Album plays): “Take these broken wings and learn to fly/ all your life. You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

And I made it home in plenty of time to have Ann pick me up for our trip to Tom Bamberger’s photography retrospective, which I hope to address in another posting soon. But if you miss that, it’s a rather astounding show, running now through  May 21 at The Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. Visit the website at http://wisconsinart.org/.

____________

  1. I was fortunate to hear Stan Getz live several times, and to meet him twice. The first time, I drove down in Chicago to interview him in person for preview article for The Milwaukee Journal. He would soon head for Milwaukee for a gig at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery. I met him in his hotel room right on Chicago’s magnificence downtown shoreline and he did a fine, gracious interview in his sun-drenched room.              The second occasion, in its own way, was more memorable. Getz was 57 by then and beginning to really age. I was reviewing him in a concert he did at the Performing Arts Center (now the Marcus Center for the Arts). After the concert, I went to the small reception room where people meet artists after concerts. I wanted to get a bit of information about a few tune entitled for my review. But Stan was tired and wanted to get to his hotel room as soon as possible. So he invited me along as he walked to the Hyatt Hotel. In fact, he was so beat he asked me to carry his saxophone, in its case.

I was stunned by this request. So, there I found myself, carrying Stan Getz’s saxophone and asking him questions he probably didn’t want to bother with, but again was gracious enough to accommodate. I was so struck by the experience that I wrote this poem about it.

(Warning: I’ve posted “Bossa Not So Nova” before, but it’s one of my best-received poems so indulge me, if you need to):

Bossa Not So Nova

Fattening and 57, Stan Getz

sweats out a melody, red-faced

“Hey thanks for the article. Can you carry my horn?” he croaks.

The sax sings light blue

Small, and tan, and young and handsome, a boy comes walking for an autograph.

Stan stops, signs, walks and goes ”Ahhhh, I’m bee-at. Just go slo-ow.

Hey can you find a doctor?”

They all sleep or smoke butts in cold ward halls.

Stan Getz wonders where Mader’s is.

His round belly rumbles.

The sax sings effortlessly,

“Tall and tan, and young and handsome,”

the boy from Ipa-nema is wheezin’

looking for a doctor or sauerbraten

while a woman somewhere dreams…

to the scratched record,

the sax singing effortlessly.

Kevin Lynch (copyright 2012)

An ambitious redevelopment project embraces the rebirth of America’s Black Holocaust Museum

 

black holo new

Architectural rending of The Griot and The Historic Garfield apartments with the rebuilding of America’s Black Holocaust Museum in the foreground. Courtesy of Mauer Development Group, LLC and J. Jeffers & Company

MILWAUKEE – Tuesday, April 4, proved a banner day for this city’s deep memory, brave hope and authentic culture. It was the groundbreaking day for The Griot and Historic Garfield Apartments, one of the most historically fraught, and socially and culturally inspired development projects Milwaukee has seen in a long time. The centerpiece of the project will be the reconstruction of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, at the corner of North Avenue and Fourth Street.

It signifies great pride in how the city has embraced and burnished its memory of what is now called Historic Bronzeville, a vibrant cluster of Harlem Renaissance-like inner-city neighborhoods (bounded by N. Holton St., E. Juneau Ave., N. 21st St. and Burleigh St.) in the postwar period, which is working mightily to regain its luster.

More pointedly, it is also a matter of honor that the project will be nobly shadowed by the profound history the museum will reawaken for all visitors. This location is the site of the original museum founded by a remarkable man for anyone who knew him, Dr. James Cameron, the only survivor of a lynching to do full justice to that dark chapter of America history with an autobiography and a museum dedicated to remembrance of great suffering, deliverance and ongoing affirmation of African-Americans from The Middle Passage to The Civil Rights Era and doubtlessly to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

An overcast day drew at least 400 people to a large tent that has been erected as the spring shelter for the construction project, behind the historic Garfield Street Elementary School around which the project will be built.

Besides the projects organizers those in attendance included Mayor Tom Barrett, alderpersons Milele Coggs and Nick Kovac, and other notables. Barrett and Coggs spoke in support of the project. One of the project’s founders, Melissa Goins, of the Maures Development Group LLC,  also spoke and suggested that it would “break the heart” of Museum’s late founder Dr. Cameron if – after all his work, including his remarkable autobiography, A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story – the museum had no physical afterlife following its closing in 2006, due to financial difficulties. Dr. Cameron was acknowledged symbolically at the groundbreaking with an empty chair near the podium.

Milele Coggs & Melissa GoinsAlderwoman Milele Coggs (L) and Maures Development Group’s Melissa Goins proudly announced the historic redevelopment project in May 2016.

Spoken word poet Dasha Kelly delivered a lovely and inspiring poem which welcomed the rhythms and passages of the seasons and exhorted the audience with these words “You be the rain. Make the gray clouds move,” which drew a strong applause from the audience in the spirit of the event’s underlying objective: to request the community to move the earth with their finances for what will be a multi-million dollar, multipurpose project.

Following the presentation, a local jazz band, Cigarette Break, performed during a luncheon.

The historic Garfield Elementary School Building will be reborn as The Historic Garfield Apartments with 30 units of high quality apartments. In phase 2, the adjoining vacant properties will be demolished developed as The Griot, a new building with 8,000 ft. of commercial space and 41 residential units. Both buildings will have a combination of one, two and three-bedroom apartments targeting households at 30%, 50%, and 60% of area median income as well as market rate. The Griot will also become home to the new physical building for America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM). *

garfield

The historic former Garfield Elementary School building (left) will be redeveloped and repurposed for 30 units of high-quality, mixed-income housing. Courtesy of Mauer Development Group, LLC and J. Jeffers & Company

And it appears that this project will be realized primarily by the city’s citizenship, and various corporate funders and benefactors as have other notable cultural entities such as the Milwaukee Art Museum’s internationally-celebrated Calatrava addition.

Speaking of internationally-celebrated cultural institutions, there’s no doubt that the  National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, though wider ranging, which has James Cameron’s museum as a historic model, proved to be an inspiration for this project.

Conceptually the museum will be built on a pillar of four themes: Remembrance, Resistance, Redemption, and Reconciliation, which are expanded upon in the excellent online version of the museum edited by Fran Kaplan PhD. at America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

My own interest in the museum dates back a number of years to when I discovered it accidentally while driving through the Bronzeville neighborhood in hopes of visiting the facility that formerly housed Radio Doctors “Soul Shop,” a music store that I worked at in the 1970s. The space was located a block away from the site of the Holocaust Museum (see photo below). The site of record store, which served Milwaukee’s inner city, was merely an empty lot at the time.

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Photo of the original America’s Black Holocaust Museum (in background) from the empty lot on 3rd and North Avenue where once stood Radio Doctor’s “Soul Shop,” a record store  were I once worked. Photo By Kevin Lynch

But I visited the museum and was greatly impressed, which prompted an interview with Dr. Cameron which was originally published in The Capital Times in Madison and later became part of the chapter of my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.
Here is an excerpt from a chapter that deals with the Holocaust Museum and Dr. Cameron.

“The Man Who Survived a Lynching,” from Chapter 11 of Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy. Copyright Kevin E. Lynch 2017

One overcast summer day in 1999, I felt that chilled American duality between constitutional guidelines and the individual voice in the wind that swept through the empty lot of my old workplace haunt, Radio Doctors “Soul Shop” in Milwaukee’s inner city. A few foundation bricks still remained among weeds and a crooked dirt path to the back alley where we once unloaded truckloads of records. There I saw a pile of debris that looked like the site of a drug fix, “with needles on the ground,” as The Tedeschi-Trucks Band sings in “Midnight in Harlem.”

And with the watery ghosts dwelling in this book, it’s seems wholly fitting that the setting TTB’s songwriter for this melancholy scene is a river side, (presumably The Hudson River) in what emerges as a potentially redemptive lyric:

I went down to the river
And I took a look around
There were old man’s shoes
There were needles on the ground
No more mysteries, baby
No more secrets, no more clues
The stars are out there
You can almost see the moon
The streets are windy
And the subway’s closing down
Gonna carry this dream
To the other side of town.

Walk that line, torn apart
Spend your whole life trying
Ride that train, free your heart
It’s midnight up in Harlem 1

I almost felt renowned Harlem “survivor” James Baldwin’s large sad eyes casting a glance over my shoulder. But right then, having crossed the Milwaukee River a few blocks back, I was walking over to one of the nation’s most resolute beacons of understanding, America’s Black Holocaust Museum, on 4th and North Avenue, now just a windblown tumble of garbage away from the empty Soul Shop lot.

I’d come to visit with the museum’s founder James Cameron on the occasion of A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie, a harrowing exhibit of the most preserved and documented slave trade ship ever found in the Western Hemisphere. I stepped into the exhibit’s shadowy quarters. I touched the limbs of shackled museum dummy figures, heard recorded creaks and moans from the ship’s hull, and the sepulchral voice of an African recollecting the experience.

The small museum, the first of its kind, existed to convey a deep perspective on American racism. Yet he conveyed no animosity towards white people. “This is a museum for African-Americans and for freedom-loving people of all races,” Cameron said emphatically. He appreciates the significance of America’s little-known interracial foundation. Standard history rarely explains how free blacks actively participated in the formation of the thirteen colonies, until commercial dependency on slavery betrayed their place in America.

James Cameron lynching

Dr. James Cameron, founder of America’s Black Holocaust Museum. Courtesy black-market.com who

Consider what even free blacks had likely endured to reach the colonies. On average, 20 percent of a slave ship’s human cargo died in the six-to-10 month, rat infested trip from Africa to America via the London market. Ships typically stopped at Caribbean ports for slave “seasoning,” to help them regain their health and acclimate to working conditions before they were presented for market.

The 85-year-old Cameron had returned to his hometown of Marion, Indiana the previous weekend to protest a Klan recruitment rally on the steps of City Hall. As he talked, Cameron gazed out the window, into nightmarish memories. In 1930, a Marion lynch mob seized three black teenagers, including Cameron, who had been accused of robbing and murdering a white man and raping a white woman. Confessions were apparently coerced, according to writer David Bradley, author of The Chaneysville Incident, another bleak chapter in race history. 2

Imagine the horror of the 16-year-old Cameron, as the slobbering, sledgehammer-and crow bar-wielding mob apparently smashed the jail bars open wide enough to drag him and his friends out to a nearby poplar tree. Cameron turned back to me and said: “A miracle saved me. They were going to lynch me between my buddies.” The mob of about 5,000 was “hollering for my blood” when an angelic woman’s voice said, ‘Take this boy back.'”

He fell silent. Sometimes the truth comes out in dribs and drabs. In 1994 he had told NPR that the mob grabbed Shipp and Smith first — and then came back for Cameron.

“After 15 or 20 minutes of having their pictures taken and everything, they came back to get me,” Cameron said. “Just then the sheriff came, and he was sweating like somebody had throwed a bucket of water in his face. He told the mob leader: ‘Get the hell out of here, you already hung two of ’em so that ought to satisfy ya.’ Then they began to yell for me like a favorite basketball or football player. They said: ‘We want Cameron, we want Cameron, and we want Cameron.'”  3 Somehow, the mob relented and removed the rope from the boy’s neck. Yet Cameron was forced to stand beneath the hanging bodies of his friends, Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith. Then, he barely survived a brutal beating, he said.

American griots and a photograph of the travesty by Lawrence Beitler helped fix the lynching in American history. The image is believed to have inspired Abe Meeropole to write the lyrics to “Strange Fruit,” which Billie Holiday made into the immortal jazz-protest dirge: blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ black body swinging in the Southern breeze…” The photo became a post-card that sold by the thousands, burnishing local racist pride. Bob Dylan commemorated that ugly image in the first line of “Desolation Row.”: They’re selling post-cards of the hanging… The bizarre, carnivalesque quality of Dylan’s unfolding imagery suggests that this event helped trigger his vision of that metaphoric American place called “Desolation Row,” where young James Cameron once dwelled.

Patrick J. Sims, assistant professor of theatre and drama, rehearses for his one-person play, "Ten Perfect," in Lathrop Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Jan. 15, 2010. During the play, Sims portrays 18 characters to tell the story of James Cameron, an African-American who survived a lynching as a teenager in Indiana in 1930. Sims' public performance of the play is scheduled for Feb. 5-6, 2010, in Lathrop's Margaret H'Doubler Performance Space. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller Date: 01/10 File#: NIKON D3 digital frame 4272

Patrick J. Sims, assistant professor of theatre and drama, rehearses for his one-person play, “Ten Perfect,” in Lathrop Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Jan. 15, 2010. During the play, Sims portrays 18 characters to tell the story of James Cameron, an African-American who survived a lynching as a teenager in Indiana in 1930. Sims’ public performance of the play is scheduled for Feb. 5-6, 2010, in Lathrop’s Margaret H’Doubler Performance Space.
©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067
Photo by: Jeff Miller
Date: 01/10 File#: NIKON D3 digital frame 4272

This photograph by Lawrence Beitler in this theatrical backdrop, helped fix the 1930 Marion, Indiana lynching — which 16-year-old James Cameron barely escaped — in the consciousness of America. 

Cameron was moved out of town, convicted as an accessory to the murder and served four years in jail.  But the case was never solved.

“I talk to university professors of history who do not understand this,” said Cameron, who received an honorary doctorate from the UW-Milwaukee for his work as an historian. His understanding of the event is ontological. 4

Cameron struggled for years with the lightness of being – those hovering friends – as a near-victim of a rope’s twist of fate. Finally he mortgaged his house to print and publish his memoir, A Time of Terror. Then, after visiting Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, he knew what he had to do. Moving to Milwaukee, he found an abandoned gym on 4th and North. He bought it from the city for $1 and began piecing together the museum, built around the Beitler photograph and the ripple effect of sea-born echoes. Cameron would found several chapters of the NAACP, and the museum. In 1993, he finally received an official pardon from Indiana Governor Evan Bayh, and one of those oversize “keys to the city” of Marion, perhaps the size of the lynch mob’s sledgehammer. Cameron said he broke down and cried when Gov. Bayh telephoned him. The United States Senate formally apologized in June, 2005, with Cameron present, for its refusal to approve any of the 200 anti-lynching legislation bills introduced during the first half of the 20th century, a failure that led to the deaths of at least several thousand African-Americans.

The following June, in 2006, James Cameron died. The museum closed in 2008, now a sad, shuttered building, like too many in Milwaukee’s inner city.

Life’s unbearable evanescence had swept over history once again. People die and their bones turn to dust. But legacies endure, like remnants of The Henrietta Marie — 300-year-old iron shackles, some small enough to entrap children’s wrists and ankles.

The mind of this haunted American griot worked his way through living hell and then rose slowly, against absurd odds, to the light of such a hard-won legacy. That’s worth lending a close ear, to a murmuring voice in the river, an American witness, survivor, and hero. “To pick up the loose threads of my life, weave them into something beautiful, worthwhile and God-like.” –James Cameron, The final sentence of A Time of Terror. 5

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(Scroll to more illustrations and a video, below footnotes)

* Historic Garfield Apartments will begin leasing in July 2017 and construction will be complete in October 2017. The Griot will begin leasing in December 2018 and construction completion is slated for March 2018. Located 1.5 miles from downtown along a major core commercial corridor, the project is aimed at helping catalyze local economy and create jobs and training opportunities. It promises to initiate the rebirth of the envisioned Brownsville Arts and Entertainment district.

1.      Here is The Tedeschi-Trucks Band performing the quietly eloquent “Midnight in Harlem,” written by the band’s back-up singer Mike Mattison, at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Blues Festival at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, IL. in 2010: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqjD4oinpJA

  1. David Bradley, “Anatomy of a Murder,” The Nation, June 12, 2006: 32. Bradley was reviewing a book with an in-depth account of the Marion lynching, Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America by Cynthia Carr

3 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129025516

  1. Kevin Lynch “Exhibit Gives Life to Ship of Slaves,” James Cameron interview, The Capital Times, 31 July, 1999 Lifestyle 1D.

5 James Cameron, A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story.

 Here’s a link to the impressive online-only version of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, founded by James Cameron: http://abhmuseum.org/. The museum will be restored in a new building on the  site of the original building at fifth Street and North Avenue in Milwaukee. Also, there is the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum in Philadelphia, a small Black Holocaust Museum in Detroit and most importantly the magnificent new Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C.

kaplan

Dr. Fran Kaplan discusses America’s Black Holocaust Museum with Congresswoman Gwen Moore (WI 4th District) and the staff of Congressman John Lewis (GA 5th District) in Washington, DC.

Shackes-from-SlaveShip-HM-200x200

Shackles for women and children for the slaveship Henrietta Marie  

slave ship stowage

 

Illustration Courtesy virtualjamestown.org

slaveship2

Original plans for holding slaves in sardine-like fashion in the ship during the Middle Passage (above and below). 

Here is a compelling video of the Jim Crow Era set to a recording of Billie Holiday’s famous and harrowing anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit.”

__________

All photos courtesy of abhm.com unless otherwise indicated

A Slightly Fractured Cat Fairy Tail

cat tornado pic

Artist rendering of the eye of a tornado. Courtesy ArtWanted.com

By Kevernacular

There seems no elegant way to begin this little fractured fairy tale, so I’ll get on with it. I was seated on the false throne upon which I debase myself before Mother Nature every morning. Ah, but the Grande Dame had a new experience – and task – in mind for me today, telling this story apparently.

Because, dear reader, fractured as this fable may seem, it is true. I had heard that this sort of phenomenon happens, but only as an old wives’ tale (or an old soldier’s amazing tale of valor, to be more P.C.?)

But there I was, hearing the strangest commotion, a few feet away from me. Deep inside the tall walls of my flat’s old-fashioned claw-footed bathtub, a concentrated cauldron of circular chaos had erupted. This particular concentrated cauldron of circular chaos is named Chloe, so perhaps this was inevitable, you C.

Chloe is my very intelligent but slightly crazy cat. But what the hell was she doing in the tub? The shower curtain was pulled away, behind the free-standing tub, so it wasn’t occupying her, as it sometimes does. Then, her well-rounded, open-air fits and starts all of a sudden fell into place in my still-groggy morning mind.

 

chloe

You probably know how much cats like to get into circles. Now you know how tantalizing Chloe’s white tail is — to that end — sometimes, especially to her.

I think she’s chasing her tail!

She had hopped into the curved end of bathtub which may have sent her mind into a circular tizzy. So I leaned over to get a better view of the action, and sure as heck.

She was not only chasing her tail, she was stalking it, as cats are wont to do. Chloe happens to have a white tip on her darkly mottled Calico tail, which seemingly was now contributing to her self-involved intoxication, this small “I” of a tornado.

So part of her body waved the tail tip tauntingly at her face from below until she could stand the tension no longer in her contorted, curled-up crouch – She had to attack!

But, spinning madly, she failed miserably, of course. Still, she was now hell-bent on capturing the monstrous tail, dead or alive!! Like a manic ghostbuster chasing down the thump of an accursed, beating, disembodied heart!!!

I imagined Edgar Allan Poe nodding in demonic glee from his grave somewhere in New England.

Meanwhile, I also envisioned something else, A Red Badge of Courage, forming mystically upon Chloe’s furry breast.

Again, the tail swayed slowly back and forth, mockingly. Again, she pounced in ferocious, temporary (I hoped) insanity. And again.

I swear, this went on for several minutes and I figure that she traveled several cat lifetimes in pursuit of the white, phantasmagorical mouse she had trapped.

What goes through the mind of a cat in such times, aside from the wind blowing in one ear and out the other, registering a small echo in the empty cavern of her brain that sends her on such wild goose chases?

No wonder, it was a wild goose, or at least a goose poking its head up out of a hole in the ground. Wow, that sounds pretty tantalizing, to even me.

The reporter in me finally kicked in, and I thought, I can maybe capture some of this on video, for proof, if I can only reach my camera.

Done with my duty, I tiptoed into the kitchen, loaded the recharging battery into the camera, and made my way back. Of course, the tiny click and whir of the camera mechanism going on caught her attention, and her interest in the wild goose, or mouse – that, in fact, chases her all day long – suddenly abated, and she hopped out of the top with her little “Geronimo!” meow and was gone.

So now, rather than visual proof, you have merely my words and your own imagination to contemplate this modest wonder of nature. Or the truth of its telling, a tall order in these topsy-turvy political times.

Was this somehow a metaphor for dear, confused America, today? Or was the tail a mere fairy? I guess it’s time for me to get to work, while you contemplate.

If you happen upon any cosmic insights, please leave them here.

 

Pianist Tim Whalen brings his powerful tribute to Bud Powell to the Jazz Estate

bud-album-cover

Cover design for Tim Whalen’s “Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell” by Jamie Breiwick for  B-Side Graphics. Courtesy www.timothywhalen.com

Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell – Tim Whalen (WayHay Music)

The Tim Whalen Trio will perform on Thursday, April 6 at The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee.

“Oblivion,” the title of a Bud Powell tune, might be the single best word to describe the great pianist’s sad legacy. His name is in need of desperate repair, ravaged by the winds of time and his own peculiar fate. Pianist-composer Tim Whalen has gone a considerable distance in accomplishing that with his album Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell. But we must backtrack a bit to understand the title’s significance.

It remains a matter of bald historical fact that Bud Powell was the mid-and-late 40s bebop era’s most sought-after pianist, yet he remains to this day probably the most underappreciated, given his true stature.

His direct contemporary Thelonious Monk has had his day in the sun, something to be celebrated, thanks significantly  to a composing style apart from, and more easily congenial, than the hard-core bebop that Powell excelled at. And their stories interwtine and lead to perhaps the most fateful day of Powell’s career, which also speaks to present-day concerns about police brutality against unarmed black men.

It’s unfortunate that Robin D.G. Kelly’s largely impeccable and voluminous 2009 biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, doesn’t note the cruelty and neurological damage done by a police officer on the night of January 21, 1945 to the man that Kelley calls Thelonious Monk’s best friend.  According to Duck Baker, album annotator of Bud Powell Paris Sessions (Pablo 2002), “Bud was foolish enough to interfere with some Philadelphia flatfeet who were getting rough with his best friend, Thelonious Monk.” The bludgeoning Powell suffered for his loyal courage “changed the course of his life, as Bud was led to a series of mental ‘hospitals’ where he was pumped full of pills and given shock treatments.”

Powell’s life generally spiraled downward after that, though he managed a resurgence in 1946, as evidenced by several recordings and, after being readmitted to a mental institution in 1947, by his celebrated Blue Note recordings (especially 1951’s The Amazing Bud Powell Vol. 1.) Also excellent are recordings in Europe in the late ’50s and early ’60s, including a late reunion with Dexter Gordon on the saxophonist’s superb Our Man in Paris. His career ended in “scuffling obscurity,” says jazz historian Alyn Shipton, due to his complicated mental problems and issues with drugs, and ironically to his return to New York in 1964. This was a man who, in his early 20s with the Cootie Williams Orchestra, had accompanied stage acts “so brilliantly that he outplayed the dancers he was supposed to be accompanying,” bassist Ray Brown recalls in Shipton’s book.1

Regarding the deleterious effects of shock treatment, I can attest, as it has been still used in recent years in sophisticated hospitals and clinics. I witnessed shock treatments given to my late ex-wife who suffered cognitive damage after undergoing them at the Mayo Clinic and other facilities.

Monk, for one, remained much attuned to Powell’s travails. “Bud was a genius, but you know, he was so sick, and now he’s fragile,” Monk once recalled. Another time, Monk commented, “Bud is beautiful. But he’s not doing so well in America, he’s sleeping in the gutter.” Those are both quotes from Kelly’s copious Monk biography, which amounts to a new sort of definitive history of the bebop era.

Nor have I done Powell justice over the years, having become enamored of the late recordings he did of Monk’s music for Verve Records (and his Portrait of Thelonious on Columbia), to the neglect of Powell’s earlier work. Those Monk recordings somehow managed to be marvelous but were recorded long after he had lost his prime bebop musical facility and suffered from many medical peaks and valleys. 2.

Whelan

Pianist Tim Whalen at the recording sessions for “Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell.” Courtesy timothywhalen.com

All of this underscores the importance and value of Whalen’s recording, which he will be playing from when he performs Thursday, April 6 at The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee with bassist Jeff Hamman and drummer Dave Bayles.

Comprising all Powell compositions except one by Whalen, Oblivion opens appropriately enough with “Hallucinations.” It conveys how much Bud possessed a spirit as high as his tragic bop kindred Charlie Parker. Whalen’s solo pushes hard, as if pressing to make a point about the tune’s odd juxtaposition of exuberance and sense of suffering. His heavy percussive attack recalls another bop-era pianist Eddie Costa, although he negotiates the knotty changes with aplomb.

What follows is one of Powell’s dazzling masterpieces, an impressionistic miniature comparable to Duke Ellington’s “Daybreak Express.” After a fine chordal intro, Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” glitters with an ensemble line evoking a bustling street scene, with the band sounding like a crazy chorus-line of dancing cabs in a Folies Bergere fever dream.

Whalen finds fresh inlets of light by carving out spaces and adding garlands, a sort of blending of street smarts with Francophile ornamentation. Tenor saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed is a modern post-Coltrane player with a rich yet grainy texture to his tone that alludes to classic tenor players and adds an offhanded gravitas to his playing. Guitarist Paul Pieper proves a swift co-conspirator in Powell’s most challenging harmonic gauntlets. Drummer Sharif Taher here has a powerful chugging style reminiscent of Tony Williams.

“Kind Bud” is a deeper, darker aspect of Powell’s bebop and for its blues lament, almost intimates a political statement about the tragic fate of such a gifted artist, especially regarding his awareness of his place in society as a black man in a white man’s world.

“Un Poco Loco” is another ironic commentary on his own afflictions and perhaps the album’s hardest swinging tune, especially on Balbed’s surging sax solo. Whalen, by contrast, allows the music to breathe a bit, while never betraying the tune’s structural integrity.

The CD’s ensuing “Blue Pearl” is a rather glimmering beauty with a slight Latin tempo. The comparatively little-known tune has a lapidarian quality, reflecting a craftsman of precise discipline that begets beauty. Here and elsewhere, bassist Eliott Seppa’s harmonizing with the piano-guitar-saxophone frontline recalls the Heath Brothers at their peak.

One would expect the title tune “Oblivion” to sound as abject as say, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” but the band understands it as a “bouncing with Bud” blues that signifies a devil-may-care attitude. That suggests Powell’s peculiar brilliance as searingly self-possessed in the knowledge of how his black genius was betrayed. Yet he’d never let on, never let you see him pitying himself.

Bud photoBud Powell during the years he recorded with Blue Note Records. Courtesy estaticos 02.elmundo.es

Sometimes Powell’s themes and solos can be almost overwhelming, but you get a heaping helping of bop at its most modernistic and visionary and yet with a long shadow cast over it, as the CD cover’s noirish watercolor landscape superbly conveys. So perhaps even now, this music isn’t for everyone, but there’s no doubt it’s a bracing and historic statement of an art form evolving to extraordinary artistic heights.

Whalen offers his own ode to Bud, in “I’ll Keep Loving You,” a brooding ballad that feels like a stealthy suitor stealing into the beloved’s heart even if the lover’s been long gone, off in another world.

Still, Whalen and company assure that Bud Powell has returned, in hallowed honor.

Whalen is a distinctly ambitious musician who has led both a popular R&B/funk jazz ensemble and a nonet, largely of Madison-based musicians, for a number of years. Among numerous accomplishments since moving to Washington DC in 2010, he orchestrated the string arrangement for the Oscar-winning song “El Otro Lado del Rio” by Jorge Drexler from the film The Motorcycle Diaries.

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1 Alyn Shipton recounts Powell’s triumphs and tragedy in his A New History of Jazz on pages 491-495.

2. Despite Powell’s apparent loss of top-end technical facility in later years, the musical relationship between him and Monk remained crucial and vital. Some argue that Powell was Monk’s best interpreter. Seminal bebop drummer Kenny Clarke reputedly said, “Monk wrote for Bud. All his music was written for Bud, because he figured but was the only one who could play it.” https://www.amazon.com/Portrait-Thelonious-Bud-Powell/dp/B000002AHT