Latin Jazz climaxes in Milwaukee this week with VIVO and Tony Castaneda

 

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The Tony Castaneda Latin Jazz Sextet in action at the Cardinal Bar in Madison. 

It’s a muy grande week for Latin Jazz in Milwaukee. Tuesday evening at Humboldt Park Milwaukee’s most bracing Latin jazz ensemble, De La Buena, heated up Chill on the Hill, the park’s weekly summer music series. The  ensemble deeply explores the Afro-Cuban daispora, and features some of the area’s top musicians, including percussionist Cecile Negron Jr., tenor saxophonist Aaron Gardner, trumpeter Jamie Breiwick and baritone saxophonist Mike Pauers.

On Thursday at Jazz in the Park in Cathedral Square downtown, virtuoso wind player Warren Wiegratz will host two groups with which he has sustained his renown. He’s the leader of Streetlife, the high-energy band that races all over the musical map as the long-time house band for the Milwaukee Bucks.

But there’s a mellower side to Wiegratz, in the WAMI Award-winning Latin-infused group VIVO, which shares the Jazz in the Park bill with Streetlife. Here you get to hear more of Warren on flute and melodica. Augmented by her skilled guitarist-spouse Tim Stemper, VIVO vocalist Pam Duronio, who also peppers mallated bongos, sings an intoxicating array of bossa nova and samba songs in Spanish and Portuguese.

ZVIVO's lead vocalist-percussionist Pam Duronio and wind and keyboardist Warren WEigratz perform live

Vocalist-percussionist Pam Duronio and winds and keyboard player Warren Wiegratz of VIVO. Photo by Kevin Lynch 

Then, at the Jazz Estate on Murray Street on Milwaukee’s East side, conga player Cecile Negron’s crackling band, CNJ Latin Jazz, with guitarist Neil Davis and vibist Mitch Shiner, will play on Thursday and Friday. Here’s a link to events at The Jazz Estate:

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The citywide mini-Latin jazz fest climaxes Saturday night at the Jazz Estate. There,    Wisconsin’s pre-eminent extant Latin jazz ensemble, The Tony Castaneda Latin Jazz Sextet, will make its Milwaukee debut. This will be a quintet version of the band. Cover charge is  $10.

It’s amazing that they’ve never played a public date in Milwaukee before, considering that the band was formed in 1998 and, with a remarkably stable lineup, has worked steadily since.  This may reflect the curious cultural gulf that still exists between Milwaukee and Madison, which might otherwise be sister cities. It’s partly because the smaller city, Madison, has its own self-sustaining, highly-diverse culture even if it is a largely white and college-educated populous.

Also, Castaneda’s excellent band ought to be documented more frequently on recordings than it is. However, its 2007 album Mambo O Muerte (mambo or die) remains a classic of Midwest-bred Latin jazz. Here’s my original review of “Mambo O Muerte” from when it was released.

Like De La Buena, Castaneda’s group is an all-star aggregate of its city’s musicians, including percussionist leader Castaneda, keyboardist Dave Stoler, guitarist vocalist Louka Patenude. Finally,  Castaneda’s band carries a powerful growling bottom with bassist Henry Boehm and, also like De La Buena, a top-notch baritone saxophonist, Anders Svanoe. The band specializes in classics from the so-called  golden age of Latin jazz in the 1940s to 1960s, but the ensemble also includes several accomplished composers and striking original tunes. Here’s a sampling of videos of the band in action: http://www.tonyclatinjazz.com/photos-video/

 

 

In This Case, Lesser Lakes is More

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Lesser Lakes Trio – The Good Land (Shifting Paradigm)

Lesser Lakes Trio is a quietly intriguing, even enchanting conceptual music trio that seems both of the land and above it, like a cloud , or a broad-limbed tree, or a hovering consciousness.

Their website self describes the Milwaukee-based group as three “sonic storytellers” undergoing a “restless search.” These  storytellers weave a web of enlightenment with melody and rhythm. Harmony is comparatively spare, reflecting the influence of the original  Ornette Coleman Quartet, which liberated itself from the “background” of harmonic changes, and the pop-like but serious musical sensibility recalls another contemporary trio, The Bad Plus.

The evocative statement also notes “there is something timeless and haunting in a waterway whose path skirts the larger bodies for more subtle divergencies, defying where gravity would cause most to rest.” The album cover depicts a vintage photograph from 1911, of three human figures standing on a Lake Michigan shore engulfed in snowdrifts.

Accordingly these somewhat meta “lesser lakes” strive to illuminate rivulets and rushes, “a regional riddle that unlocks a universal desire for musician and audience alike; to feel the wonder of it all.”

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The music radiates openness, a wide-eyed intelligence that embraces the natural world.  On the title tune, “The Good Land,” trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, here as elsewhere, is more pied piper than strutting jazz virtuoso. He unfolds a spare but eloquent theme that seems to reach out its hand to followers. The consciousness seems to survey the land, pronounce it as good and worthy of preservation, for harvesting, conservation, and appreciation. Breiwick’s trumpet solo uncovers thick textures, like a spade digging into soil, turning over rock and roots, perhaps even a night crawler.

So the group’s musical agility and creativity serve an overarching yet humble purpose. Bassist John Christensen breathes and bellows the musical movement. Devin Drobka is a special drummer, his style uses a deft sense of space, rhythmic disjunction and momentum that implies plenty of life’s complexity, but at an organic level that is not humancentric – down to the ground enough to dance with that earthworm.

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

Rosenblatt continued: Remembrance of art people past, and present

This post follows, in large part, the pull of nostalgia, which had me recently trekking over to the UW-Milwaukee’s art building (in the Peck School of the Arts), on a sunny windswept afternoon…I’d spent countless hours in this building when I was earning my BFA in the early ’70s. Especially time-consuming was the work on bronze cast sculpture molds, which required applying layer after layer of silica sand slurry to the mold…and waiting for each layer to dry…to build up a sturdy resistance to the infernal temperatures of the prepping furnace before pouring the fiery lava flow of molten bronze into the mold for a cast sculpture.grooms mural

A portion of artist Red Grooms’ mural group portrait of students and faculty of the UW Milwaukee art department in the early 70s, still located on the second floor of UWM’s art building.

During some of those slurry sessions I envied the folks up in the fourth floor, where painting was the area of concentration. But we make our choices and at that point in time I had chosen art that I knew would literally stand up and be counted and appreciated from all directions in its own space. Part of it began with the fast gratification of first working in wet clay and coming up with forms fairly quickly, someone akin, in three dimensions, to the gratification enjoyed by working painters swimming in intoxicating oil paint.

The crossroads between painting and sculpture leads me to my present subject, which I’ll try to be brief about, given that I just recently wrote an extended review of it off Rosenblatt’s retrospective at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, which is here:

Adolph Rosenblatt: A great eye, gifted hands and a huge heart

The exhibit, primarily of figurative ceramic sculptures, will close this Sunday, when it is viewable from noon to four although there are also viewing hours Thursday and Friday. Four hours and Info, click here:

Moments & Markers: An Adolph Rosenblatt Retrospective

 Rosenblatt, who died last winter at 83, was a remarkable man and artist, with an outsized personality to match. Though short in stature, he could fill up a room with his presence, especially when he started laughing.
Rosenblatt’s daughter Sarah commented, in sharing my review post on Facebook, that she considered her father a handsome man, so she was uneasy with my description, which spoke of a disparate assemblage of parts in his face. I even drew a comparison to a face Picasso might create.

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Blowup photographs of Adolph Rosenblatt at the retrospective of the late artist, at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee. The show will be closing Sunday.

I would agree with Sarah that he was, in his own way, a handsome fellow, as the blow-up photos of him, probably in his 40s, show (above) at the Jewish Museum exhibit.  His long dark locks were dashing, with their deep, natural swerve, down and up the side of his forehead.

But she understood my impression of him and, and reminded me of the portrait of her father in the marvelous mural (see image at top) the New York-based artist Red Grooms had done of faculty and students of the UWM art department in the early 70s. I recalled it had graced the art department commons lounge  right outside the fine art gallery, for years. Sarah told me that yes she was referring to the mural, and that the mural was still on display there. I was delighted to know this, and decided I would go revisit it, before the Rosenblatt show ended this Sunday.

Turns out, Grooms’ mural remains easy enough to see during hours that the art school is open. Simply go to the second floor. The elevator opens and there it is.

It remains a stupendous and utterly delightful work, for anyone to see, though nostalgia enhances it for those depicted in it, or who were part of the art department then.

Several outstanding faculty members are depicted in the left portion of the mural (at top). Note the looming mustachioed man, Tom Uttech who, to this day, I’ve never met or seen in person. He stands as tall and imperiously mystical as one of the grand trees in his woodland paintings, magical mystery tours that are among the most beloved productions of any Wisconsin artist.

I’m not sure who the professor is sitting in the wheelchair at the far left. Anybody out there who can name him, or anyone else here?

As for the mural’s other inhabitants, I don’t recall the names of hardly any of the art students partly because I spent, by then, most of my time down in the building’s basement with the scruffy sculptures students. The painters on the fourth floor always acted good-naturedly as if they were a bit above us basement heathens and, of course, literally they were, by four floors. But I do recall the very sweet woman in the middle in the purple sweater, beneath the guy in the yellow Rolling Stones “bitch” T-shirt. Her name was Vicki, whom I may have met in Rosenblatt’s life drawing class.

Grooms ‘signature and the dates are visible in the panel below the seated fellow’s crossed crutches (in image below).

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In the image below, you see Rosenblatt’s face. One senses that Rosenblatt’s presence may have helped attract Grooms to UWM For a residency given the affinity between Rosenblatt’s animated sculpture and Grooms’ celebrated 3-D pop-up arts. When he got here he also experienced the Milwaukeean’s mischievous hilarity, which was evident all over his face and head in the mural.

Now I realize that in describing Rosenblatt’s demeanor in my review,  I was subconsciously recalling this portrait – Grooms depicting his face as a nest of colorful strokes of energy swimming in crazy circles. I’m sure Rosenblatt dissolved into his jello-bowl of laughter over it, a number of times.

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The colorful character of artist Adolph Rosenblatt is captured in Red Grooms image of him at the top of this portion of the UWM mural. 

I’ve been thinking more about Rosenblatt’s inimitable laugh and now I think I recollect it even better. It seemed to have a looney hiccup right in the middle of it. He’d repeat the high-pitched giggle-hiccup several times before composing himself with a slightly satisfied, hoarse sigh.
It was a bit like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland after a few too many drinks. Not that Professor Rosenblatt was drinking on the job – life and art were clearly a natural high this man.

Below Rosenblatt in this mural section is bespectacled Professor Joseph Freibert, a far more mild-mannered man, but an excellent teacher and artist. To the right of Freibert stands red-haired Professor John Colt, an art department star, whose original painting style centered on mysterious, even mythical nature forms amid glowing, watercolor-like atmospheres.

I’m not in the mural, being a sculpting basement dweller. But I was there back those days, Below is a photo of me down in the sculpture department’s open-air courtyard, working on my carving to be titled “Chained Life Force.”

Yes this was the early ’70s, as you can tell from the styles of everyone in the mural as well as myself. May those times and people live on, as an indelible piece of Milwaukee cultural history.

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Culture Currents blogger Kevin Lynch sculpting at UWM in 1972.

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All photos of Red Grooms’ mural by Kevin Lynch

 

 

 

Adolph Rosenblatt: A great eye, gifted hands and a huge heart

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The late Adolph Rosenblatt, with his many quirky friends in his large sculpture “My Balcony.” Courtesy UWM Photo Services

Adolph Rosenblatt Retrospective: Moments & Markers, Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, 1360 North Prospect Ave., closing Sunday, August 27. Hours are Monday-Thursday 10-5 PM, Friday 10-3 PM, Sunday 12 noon-4 PM. Free parking is behind the museum building.

I first met Adolph Rosenblatt in the early 1970s when he taught me life drawing in a class at UW-Milwaukee. He helped inspire me to switch my major focus to sculpture, from advertising design. He had just begun exploring the possibilities of figurative clay sculpture, after being primarily a painter. And when I took a basic sculpture class I was seduced by the sensual and palpable life I sensed in wet, malleable clay in my hands.

In our life-drawing class Rosenblatt would set up a large wooden board with mounds of wet clay on a drawing easel and bring the goopy lumps to life. This incongruously proved quite relevant to our ostensibly two-dimensional discipline, as we were trying to create the illusion of sculptural three-dimensionality on paper, with graphite or chart.

He and art professor Joseph Friebert helped liberate my drawing technique, which had been hard-edge and perhaps cold in its attempt at realism. Rosenblatt, a short, slightly hunched man, who died in February of natural causes at 83, would wander among our drawing easels, making incisive, wry and sometimes slightly outre suggestions. After all these decades I don’t recall any, so I’ll borrow from students quoted in a display at the wonderful Rosenblatt retrospective Moments & Markers, at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, 1360 North Prospect Ave., which is closing this week on Sunday, August 27.

One student took seriously Rosenblatt’s seemingly counterintuitive advice: “If a painting isn’t working, paint out your favorite part.” I think Rosenblatt understood the tendency of artists to fall in love with their own work, to even fetishize a part they’ve focused on and perhaps overworked. When all else failed, he would say “F–k the world and just paint.” Either was a way to let loose and let go, and see your work with fresh eyes.

And did this man ever have fresh eyes! However, one thing he did miss, it appears, was a self-portrait. Seeing again at his marvelously rough-hewn, vibrantly animated work, I see it reflecting the face of Rosenblatt himself. He should have done a sculptural self-portrait, because his face was a slightly incongruous assemblage of mutating forms. He could concentrate deeply but he always seemed on the verge of slipping over the edge into utter hilarity, of dissembling into laughter, and his infectious giggle of glee. His whole face would become a smile of many mirthful, slightly askew parts, almost Picasso-esque. But I suspect his disheveled lack of self-regard kept him from a self-portrait’s potential narcissism. He had a great eye with a fine mind, a master observer of others.

And the humor that coursed through his whole body transmuted into his art, which might be called “The Human Comedy.” And, not unlike Honore de Balzac’s novel masterpiece La comedie humaine, this artist saw and interpreted the world with a deep sense of the fallibility, absurdity and neuroses amid the beauty in each person. Rosenblatt also gives his figures a gritty gravitas that rarely feels solemn. The retrospective does reveal his social and political consciousness with a series of life-sized head portraits sculpted of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Another is of Anita Hill, famous for her sexual harassment testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. “I had to tell the truth,” Rosenblatt quotes her in the fired clay. “It is a high-tech lynching.” Hill here is expressive and beautiful, all of her facial contours rise as if struggling up a hill. Another example of the peculiar dynamism Rosenblatt could convey in a high-relief sculpture is “New York Times – Berlin Wall” in which he re-creates a front page of The New York Times in clay, with the headline “East Germans Flood the West: After 40 Years.” The front-page “photograph” is a mass of humanity surging forward toward the viewer, brimming with pent-up hunger for deliverance and freedom, palpable in the heaving urgency of their bodies pouring out of the sculpture.

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Rosenblatt’s “New York Times – Berlin Wall.”

In such work you sense, beneath the surface, how humanity’s crookedly ambling collectivity often flirts with, or converges into, tragedy. And yet, Rosenblatt will likely be most remembered for his depictions of modest, undramatic scenarios. He would take his boards full of clay into places like the Oriental Pharmacy lunch counter and render customers, or to the balcony of the Oriental Theater, which both became fairly “epic” works, if such a word could be applied to such striving to capture unassuming human humility and comedy.

One of these centerpieces of the show is the massive tableau, “My Balcony” (1997) depicting the Oriental Theater’s balcony with 50 or 60 people sculpted in quirky detail. You see couples necking, hands and legs entwined, a mother with a squalling child on her knee, another mom nursing her infant in the theater’s ostensible darkness. Each figure seems to radiate a virtual lifetime in the subtle facets of Rosenblatt’s gestural, fingerprinted way of modeling the figure, as if each has been shaped by the slings and arrows of fortune, the vicissitudes of time. This mastery of revelation gives his work a timeless and fascinating humanity – as if each figure has many tales seeping from their pores.

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Adolph Rosenblatt vividly captured a wide swath humanity in his large sculptural tableau, “My Balcony.”

The second major piece is less of a frontal display than the balcony, more of an experience of a quotidian place of unique yet oddly familiar people. “Oriental Pharmacy Lunch Counter” (1987) was a now-gone Milwaukee institution of sorts, a layout of long dining counters that snaked its way along five or six lanes of countertops. It was often jam-packed, as it is here and one feels more voyeuristic than with “My Balcony,” because you walk can around it and peer at the mood and situation of each customer and lunch-counter employee, eating, or chatting or daydreaming. One wonders what brought each one of them to the counter on this particular day.

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One corner of Rosenblatt’s large tableaux, “Oriental Pharmacy Lunch Counter.”

The work’s total effect is an exposure of human types that Balzac might have described had he lived in Milwaukee in the 1980s. These two big pieces have a discursive quality akin to Balzac’s sprawling masterpiece, though ambitious on their own terms. Other influences I detect are one he likely admitted to, Honore Daumier, the great artistic lampooner of lower, middle and upper 19th century French classes. Daumier also did highly textural sculpture, and sometimes in apparent affection, as in his classic “Third-Class Carriage.” His superb painting of industrialized France depicts the quiet fortitude of passengers in the third-class train carriage including, like Rosenblatt’s Oriental balcony tableau, a nursing mother.

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Honore Daumier’s “Third-Class Carriage.” Courtesy metmuseum.com

I also sense at least a parallel sensibility in now-famous “underground” cartoonist Robert Crumb’s artlessly skilled renderings of slightly gawky and sometimes sadly comic humans. I see, too, the Crumb parallel in Rosenblatt’s whimsical way with architecture, as in the delightful 1977 sculpture “Houses on Bartlett.” Here, a snowy landscape seems to pulse through its steep, rippling surface and even the houses almost expand and contract, as literally breathing from the lungs of Gaia. Or, more prosaically, an animated cartoon stands smack in the middle of a gallery.

The show’s second gallery shows different sides of the artist, including a good-hearted satire of elderly sun worshipers in “Snow Birds,” and a surprisingly ominous, noirish cast-bronze scene in which human features are wiped away.

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Rosenblatt’s “Snow Birds.”

A revelation lies in one of Rosenblatt’s large paintings. The stunning untitled oil bears the influence of another great Jewish artist, Marc Chagall, who is represented in the first gallery by a mural-size wall hanging. Chagall’s famous magically flying humans appear in Rosenblatt’s canvas, floating amid a burning atmosphere of abstract impressionism/expression. Such color-soaked brilliance brings us back to his fired clay sculptures, most of which are deftly and creatively hand-painted, adding another dimension to his 3-D art.

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Rosenblatt’s large, untitled abstract impressionist painting, with floating figures reminiscent of Marc Chagall.

And to that end, for all this show’s riches, I must close by returning to the movie theater balcony, a very revealing detail. On the furthest occupied seat to the right in one balcony row sits a man isolated by empty chairs around him, the only notable cavity in the crowded balcony scene. His head turns away from the whole crowd; his left leg rests on his right knee in a posture of a man whiling away the afternoon at the movies, hidden from the world. But he’s not watching the movie, only staring into his own private infinity.

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This lonely figure tells a deeply human story in Rosenblatt’s “My Balcony.”

His slightly shambling presence, to me, seems the essence of a quietly bereft but almost stubborn solitude. Rosenblatt has purposely captured him in this manner as a flip side – among the most common and universal sides – of The Human Comedy, the heart of loneliness. And for that, it’s a testament to Adolph Rosenblatt’s insight into humanity, his expressive skill and unerring generosity of spirit.

May Adolph live on, at a lunch counter in the skies, with bottomless cups of heavenly, hearty coffee and camaraderie.

All photos by Kevin Lynch, unless otherwise noted.

 

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

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Singer-composer-pianist Anthony Deutsch on the cover of his debut album. Photo by Danielle Simone Charles

Father Sky – Father Sky (self-released)

A capacity crowd recently at bucolic Villa Terrace for his debut CD-release celebration and Father Sky itself are testament. Young Milwaukee pianist-singer-composer Anthony Deutsch has old-soul wisdom and gifts for speaking to people about matters of the heart, and of the mind/body disconnect that often separates us from our deepest nature and from Nature.

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Milwaukee’s bucolic Villa Terrace overlooking Lake Michigan, was Anthony Deutsch’s choice of location recently to perform his nature-oriented music, “Father Sky.” Photo by Kevin Hansen.

His bluesy melodicism recalls the deceptively spare alt-jazz tunesmithing of The Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson, a thread strengthened by Father Sky bassist John Christiansen and drummer Devin Drobka.  But Deutsch loves Nina Simone. His singing follows her forlorn, loamy eloquence – her world-weary persistence and faith. To me, Deutsch’s style also mirrors the exquisite jazz singer-pianist Andy Bey – the naked willingness to reveal male vulnerability.

Still, Deutsch’s folky, Father Sky-meets-Mother Earth sensibility tends to personal ecological vision, like someone picking pieces of grimy dust out of a spider’s web. Deutsch croons artfully but, unlike Bey, he’s a tall, large person, so his spacious baritone sometimes projects like a wolf howling at the moon. He leans a lot on the sustain pedal for sweet wisps, but the piano also pirouettes in sun-lit atmospherics. And “Soon, My Love” has a funky kick Gil Scott-Heron would dig. “Gonna Find Home” yearns for a home that’s everywhere, like the holy land Lakota Black Elk spoke of. There’s musical and spiritual substance here (he shows harmonic chops playing standards live). This beguilingly wayward talent might just take you away, home.

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A slightly shorter version of this review was published by Shepherd Express.

 

 

 

 

 

Jazz Now will celebrate the Milwaukee jazz experience in time, sound and spirit

Jazz Now event poster II

Poster designed by Elizabeth Vogt

Milwaukee ain’t The Big Apple, nor is it The City of Big Shoulders. On its best days, the city shines, like the magnificent Santiago Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. On its worst days, it weeps a river of tears.

This is a struggling rust-belt city with more than its share of social and racial problems. That doesn’t mean it’s not a city of vibrant and meaningful culture, a city that can heal and grow by virtue of its diverse community, perseverance, and vision.
The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, once the home of the storied Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, counts on that progress and is willing to celebrate it right now, with something called Jazz Now. It’s a special event that acknowledges the city’s special genius of jazz and the toil to survive and connect, singing the song of Milwaukee’s surprisingly vaunted musical past, its present and, most importantly, its future.

So I am especially proud of an invitation to be part of this celebration, which will happen on Saturday, Aug. 12, at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7).

I will give a reading from my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy, specifically parts of it which highlight the history of jazz here, especially in the halcyon days of the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery,  in the 1970s-80s. I will be joined by trumpeter-bandleader-educator and jazz archivist Jamie Breiwick. He will briefly also explore the city’s musical pasts and present, especially as archived and documented in the valuable website Milwaukee Jazz Vision.

Special awards will be given in the name of perhaps the city’s greatest living jazz legend, guitarist Manty Ellis. The Manty Ellis award will honor persons for “exceptional support of jazz in Milwaukee” Ellis has exemplified decades of stellar musicianship and historic commitment to jazz education. He has also organized more recently The Jazz Foundation of Milwaukee. The organization is affiliated with the national Jazz Foundation of America, which will sponsor the event and cover it for their national newsletter.

Awards recipients will be announced at the event.

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Manty Ellis (seated at center) will perform with his quartet at Jazz Now at The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts on Sunday, August 12. Photo by Elizabeth Vogt.

Ellis and Breiwick will also perform at the event with a quartet and special guest performers.

Another award will be given in the name of Chuck LaPaglia, the founder and owner of the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, for persons providing “outstanding promotion of jazz in Milwaukee.”
Without his vision and dogged dedication, Milwaukee would’ve had a far poorer jazz scene and history.
But LaPaglia was there when we needed him, and now we are here in celebration.

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Milwaukee Jazz Gallery founder-owner Chuck LaPaglia back in the day.

One more than one occasion, the center’s current manager Mark Lawson has said to me, “What this place really needs is an angel or two.”

The event will honor one angel who has finally delivered something and several other meaningful supporters of Milwaukee jazz, awards chosen by Manty Ellis.

Nevertheless, the venue could use another benefactor, to sustain general operations, including maintenance, booking and promotion. But that’s one reason to get the word out on this event, where we’ll measure and acknowledge the center’s great value to our city and to the music and the arts.

Come on down and let the good times roll.

 

Jazz Now event poster II

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

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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.

cactus

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.