What if happiness hung on a game-winning free throw?

Image may contain: 2 people, people playing sports

Even Malcolm Brogdon missed a big free throw late in the last game! Then there’s Giannis and Eric Bledsoe. A Raptor or two have FT issues. So this poem spoke to me because it puts sports in a bigger perspective while acknowledging its role in elusive human happiness.

“Happiness” By Lisa Zeidner

What it is
is the absence of pain. Nothing more.
Over a decade of life in the bull’s-eye
of the troubled cities in the Northeastern corridor
and I’ve never been raped,
never stabbed, burglarized, or even mugged
though I hate to say or even think
I never get colds (line italicized)
or hear a sportscaster brag
about a basketball player’s percentage from the line

Before the foul shot that would win the game:
why wave a red flag in the bulls face
if the bull is God
in happy pastures, chewing the grass?

Infinite disasters and fender bender’s lurk
around each corner
like the black holes that claim stray socks
at the laundromat.
Best to notice happiness peripherally,

The way walking in his city you take in a pretty weed
growing from a sidewalk crack
or a woman with slim ankles
passing briskly – to meet someone for a drink
perhaps, a man she has not seen,
back whole from a treasure hunt or war.

You, too, have someone waiting at home
and for a goosebumped second you know
that you are loved. That nothing,
at least today, has gone wrong.
— From Vital Signs: Contemporary American Poetry from the University Presses. An anthology edited by Ronald Wallace, UW Press 1989
GO BUCKS!!

Bay View Jazz Fest is Milwaukee jazz distilled into one night

Milwaukee pianist-composer Joshua Catania. Courtesy Milwaukee carpe-diem events

The Bay View Jazz Fest 2019 is Milwaukee jazz distilled into one day. Come down on Friday, May 31st and take a big swig or three or four. This should be musical intoxication as good as Milwaukee gets.

The fest is in it’s sixth year, and it keeps on showing what’s really happening in jazz today. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the evening-long bash at nine different Bay View venues kicks off with one of the hottest new names on the Milwaukee scene today, Joshua Catania, at 5 p.m. at Tonic Tavern. More accurately, the 18-year-old pianist-composer  is still getting warmed up, career-wise. Musically, he’s already full throttle. His debut album Open to Now speaks with uncanny authority. Right from the opening bars, you hear and almost feel the power of Catania’s musical chops.

The album of all originals unfolds with myriad shades and colors, dynamic brilliance, some artistic depth and an excellent rhythm section of guitarist Dave Miller bassist John Christensen and drummer Devin Drobka.

Acclaimed Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson. Courtesy The Chicago Reader

Among some of the other recommended and intriguing acts:

  • The MKE Guitar Summit at 8 at Tonic
  • Cameron Webb & Chris Oliver at 11 at At Random
  • Johnny Padilla and Onda Tropical at 7 at Twisted Path Distillery
  • The Eternal Flame: A Tribute to Mahavishnu at 5 at The Back Yard
  • Mrs. Fun +1 at 7:30 at Sam’s Tap, followed by.
    The Chicago Gypsy Jazz All-stars at 9
  • Andrew Trim’s Ordinary Poems at 9:30 at Revel Bar
  • Russ Johnson Quartet at 8 at Magnet Factory

Here’s the link to the whole line-up:

Here’s the Bay View Jazz Fest 2019 lineup

Madison composer-arranger Paul Dietrich’s music looks backward and forward, like sonic cinema

Paul Dietrich Jazz Ensemble – Forward *

In essence, Maria Schneider brought native Minnesota landscape and beyond to the Gil Evans orchestral impression. To stunning effect, Madison’s Paul Dietrich has done as much for Wisconsin vistas. Akin to Schneider, hear sumptuous orchestral shapes draped over ostinatos or vamps, or elegantly unfolding chord changes. Brilliant accordionist Gary Versace offers Grammy-winning Schneider slightly richer textures. By contrast, Dietrich employs a wordless female soprano voice, perhaps imported from Pat Metheny’s ensemble concept. 

Composer-arranger-trumpeter Paul Dietrich (left) conducts his jazz ensemble in the recording session for the album “Forward.” Courtesy youtube.com

Forward ranks a mere notch below Schneider’s best album or two. Yep, it’s that good, bolstered by ace soloists among its Chicago-area and Southern Wisconsin musicians. On opener “Rush,” Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson’s warm, stately lyricism rides swelling backdrops and kicking boosts from Clarence Penn, Schneider’s own band drummer. It takes it’s time, building with Tony Barba’s climbing-to-climax tenor sax, but the tune is a rush.

“Settle” suggests history, a homestead, putting down roots, embracing the future with quiet courage. Altoist Greg Ward intimates a family-like vibe of circling tenderness.

The closing “Forward” suite (titled for the state’s motto) first evokes, in playful horn counterpoint, Dietrich’s vibrant hometown of Ripon. 1

“I can return to my hometown..and feel right at home even as life experiences change my perception of the things around me,” Dietrich comments in the album liner notes.  Then “Snow,” a tone poem of enveloping majesty, glows in contours of shade and light. Ward’s ardent soloing melts the snow closer to “Like Water” (a previous tune’s title).

“Roads” unfolds through more nifty crisscross writing, then sequencing of the same phrases among ensemble sections, and Dustin Lorenzi’s burnished, Stan Getz-like tenor peals.

Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson (foreground, left) is among the strong soloists amid Dietrich’s deftly interactive ensemble, in this recording session scene. Courtesy Isthmus.

The suite closes with the poignantly anthemic “Green Fields,” written for the late Fred Sturm, a brilliant Appleton composer and trombonist (with the acclaimed jazz-fusion group Matrix) and mentor to Dietrich and many musicians. His protege’s own trumpet here sounds like cherished memory.

“The former department chair at Lawrence University, my alma mater, remains the most important teacher I ever had,” Dietrich notes. “He was unfairly taken too young by cancer in 2014…his love of music and his radiant (and mischievous) personality left an indelible mark on all who knew him.” Here, the Schneider connection echoes again, as Sturm edited the published scores for Schneider’s album Evanesence.

For all the album’s backwards-glancing reflection and sense of place, the theme of “forward” keeps the listener attuned to Dietrich’s long, winding road over the horizon.

_____________

This review was first published in slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/forward-by-paul-dietrich-jazz-ensemble-with-clarence-penn/

  • photo of Forward album cover courtesy Jazz Trails

1 The Greater Madison Jazz Consortium commissioned Dietrich to write the Forward suite. The organization supports a wide range of jazz activities and ventures in the Capitol city. “The idea was to write music in a modern big band jazz style that represented my personal images and perceptions of my home state, Wisconsin,” Dietrich writes.  

Press Club prize winner: Review of APT’s gripping apartheid story “Blood Knot”

Gavin Lawrence (left) and Jim DeVita play South African half-brothers in Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot,” currently at American Players Theatre. All photos by Liz Lauren, courtesy APT 

Editor’s note: Due to technical difficulties I wasn’t able to insert the link to this review in my last post. So I decided to re-post my review of American Players Theatre’s “Blood Knot.” The review won a silver award for best critical review last week from The Milwaukee Press Club. — Kevin Lynch (Kevernacular).

 

Blood Knot by Athol Fugard, Touchstone Theater, American Players Theatre, through September 28. For information APT

SPRING GREEN –  When you’re born in the heart of darkness you may begin to understand a world’s weird palpitations. The sun sets and darkness does a somersault.

South African playwright Athol Fugard can summon such effects, with brotherly insight and affection. I’ve hardly seen the entirety of August Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle.” So suffice to say, south of Pittsburgh, Fugard’s Blood Knot captures one of the most complex aspects of the black experience ever dramatically wrought, perhaps in all the modern world.

Overstatement? Surely arguable, but the man’s a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature for good reason. He turns up the dramatic heat with the slow, laser-focused pressure of a master welder, until the emotional and intellectual impact burns into the viewer’s mind. As per its mission, American Players Theatre offers a classic of modern drama and, at mid-run, they did so Sunday with a one-time, pay-what-you-can price matinee. It’s a professional Theater Guild production, but they want people to see this. It’s well-worth a full-priced ticket.

Regarding our increasingly crazy and disheartening planet, the greater developed world still strives toward liberal democracy. Yet we can get sticky when it comes to political correctness, which typically entails doing the proper thing even though it’s sometimes self-defeating.

I’m wading into that uneasy backdrop, because this play and its casting prove fearless and ultimately correct, in the best senses. Some controversy arose when Caucasian actor Jim DeVita was cast as Morris, one of the two South African brothers barely getting by in a one-room shack in the non-white ghetto near Port Elizabeth.

African-American director Ron O.J. Parson wisely stood by his cast decision. For starters, Fugard’s characters are half-brothers, with the same white mother. More significantly, the play updates the classic Cyrano de Bergerac, wherein a poetical man becomes stand-in suitor for a smitten friend, who’s ill-spoken and ill-suited for wooing a woman. In this case, Fugard boils it down to one brother simply capable of writing, the other illiterate.

DeVita has actually directed Cyrano and, in that sense, this intensely immersive professional has strong experience with Fugard’s source theme. DeVita also played the title role and later directed perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest character-portrait, Richard III. He’s APT’s preeminent actor, having played Hamlet, Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eddie in A View from the Bridge and received an NEA Literature Fellowship. Specific credentials aside, he’s a hell of an actor who deftly juggles comedy and drama. He has the sonic range, timing and  expressive nuance of a virtuoso violinist.

The white South African playwright himself has said he was actually inspired by his own relationship with his white brother, “and how cruel time had been with him.” So clearly, though the cutting-edge subject matter is clearly race, Fugard aims for the universal.

Make no mistake, Gavin Lawrence proves wonderfully winning, even heart-wrenching, as the illiterate and darker-skinned brother Zachariah. I can’t do full justice to his performance in this context.  Further, the actual true progress of P.C. in theater is gender-and-colorblind casting, which far more typically benefits women and actors of color. Yet this white male actor, in final analysis, proved how wise that ideal can be.

I’m trying to convey the playwright’s mastery of P.C. as social and linguistic subtlety, and regards deeper-seeded matters of brotherhood and, finally, love. This unfolds and sustains superbly with Fugard’s magnificent writing which, with the inevitability of nightfall, casts musical linguistic images in deft shadows, what I would call an ashen lyricism. From seemingly simple images, “the ruins of an old Chevy,” to grander utterances: Zachariah’s “I may be a shade of black, but I will go gently as a man,” or Morris’ mystery-invoking speech at the end.

For sure, this man bears the weight of life’s mysteries. By contrast to his exultant, go-for-it brother, Morris, a seemingly unemployed writer, struggles under a mountain of neurotic and fraternal complexities. Each night, after Zachariah’s shift as a park gate-keeper, the lighter-skinned Morris soaks his brother’s aching feet in epsom salts, a gesture of abject fraternal bond.

The two also recall John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, another parable about two apparent losers in life. Whereas Steinbeck’s slow-witted Lenny habitually looks to the future as a dreamer-fool, Morris calculates obsessively for the shared future of the two brothers, fully sensing how fragile that is. Yet he takes pleasure, even short-lived vicarious delight, in penning little love letters for his brother’s response to a white woman’s personal ad. Remember, this is apartheid South Africa.

“What you have thought, that’s the crime,” Morris warns his brother. “They’ve got ways and means, mean ways.”

Bible-quoting Morris is so deeply repressed that, when his brother asks him whether he’s ever been with a woman, he curls up like a flower burning into an ash.

Fugard richly weaves together symbolic objects, including an all-white suit that Zachariah buys with all the money his brother has squirreled away for their future. At this point, the layered complexity of their relationship unfurls, from teasing to playful exuberance, to turning inside out, so we see truth more clearly.

Finally, the play evoked W.E.B. Du Bois’ famous explanation of the “double consciousness” a black man must endure in a society that refuses to see him as a man. Du Bois himself was a rather light-skinned black man, well-educated and capable of passing as white. In this play, Morris carries such tricky “passing” consciousness with the weary endurance of Sisyphus. His brother signifies his potentially liberated spirit, the brother for whom life is too cruel.

Rarely have two so seemingly different brothers been bound together in a “blood knot” that might burst their hearts. And yet, Fugard resists any easy summation, because his ashen lyricism never really rests.

Listen to Morris, obliquely affirmative, near the end:

“Yes, It’s the mystery  of my life, that lake. I mean. . . It smells dead, doesn’t it ? If ever there was a piece of water that looks dead and done for, that’s what I’m looking at now. And yet, who knows? Who really knows what’s at the bottom?”

_________

 

Culture Currents wins Press Club Award for best critical review of American Players production

For the second consecutive year, Culture Currents blog won a Milwaukee Press Club award for best critical review of the arts. Culture Currents won a silver award for the review “American Players Theatre’s ‘Blood Knot’ Reaches Deep for Ties that Bind.” The play Blood Knot, by South African playwright Athol Fugard, scrutinizes the complex relationship between two South African half-brothers, one black and one white, during that nation’s notorious era of apartheid.

The review was published here on Aug. 13 of this year and is viewable in a Culture Currents archive search, or re-posted in the most recent post, 5/15/19.*

Gavin Lawrence (left) and Jim DeVita played South African half-brothers living together in the era of apartheid, in American Players Theatre’s staging of Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot.” Photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy APT

Last year, Culture Currents won the Milwaukee Press Club’s gold award for criticism for a review of a retrospective art exhibit of work by the late Adolph Rosenblatt. This blog also won the press club’s gold award for best critical review in 2013. The blog’s author, Kevin Lynch, has won a total of five Milwaukee Press Club awards over the years. The Milwaukee Press Club carries a certain distinction as the oldest continually operating press club in North America.
Judging for the critical review awards – as well as numerous other awards by Wisconsin competitors in many aspects of writing, visual media, radio and production in the news media – is done by out-of-state judges.

The annual “gridiron dinner” to administer the awards includes two other special awards. The Headliner Award is presented annually to honor Wisconsin leaders for their contributions to the community. This year the awards went to Martin J. Schreiber, former Wisconsin governor and award-winning advocate for Alzheimer’s caregivers and persons with dementia, and to Mary Lou Young, former CEO of United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County.

In his address, Gov. Schreiber recounted the extraordinary challenge of caring for his longtime wife, Elaine, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and how that experience inspired him to greater activism for the cause.

The second special press club award is The Sacred Cat Award, presented annually to recognize outstanding achievement by a journalist at the national level.
This year the Sacred Cat Award was given to Chuck Todd, moderator of Meet the Press on NBC and host of MPT Daily on MSNBC. Todd is one of the most respected and recognizable journalists in television today. Todd accepted the award and spoke about the urgent need for journalists to pursue the truth in an era when proper journalism has been called into question for its veracity, very often in a gratuitous manner by subjects of news, such as President Donald Trump.

Longtime “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd makes a point in his speech after accepting The Milwaukee Press Club’s Sacred Cat Award for outstanding journalism at the national level. The press club awards event was held in the ballroom of the Pfister Hotel on Friday. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Press Club

Todd warmed to his Wisconsin audience by speaking of his “second great passion,” after politics: The Green Bay Packers, and sported a Packers tie for the occasion (see photo above). Todd also praised the Press Club for providing awards to outstanding journalists, something he wished Washington D. C. would do more of. There, he said, journalists are often spoofed in “skits” at comparable press gatherings.

______

*technical difficulties prevented a direct link to the “Blood Knot” review.

 

 

Two plays: “Ishmael” running with the whales and “Two Trains Running”

“His story being ended with his pipe’s last dying puff, Queequeg embraced me, pressed his forehead against mine, and blowing out the lights, we rolled over from one another, this way and that, and very soon were sleeping.” – End of Chapter 10, “A Bosom Friend,” from Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville*

Call Me Ishmael: A Hallucination on Moby-Dick, Off-the-Wall Theatre, Milwaukee, closing Sunday, March 29, www.offthewall.com

Two Trains Running, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee, running through May 12 www.MilwaukeeRep.com

These two plays seem to dwell in far different worlds: one across the immense, perilous wilds of the world’s great oceans in the mid-1800s, and the other in a time-worn diner in a black neighborhood of Pittsburgh in 1969.

It’s reasonable to doubt that the great African-American playwright August Wilson was thinking about Moby-Dick in this play, situated smack dab in the middle of his grand Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of 10 plays each set in the 10 decades of the 20th century, to demarcate and explore the African-American experience.

Call me Idiot. Go ahead. But hear me out. For starters, the ambition of Wilson’s play cycle surely rivals Melville’s mighty saga of “mariners, renegades and castaways.” 

A week ago Friday night, I saw Off the Wall Theatre’s eccentrically capacious production of company director/playwright Dale Gutzman’s Call Me Ishmael , which he subtitles “a hallucination on Moby-Dick,” but very clearly and specifically adapted from Melville’s text.

Less than 48-hours later, I saw The Milwaukee Rep’s sterling production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Given my creative and scholarly involvement in Melville, and strong interest in Wilson, I’m hardly shocked that the two plays have commingled in my mind over the last week. The swift affinity between ostensibly foreign identities is perhaps akin to the extraordinary brotherhood that develops between Melville’s novice sailor/narrator Ishmael and the great harpoonist man of color, Queequeg. He’s described in Gutzman’s program notes as “the Prince of Kokovoko” (as Melville identifies him, from a fictional island in the South Pacific. “It is not down in any map; true places never are,” as Ishmael, the expansively philosophical young explorer, famously asserts.).

Part of Melville’s ever-echoing greatness, running through The Great American Novel and his oeuvre, are the character archetypes he forged, starting with the colorful crew members of the whale ship Pequod, a sort of floating, rag-tag democracy. Yet a tyrannical, obsessive captain dominates that diverse aggregation, which surely foretells America’s current political situation. 

However, both plays, as presented here, gravitate, through thick hurly-burly, to the power of love, as a magnetic and redeeming force in human affairs.

Queequeg is more central to Ishmael‘s radically compressed social and dramatic dynamic than in Melville’s almost impossibly vast literary canvas. I recently encountered a striking symbol of that in the beautiful painting (pictured at top) at the recent Melville exhibit at Chicago’s Newberry Library, celebrating the author’s 2019 Bicenntenial. And, of course, this primitive but oddly regal “other” is displaced by thousands of miles from his Polynesian home, not unlike the players in Wilson’s story, displaced from the South by The Great Migration north, a key subtext of his Pittsburgh Cycle. And, like virtually all of the black male characters in Wilson’s play, Queequeg endures a kind of double-consciousness (a la DuBois), living in New England’s New Bedford while ashore, with his conspicuously-tattooed Polynesian body.

Here Ishmael (Jake Russell, foreground) and tattooed harpooner Queequeg (Nathan Danzer appear joined at the hip, but in this moment the crew of the Pequod is transfixed by the astonishing destructive power of the whale Moby Dick, in Off-the-Wall Theatre’s “Call Me Ishmael.” Courtesy Off-the-Wall.

In the late 1960s, playwright Wilson strongly called for for a “separatist black aesthetic” at a time when asserting black identity felt crucial. Indeed, the key political event of Two Trains is an impending Hill district neighborhood rally for famous black radical leader Malcolm X. And enough anger runs through Wilson’s whole play cycle, as much as I’ve seen of it, but just as much anguish at the injustices of American society that befall African-Americans.

Diner owner Memphis (Raymond Anthony Thomas, center) rails over being forced to sell his property to the city for far less than he thinks is it’s worth, in the Milwaukee Rep’s production of “Two Trains Running.” Play photos courtesy milwaukeerep.com

In a 2006 essay Philip Beidler convincingly traces Wilson’s defiance of the proverbial black man’s burden, through Ralph Ellison, to Melville’s remarkable novella Benito Cereno, based on a true story, about a Trojan Horse of a slave ship, being run by mutinous slaves while deviously maintaining appearances to delude white power conventions and perceptions.

Another Melville novel Two Trains seems to reference is The Confidence-Man or, His Maquerade, as two of the play’s characters are con men, similarly working over a small group of people.  One is aptly named Wolf, a lottery numbers runner (bet money-trafficker) who seems to bilk the idealistic romantic Sterling, himself a recently-freed petty thief, out of half of his lottery winnings by blaming it on the boss man.
But the real vulture is neighborhood undertaker, named West, masquerading in professional three-piece suit and top hat. He constantly hovers in the diner asking for coffee sugar from waitress Risa, but never using it. He’s trying to set up diner owner Memphis, who hopes to sell the restaurant to the city’s eminent domain project for $25,000 (ten grand more than the city offers), and to move back to his rural settlement in Tennessee. West, who’s rich from many a literal death of dreams, offers Memphis $20,000 for the place, and says he’ll invest the other $5,000 well enough to double his return and complete the payment.

Memphis flirts ardently with the offer – just the sort of thing one of the shysters in Melville’s con-man parade might float. The Confidence-Man brilliantly satirized American Gilded-Age hustle and greed. Wilson posits that black folk have learned to hustle, but more often to merely survive or strive for modest dreams.
The heart of the play is Sterling, the heart-of-gold ne’er-do-well who improbably tries to woo Risa, in step after bumbling step.

A beauty, she’s sadly had so many men hustle her that she has mutilated both of her legs so as to deface her allure. The playwright knows well how to deal out a complexity of human emotions and allow elements of pathos to arise. This centers to varying degrees on the two wouldn’t-be lovers, on Memphis, and especially in the character of mentally challenged Hambone, who repeatedly marches into the diner demanding “I want my ham!” He may have lost his mind waiting for twenty years for a local butcher who’ll only offer him a chicken, when he feels a big ham is his due. 

Mentally challenged Hambone (Frank Britton, right foreground) repeatedly demands that he receive the ham that a local butcher has refused to give him for two decades, in “Two Trains Running.”

But strength and fortitude always sustain the souls of these black folk. rising to the surface past all rage or anguish. And ultimately Two Trains is a romance as is Moby Dick –  interpersonally, though Melville’s is daringly unconventional, between men – but both also in sense of genre, as tales striving through reality for something larger, bigger, and more beautiful (see, too, the whale embedded in the stunning quilt in the painting at top).

Off the Wall’s Ishmael bravely ventures perhaps where no other black-box theater has, in staging Melville’s monstrously promenading sperm whale of a story. Playwright Gutzman blends Melville’s vivid and eloquent prose with nifty plot compressions, and the evocative effects of the great adventure arise with winning ingenuity, daring, imagination, and comedy, as Melville did to the max, in 135 comparatively short chapters. And by strongly playing up the book’s homoerotic undercurrent of Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship, Gutzman has pushed the story directly into today’s liberated acceptance of same-sex love.

The homoerotic aspects of the close relationship between Ishmael (Jake Russell, left) and Queequeg (Nathan Danzer) were emphasized in Off the Wall Theater’s adaption of “Call Me Ishmael,” an adaptation of “Moby-Dick.” Courtesy Off the Wall

Psychologically-burdened waitress Risa (Malkia Stampley) is a pivotal character among all the males in “Two Trains Running.”

In Two Trains, Sterling is a sort of voluble and naïve Ishmael and, with her scarred legs, Risa is a kind of Queequeg, an exotic “other” for being the only woman in the cast.  She possesses latent powers and allure yet, unlike the Polynesian, her potential for love is fraught and baggaged. Risa may be a sort of tortured angel. Is she judged by the content of her character? Are her flesh wounds also akin to Christ’s? This was a natural analog – as is her name, Risa – given that we saw the play on Easter Sunday. Do her body marks tell a story, as  Queequeg claims his do? Perhaps the embodiment of the state of “original sin.” Is that too Christian? Melville, the skeptic of man-made “Christianity,” might think so. Yet a dying neighborhood prophet named Samuel also haunts this play. Could the woman’s marks signify a universal suffering, that of  humanity?

And the seemingly witless Hambone reveals a deeper presence, recalling Moby-Dick‘s Pip, the black cabin boy who compulsively rattles his tambourine – and falls overboard unnoticed and nearly drowns. The trauma destroys his sanity but he emerges “touched” by God. Even bedeviled Capt. Ahab then senses this possible spiritual lifeline and takes Pip under his wing, while continuing his diabolical quest to kill the White Whale. 

These and other mystical strains in Moby-Dick have resonated down through cultural history and Wilson’s play has an off-stage character, recurrent in his work, Aunt Esther, a spiritual figure who is a “washer of souls” and reportedly 322 years old, which aligns her birth with the arrival of the first African slaves to America. She seems to provide the keys to the dreams of these slave descendants. Aunt Esther always asks them to pay her by throwing $20 in the river. So the monetary symbol of meager and grandiose dreams becomes an offering to the watery forces of nature and a float-on-a-wave faith, a most Melvillian of themes.

Further, Wilson’s title derives from a Muddy Waters blues, “Two Trains Running.” But “there’s not one going my way.” The singer bemoans his star-crossed destiny in humble watery terms. “I wish I was a catfish swimming in the deep blue sea/ I’d have all you pretty women fishing after me.” Poor Sterling, who desperately wants Risa as his bride, also brings to mind another cast-your-fate-to-the-water blues classic, Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”: “People tell me worrying blues ain’t bad/ But it’s the worst old feeling I ever had. Fish run to the ocean, ocean run to the sea. if I don’t find my baby, who child gonna marry me?” 2

_____________

  • That exact Melville quote, without any attribution – except an enigmatic “B” – is the last liner-note acknowledgement of “thanks” in the noted American singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault’s 2001 debut album Miles from the Lightning.
  • 1 Philip Beidler, “King August,” Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 2006 http://https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?cc=mqr;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0045.401;g=mqrg;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1http://
  • 2 Pittsburgh’s Hill district hosted many jazz and blues musicians traveling from New York to Chicago through much of the early 1900s, when Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle begins. Both songs were originally “race records,” marketed only to black audiences, but this lyric version of “Two Trains Running,” and the “Walking Blues” lyric, are both on the 1966 album East-West by The Butterfield Blues Band, one of the first-ever integrated electric blues bands. Bob Dylan also later performed “Two Trains” not infrequently.

Still marveling at the Bucks’ one-year transformation? Consider basketball…and jazz

Could the winning chemistry between Bucks Eric Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo & company have something to do with their kinship with another agile quintet (below), a classic jazz combo? Sure looks like they’re digging the groove, and maybe playing on a parallel plane. Bucks photo by Tom Lynn/AP

Silhouette of five players in jazz band, white background

Courtesy of Jazz Combo o-Jazz-was-not-meant-for-the-dinner-table

(Editor’s note: Culture Currents is finally back in the flow of things. This comes after several months of sitting on the sideline while enduring exasperating technical difficulties from computer updating and repeated fumbling of the ball on the two-yard-line by GoDaddy, the domain provider for www.kevernacular.com. So, enough, and onward with our exploration of our common and uncommon culture!)

Yes, the Milwaukee Bucks have probably the NBA’s MVP and coach of the year, two related assets expertly explored in the recent cover story on Giannis Antetokounmpo in Sports IllustratedWe’ll note also several great administrative moves: bringing in the revelatory center Brook Lopez, versatile backup guard George Hill, energy-spark Pat Connaughton, 3-point sharpshooter Nikola Mirotic, and returning wisened and wise ol’ Irsan Ilyasova to the fold.

But it seems like every healthy player has played better than they ever have, this year. Coincidence? Well, we might need to consider the old-fashioned yet timeless virtues of strong team coordination and chemistry, but perhaps from a fresh angle. 

A smart and insightful Milwaukee music journalist and ardent Bucks fan, Joey Grihalva, has come up with a deeply probing analogy to help explain the quasi-mystical vagaries of basketball team chemistry.
His premise is that a great basketball team like the Bucks is surprisingly akin to a great jazz quintet. That great American vernacular music has, of course, long evolved into an art form of individual and group improvisation, rhythmic buoyancy and dynamic interplay. The jazz tune, or form, follows those functions, like a well-designed basketball play working to a T, or sometimes when gifted players just wing it, like birds truly of a feather.

In this nifty essay – originally published on the 88.9 Radio Milwaukee website – you might say Joey Grihalva’s trying to make hoops X’s and O’s swing.

So, Joey – take it! Jazz piece

Jeffrey Foucault replenishes his music in the streams of “Blood Brothers”

Album review: Jeffery Foucault — Blood Brothers (Blueblade Records)

After the brooding introspection of his previous album, Salt as Wolves, singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault comes up for big gulps of air, and perhaps his most genial album. It’s down-home music & poetry in a firm, warm handclasp.

Yet, even while striving to connect, Foucault takes chances. The title song “Blood Brothers,” hung on a descending bass line alluring as low-hanging fruit, is a love ode between men, yet sexually ambiguous. It recalls the fast friendship between surprise bedmates Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick, which Foucault celebrated in his very first album.1

This artist’s work is hard-earned. He throws all of himself into his song, yet the balance between reflection and passion sounds effortless. Foucault’s singing is dusky, beguiling and grainy as uncut wheat, yet as nuanced as a sideways-drifting wind.

The internationally acclaimed, East Coast-based, Whitewater, Wis. native is currently (and arguably) the Upper Midwest’s strongest roots music export (Nobel Prize-winning Minnesota-native Bob Dylan is sort of in his own category).

Foucault’s a guy who’s hardly figured everything out, but he sure knows how to say what swims in his brain and in the blood from his heart. That organic metaphor, as far as it goes, belies the great labor of craft underlying this music. His writing seems unpolished, but as right as rain. Still, he exudes utterly disarming humility. Blood brother or not, he feels like the first guy you invite for a backyard barbecue.

Photo montage courtesy YouTube

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1 Though he doesn’t identify the source, in his liner notes to his debut album Miles from the Lightning (2001), Foucault quotes from the end of the highly comical Ch. 12 — “Biographical,” from Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. The aptness to Blood Brothers prompts me to revisit the quote, with context. First-time whaling sailor Ishmael quickly bonds with the lead harpoonist, the Polynesian Queequeg, for the ship they’ll sail on, when the two men are forced to share a bed in a crowded Spooner Inn, before they embark on The Pequod.:

“His story ended with his pipe’s last dying puff, Queequeg embraced me, pressed his forehead against mine and, blowing out the light, we rolled over from one another, this way and that, and very soon were sleeping.”

This view was published in a slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express:Foucault review

Mrs. Fun’s “Truth” entertains and strives to stand the test of time

Mrs. Fun – Truth (Fun Time Records)

(Mrs. Fun, with guest bassist-vocalist Ethan Bender [from Streetlife], will perform from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday December 7, at Metro Market, 4075 N. Oakland Ave, in Shorewood. Mrs. Fun also performs with song stylist Liv Mueller at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Shorewood Legion Post, on Wilson Blvd.) To keep up with Mrs. Fun, visit their website:

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Mrs. Fun is a 30-year marriage of musical mirth and mutual creativity. On Truth, The Milwaukee jazz-pop duo documents its characteristically vast expressive range and stylistic diversity. The title, and the album cover’s darkly eloquent pyramid silhouette, suggest intent to stand the test of time. You could pop this CD in for a party backdrop, yet it rewards mindful, even reflective, listening.

To the latter point, the original “Zawinul” tributes the dominant figure behind the incomparable fusion group Weather Report. It evokes Joe Zawinul’s orchestral exotic scene-painting via synthesizer, yet retains the grounding of walking bass and crackling drums. Similarly “Orange Grove” bears sweet fragrance and rhythmic strum of the Latin guitar (synthesized). Keyboardist-vocalist Connie Grauer might be the most resourceful synthesizer player on the Milwaukee scene. This keys the group’s brilliance, along with drummer Kim Zick’s endless array of rhythmic accents and propulsive grooves and dynamics.

Grauer imaginatively reinvents two jazz classics. She prefaces Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” with her and title“Silent Mist” and graces the exquisite Jobim melody with her own poetic lyrics. And Wayne Shorter “Pinocchio” goes sci-fi as “Space Port/Pinocchio,” befitting Shorter’s own sci-fi sensibility. This is Mrs. Fun in their exuberantly edgy acid-jazz mode. However, I wanted the great jazz composer’s full melodic theme stated, and explored more — the theme’s closing phrases, suggest both involution and a curious outward force, akin to more-complex-than-he-appears Pinocchio, and his mythical nose. Several more minutes of development and this might’ve been a minor masterpiece of re-imagining. If any sensibility is expansive, its sci-fi.

“Soulful Strut” covers a hit R&B instrumental from 1969 and, while not quite as exhilarating as the horn-driven original, it captures the funky tune’s infectious insouciance.

Drummer Kim Zick (left) and keyboardist-vocalist Connie Grauer are Mrs. Fun. Courtesy Patch

Less successful is their cover of “Light My Fire” which here is a fairly straight recitation of the melody, which isn’t strong enough for such instrumental scrutiny, even if it and the song’s lyrics could launch the dark power and dynamics of The Doors’ original and Jose Feliciano’s soulful hit re-make.

They’re smarter when Grauer does a vocal she can handle, or they add guest singers here, like rapper Klassik or vocal stylist Liv Mueller on the closing “Calm before the Storm,” which includes a fine Grauer keyboard solo with deftly spacious phrasing. Despite her gifts on electric keyboards, I’d love to hear her record more acoustic piano, which she also excels at.

One hopes this group does more recording, of what they exactly want to do. They’re natural musical entertainers, and deft collaborators, but they have room to grow as musical artists.

As for now, in such often-dire and depressing times, the Truth never felt so good. Plus, as top-rate as the album is overall, it can’t do justice to the bright, vibrant personality of this consistently engaging duo in live performance. So I recommend you search them out in person (they gig frequently), and buy the CD directly from the artists.

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This review was first published in shorter form in The Shepherd ExpressMrs Fun review

 

“Free Solo” film scales dizzying heights of cinematic suspense

Alex Honnold attempts to climb the great face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without any equipment (or sanity?) in “Free Solo,” a new National Geographic Documentary. Courtesy The Atlantic Magazine.

Free Solo, a National Geographic Documentary film by Elizabeth Chi Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin. Held over until Monday Dec. 10 at the Oriental Theater, Milwaukee,

Also showing at Silver Cinemas at Market Square Theaters, Madison, held over through Tuesday, Dec. 11.

Check theaters for possible run extensions and other info.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, Our National Parks

Goddamn. You groan inside. Other emotional responses may surge up, while watching Alex Honnold climb alone and unroped – or free, in climbing parlance – up a long, vertical crack of the astonishingly, daunting face of El Capitan Mountain in Yosemite National Park, in 2017. It’s considered the toughest mountain face in the world – 3,000 feet of a monstrous granite elephant’s twitchy hide, enduring a single human ant.

You follow him up the towering crack, the zig-zag path of rock seemingly formed by a face-splitting lightning bolt, or maybe several lifetimes of such blasts. 

This sequence of pitches* requires hand jams and hand hooks against the vertical crack. When the crack opens wide enough, Honnold must shimmy his tensile body slowly up the chimney. Tough enough, but then, seemingly exhausted, he must perform a series of crazy moves of balletic delicacy and sheer stamina. No ropes. No pitons. No circus nets. Nothin’ but the chalk on his hands and fingers, to keep them dry. He’s at maybe 2,000 feet now, clinging to a vertical world, just barely.

Are you still breathing?

This astonishing, often-gorgeous and brilliant film records Honnold’s five-year odyssey to climb the face “free solo.” He had bailed out in a previous attempt, while recovering, but not completely, from a severely sprained ankle.  Earlier, on a practice climb, his brand new girlfriend had absently let the rope run out of the belay lock she was controlling. That fall had tested his relationship skills, far less assured than with a rock face. Honnold threatens to break up with her, thinking she’s an unreliable climbing partner.

However, he’d made that first free attempt in pre-dawn darkness, calculating he’d need all of daylight to reach the top. There will be no bivouacs on this climb. Yet he freezes up on one of the first difficult points. I suspect the shroud of darkness, pierced only by his headlamp, penetrates what he calls his “armor,” which he also likens to the attitude of a samurai warrior, who gamely faces, even embraces, death. Because it’s what is necessary.

Alex Honnold works his way up a long vertical crack on El Capitan. Courtesy Amherst Cinema

It’s easy to adopt a fraternal or paternal sense of protectiveness toward this boyish man, with black, tousled hair, and large dark, searching eyes and a handsome yet almost gaunt face and body. So he’s “Alex” to me now. His chiseled body gives you faith in him physically, yet he’s lean and not overly muscled like many contemporary athletes. It’s actually the perfect body for such extraordinary athleticism, as too much muscle might constrain the needed range of motion in his limbs.

I have some sense of this, and of Alex’s virtuosity and courage, being a former mountaineer (more on that below).

Outside magazine calls Free Solo “the best climbing movie ever made.” And there are quite a few vertically-fixated movies if you follow such things. Free Solo comes from a married couple, filmmaker Elizabeh Chi Vasarhelyi, and cameraman Jimmy Chin. They also created Meru – a powerful 2015 documentary of windswept urgency and dread – detailing a climb Chin attempted with two other men of Mount Meru, in the Himalayas. Chin, like all of his film crew, are trained climbers. He’d explained in Meru that he only works with people that he knows personally in his mountain climbing documentaries.

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Camera crew documenting Honnold during the making of the film “Free Solo,” on El Capital in Yosemite National Park. Courtesy IndieWire.com

Chin knows Alex Honnold, already an acclaimed free solo climber, perhaps as well as anyone can. The closer we get to Alex, the further we get from him, it’s that “armor” climbers of this sort speak of – a psychological shield against fear, in a given moment.

Yet this shields his peripheral vision towards empathy or other interpersonal skills. We learn that Alex’s father was likable but remote, a man always needing to travel, just as Alex always needs to climb, or prepare for another.

“He was a teddy bear to me,” Alex recalls with measured affection for a father who supported his youthful climbing zeal. He admits that no one in his family ever used “the L word” (“I love you”) except in French, (je t’aime), as his mother is a teacher of French. That once- removed quality of expression may allow his mother, who’s briefly interviewed, carte blanche emotions in allowing her son full freedom. When he develops a relationship with a young woman, Sanni McCandless, it’s rocky right from the moment she allows him to fall.

But he’s in the middle of training and practice for the free solo on El Capitan, an unprecedented feat. But Sanni is a strong, big-hearted and brave woman. He sticks with her and their relationship blossoms like a couple of wildflowers emerging from a high mountain wall crack. But her roots touch the earth. So her own trail in his footsteps is the film’s subtext and it’s emotional crux.

When he finally goes for it, for broke, in very early daylight, her tears well up in Alex’s live-in van, wondering if she’ll see him again. From this moment, the intensity and drama ratchet up, more than most conventional thrillers I’ve ever seen. It’s hold-your-breath reality-show time. Ms. McCandless used all her persuasive skills and wiles, and perhaps burgeoning love, to quietly will Alex up the great face, and back from the fatal brink he’s almost sanguine about.

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The massive, intimidating 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite. Wikipedia 

Among this obsessive climber’s most revealing and thought-provoking comments is a reference to “the bottomless pit of your self-loathing.” It seems to come out of the blue in his narrative voice-over, casting a certain pathos over this tale, rich with mythical and tragic overtones. Several great climbers that he has personally known die while climbing elsewhere during the five years he prepares for his solo attempt at El Capitan.

His emotional response feels like little more than the famous “so it goes” from Kurt Vonnegut’s comic tragic Slaughterhouse Five.

Ass accomplished and seemingly prepared Alex is, there’s no denying free soloing’s essential recklessness. “People who know a little bit about climbing are like, ‘Oh, he’s totally safe,’” Tommy Caldwell, one of Honnold’s best friends, says in the film. “People who know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.”

On the morning he finally attempts it again, he eats his standard breakfast of oats, flax, chia seeds, and blueberries. He feels great, maybe “in a zone,” the temporary quality of an athlete who can seemingly do no wrong. You see it in the heightened, yet easy, rhythms of his moves; there’s almost a swagger in his swing, ape-like, from one precarious handhold to another.

For sure, this attempt is one of the greatest athletic feats you’ll ever see on film, even if Alex may fall to his death – right before the camera crew. The whole emotional, psychological and circumstantial reality of this attempt gives the film its gut-churning tension. And perhaps even a moral conundrum, if we watch him fall, and if the cameras do as well.

FILE - Alex Honnold, from left, and Sanni McCandless, subjects of the documentary film "Free Solo," pose with co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin at the InterContinental Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Sept. 10, 2018.

 Alex Honnold, from left, and Sanni McCandless, subjects of the documentary film “Free Solo,” pose with co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin at the InterContinental Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Sept. 10, 2018.Voanews.com

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I have one comparatively modest but dangerous experience with free solo climbing which helped transfix me in this film. Through much of my 20s, until age 30, I climbed a number of times in The Tetons, but one summer I was unable to get to Wyoming. In late August, when I’d normally climb, I drove up to Door County, on a camping trip with a friend, Frank Stemper. Somehow, the hulking former high school football guard came down with the flu. Itching to get out and do something, I left him in our tent, with Sam, his lovably oafish shepherd-dog mutt.

I’d noticed intriguing cliffs along the highway through Peninsula State Park. By the time I walked along the highway to some alluring rock faces, the afternoon sun had faded badly.

Nevertheless, I found one route snaking up to the top of the cliff, what would be three or four moderate pitches. I began climbing and at some point noticed looseness amid the wall rocks, which I later learned are primarily limestone. I reached the top without terrible difficulty and probably started chuckling to myself, a tad too self-satisfied, as if I was my old house cat Fred, settled and regally surveying, as cats do, his home below from the highest possible perch in the house.

Now, a small detail most smug climbing cats negotiate with little consternation: I needed to get back down, to the highway. So I tried a few paths down but they mocked me with the yawning space over the toothy, jagged edges of a drop-off, not far below the top. Now I was a free solo “ant” inside and looking out, after foolishly crawling into the stone elephant’s mouth. I searched further along the cliff until I found a spot that looked manageable.

I gingerly began a downward climb (the well-established El Capitan route in Alex’s memorized climb includes a significant downward detour). What was I thinking then? Something like, “Do you know what you’re doing?” At about a third of the way down, I encountered an overhang that I knew I couldn’t get past. Right then, my upper handhold gave way, and a rock fell, hitting my face. Off flew my glasses, tumbling far down into the wooded space below. 2

I’m quite near-sighted, and now sweat and fear commingled with the blood the rock had drawn from my forehead. My “armor” was cracking. I mumbled something to Jesus Christ. Then a “blessing”: nearsightedness allows you to see things close to you, while points beyond blur into a haze. I could see fairly well at arm’s length distance, and just about to my feet.

I realized the only way I could proceed downward would be around a rocky corner where I could see a small ledge. I mustered my courage, traversed to the corner and managed to swing one foot over thin air, around the corner, to a toe hold; then the second foot came around, oh-so-delicately, to the toehold nub. In the traverse around the corner, my body was 98-per-cent out in space, high over thin air. The next toe step led me to the small ledge. I settled on the small horizontal strip, my body collapsing a bit, and grabbed hold of small green branch in a crack beside it. Now I wonder, did such a wildflower branch save Alex, at some point.

For posterity, I took a forlorn selfie, circa 1972, with a camera I’d brought along. A few moments of glazed admiration of the view, through the golden-brown leaves, with the waters of Green Bay glistening slightly in the setting sun. My wits, strength, and will renewed slightly. I finally worked my way down to the bottom of the loose-rocked, treacherous cliff.

Posterity selfie taken by blogger Kevernacular amid his free solo escapade on a cliff in Door County, ca. August, 1972. Photo by Kevin Lynch

I found my glasses in the brush and, nearby, another pair of eyeglasses, the frame cracked, and lenses long gone. The story of those glass frames remains a kind of mystery, just as does the forces that drive people to climb dangerous walls and peaks.

I’m convinced a big part of the force is spiritual. There is a long, transcendent moment late in Free Solo, when Alex rises through one of the toughest final pitches. Chin and his daredevil film group capture — behind the tiny, ascending figure — a backdrop of El Capitan’s broad, magnificent face, now ablaze in sunset, and glorious shades of mottled bronze, copper and gold. This is mighty granite’s mossy, chameleon powers. Yosemite’s waterfall cascades beyond. Magnificence amid high drama, with overtones of the human sublime.

I hardly suggest anyone begin climbing El Capitan in search of gold, only if you truly need the kind that ends up glowing in your soul.

As a survivor of a foolhardy-youth free solo climb, and bearing truly grand memories climbing in the Tetons, I retain embers of that inner fire.

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  1. A “pitch” is each sequence of a roped climb, from one belayed (secured) spot (station) to the next. In free climbing, you have, in theory, moments to rest in these places, originally established on El Capitan with pitons (large spikes with rope loop-holes) and carabiners. On such a dangerous climb, even the most secure “belay stations” are extremely exposed (that is, very susceptible to a climber falling off).

2. My Door County climb cued up an extraordinary experience later that year. John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance came out, based on James Dickey’s extraordinary survival novel. Frank and I went to see it. Four suburban friends take a canoe trip on the Chattooga River, deep in Georgia’s backwoods, eventually reaching the Tallula Gorge.My experience  flashed completely back to me during Ed’s desperate climb up the gorge cliff above the river rapids, to try to kill, with bow and arrow, a rural-dwelling rifle man who has killed one of his canoeing friends. Halfway up the cliff, Ed (Jon Voight) drops his wallet after peeking at his family’s photograph. He curses mightily and, right then, I felt my glasses, and some of my hope, falling off my face, into the Door County void. The long Deliverance scene was an uncanny experience of “been there…” Now, though I no longer hold grand climbing designs, (with bilateral arm neuropathy and a partially lame left hand), Free Solo has raised my bar of dramatic empathy to previously unimagined heights.