“Precarious Towers” is Johannes Wallmann’s wary ode to America

Courtesy Shifting Paradigm Records

Album review: Johannes Wallmann Precarious Towers (Shifting Paradigm Records)

Pianist-composer-bandleader Johannes Wallmann rises to precipitous heights in his 10th album, Precarious Towers, proving his ability to create a concept album, with the extra-musical aspects streaming gracefully throughout. 1 His band includes Down Beat magazine “rising star,” Chicago alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity, Milwaukee vibraphonist Mitch Shiner, Madison bassist John Christensen, and Milwaukee drummer Devin Drobka. “This is the all-star band from this incredibly fertile region of creative jazz in southern Wisconsin and Chicago that I’ve wanted to put together for years,” Wallmann says.

The album lives up to such expectations. Created during the pandemic, it addresses that experience variously, from the whimsically personal to the overtly political. But the music remains powerfully compelling and listenable modern jazz from one of the Midwest’s supreme musicians, who also leads the jazz studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The concept arose from watching his house-bound daughter ambitiously build tall structures with Lego segments, until they fell. Her father sees such effort as reflecting human aspiration, but also hubris. The title tune is indeed rhythmically precarious, with complex off-center tempi, especially from drummer Devin Drobka, a master of striking indirection and accent, while invariably still propelling a tune. Vibist Shiner elicits bluesy feeling reminiscent of Milt Jackson (here, and on the one cover, “Angel Eyes”) and altoist Cassity throughout displays a boppish sax voice that sings as deftly as it swings, a sort of Bird on flaming wings.

“McCoy” honors Wallmann’s greatest pianistic influence in a handsome Tyner-ish minor mode theme. Wallmann unleashes glittering arpeggios and resounding octaves. “Never Pet a Burning Dog” displays the composer’s wit, as an analog to proper pandemic precautions, and the changes here suggest that McCoy Tyner’s modal style is not mutually exclusive from shapely chord changes.

Keyboardist Johannes Wallmann (center) and saxophonist Sharel Cassity, who released the new album “Precarious Towers,” perform together recently at the Madison Jazz Festival. Photo by Kevin Lynch

The album climaxes with a three-part suite titled “Pandemica.” Part one, self-described as “pensive,” unfolds like an adagio etude. Part two, subtitled “Unreliable Narrator,” alludes to today’s head-swimming online media overload, with Shiner’s vibes well-articulating droll commentary. The final movement is explicit: “Defeat and Imprison the Conman Strongman.” It’s a dolorous yet ingenious Dorian-mode theme, with the “cognitive dissonance” of competing lines between bassist John Christensen and Wallmann’s left hand.

The album’s two-part denouement, in effect, is by turns lyrical “Try to Remember” (Wallmann’s tune, not the stage standard), and a fun piece inspired by a Madison tradition, entitled “Saturday Night Meat Raffle,” (to win high-protein food) which conveys a certain off-kilter social dynamic in a Frank Zappa-esque way. Throughout this brilliant album, the band brims with virtuosic elan and restraint, in service of Wallmann’s musical evocation and storytelling.

And Cassity, who recently shone brilliantly (with Wallmann) at the Madison Jazz Festival, is a star in a galaxy that still seems a tad remote from wider appreciation. So, look upward, and listen for her.

One might also read in all this album’s permutations, the precariousness of this nation’s democracy, but infused with hope and collective determination. 2

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This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express, here: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/precarious-towers-by-johannes-wallmann/

  1. Wallmann’s album last year, Elegy for an Undiscovered Species, for jazz quintet and string orchestra, was named a “best of 2021” album by Down Beat magazine. It was also among the top 10 jazz best albums of 2021 in this writer’s international critics poll. Wallmann also leads the jazz program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as the inaugural John and Carolyn Peterson Prof. of Jazz Studies.
  2. Another bonus of this album is its delightfully comical (“Look out below!”) cover, courtesy of the uncannily resourceful graphic designer Jamie Breiwick (best known as a jazz musician), employing artwork by Amy Casey. In my book, it’s a candidate for album cover of the year.

Madison Jazz Festival was filled with “en plein air” jazz and a reminder of a transformative act of protest

 

Saturday the sky sang brilliant blue, the wind whispered Mary, and the sun burned like the jazz, from warm to hot. I returned to arguably the best summer jazz festival in Wisconsin, The Madison Jazz Festival. The event immersed the city in jazz for nine days, in the streets, clubs, and concert halls, and on the ever-inviting Union Terrace, overlooking Lake Mendota.

The Terrace is where I made plans to meet one of my dearest friends from my 20 years in Madison, Richard “Ricardo” Meyer. It had been too long since I had seen Ricardo. All the music was free admission on The Terrace, and pretty much world-class, in a diversity of styles. So we only paid for drippingly-delicious cones from the Union’s famous Babcock ice cream stand, and for burgers and brats at the bandstand-side food vendor.

When we arrived, Emma Dayhuff and the Phoenix Ensemble was in full gear, and providing some of the most incendiary music of the afternoon. The quartet included tenor saxophonist Isaiah Collier, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, and drummer Vincent Davis, led by bassist Dayhuff, who is a PhD candidate in jazz performance at the UW-Madison. She’s already garnered enough reputation to be working this day with leading Chicago musicians Collier, Ward, and Davis.

Isaiah Collier, sax, Emma Dayhuff, bass, and Vincent Davis, drums, perform at the Madison Jazz Festival. All photos of the festival by Kevin Lynch 

One elderly listener near me grumbled “they don’t have any singer,” perhaps a bit challenged by the extended solos, especially of tenor man Collier. But I assured him that the next act will be led by a singer.

After the break, Twin Cities vocalist Sarah Greer changed the pace and mood decidedly with a blend of originals and standards. She showcased a voice with extraordinary dynamic range, especially on the top end, recalling the extraordinary pop-soul singer Minnie Ripperton.

Then came the band that I knew would be top-notch. It was billed as Sharel Cassity and the UW Faculty Band — Johannes Wallmann, keyboards, Peter Dominguez, bass, and  Matt Endres, drums.

Twin cities jazz singer Sarah Greer.

Sharel Cassity and the UW Jazz Faculty Band at the Madison Jazz Festival (above and below.). 

For me, and I suspect many others, the revelation of the afternoon was alto saxophonist Cassity, which is saying something considering I expected Greg Ward to be the top alto player of the day. He’s superb, for sure, yet I didn’t hear all of his set with Emma Dayhuff.

However, between what I’ve heard of Cassity on Precarious Towers, the new album by Johannes Wallmann (to be reviewed on this blog soon), and on this afternoon, her sound and soul are as sundrenched as the day. That’s not to say Cassity’s playing lacks a wide range of shades, shadows and nuances. She has all the chops she needs to express in a soulfully post-bop manner. These days it’s risky to comment on gender, but I can’t think of a better female saxophonist I’ve heard. She’s right up there with the best alto players of any gender.

And despite having a brand-new album of his own to promote, Wallmann was generous enough to allow Cassity the spotlight, as the quartet performed largely her own original compositions from her albums. This gambit hopefully will help promote his new album once people realize that, on Precarious Towers, she’s the horn soloist — in effect, the sonic element catching the sunlight atop those towers. 1

Sharel Cassity’s playing and horn catch the sunlight on the Union Terrace Saturday

What was most memorable Saturday was when she paused to explain how one piece was inspired by a quote by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She proceeded to recite the King quote: “I refuse to believe that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war, that the bright day of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil.”

She then played her tune “Be the Change” from her album Evolve.

This all had remarkable resonance to me because, just before her set, my friend Ricardo Meyer had revealed to me that he had rejected the draft during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. His alternative duty was two years in Mexico doing public service and, while there, he attended the historic 1968 Mexico Olympics. This event is most famous for the occasion of two African-American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raising black-gloved fists in the air during the awards ceremony for the 200-meter dash. Though interpreted controversially as a gesture of black power, Smith later said in an interview, “It was a cry for freedom and for human rights. We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”

Of course, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis in March, seven months before those Olympics. In the many years since, the need for the transformation that King envisioned remains a struggle, all the more reason for anyone and everyone to “be the change,” as Cassity puts it.

At Saturday’s Madison Jazz Festival event, my old friend Richard “Ricardo” Meyer offered up the fist-in-the-air “for freedom and human rights,” echoing the famous gesture of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos (below) at an awards ceremony in the 1968 Olympics, which Ricardo attended. The video below documents the occasion.

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1 A bit of research shows Cassity has plenty of reason to claim a spotlight: From All About Jazz: Listed as “Rising Star Alto Saxophone” in Down Beat Magazine for the past 11 consecutive years (this persistent “rising star” categorizing makes me wonder if she’s butted up against a critical glass ceiling).

“Sharel has appeared on the Today Show, earned her MA from The Juilliard School under full scholarship, won the 2007 ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award & has been inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Cassity has shared the stage with jazz luminaries including Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis & the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; as well as mainstream artists Aretha Franklin, Natalie Merchant, Vanessa Williams & Trisha Yearwood. She has released five albums as a bandleader and appeared on over 30 as a sideman, toured 24 countries and performed at leading venues like the Newport Jazz Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival & the North Sea Jazz Festival.”

 

 

 

 

It may start in a small town but this movie’s heart grows as big as Milwaukee

In one of the toughest scenes in “Small Town Wisconsin,” alcoholic Wayne Sobierski, pounds down liquor while desperately searching for overnight accommodations for the night in Milwaukee. badfeelingmag.com

Small Town Wisconsin runs only through Tuesday, June 21, at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, but continues through Thursday at Marcus Theaters in Franklin, New Berlin, Delafield, and Saukville. For times and tickets: https://mkefilm.org/oriental-theatre/events/small-town-wisconsin 

Small Town Wisconsin is now available for purchase or rent on YouTube, here:

As was my mother, I consider myself something of a movie buff. As a professional arts journalist, I have only occasionally reviewed films, as I’ve worked for publications with designated film critics, per se.

But the new film Small Town Wisconsin hit me pretty hard, partly because it is a small-town Wisconsin story (my folks are from Two Rivers) that strives, like a salmon swimming upstream, towards a big spawning ground of dreams, the big city of Milwaukee Wisconsin (my hometown).

Director-turned-executive producer Alexander Payne understood the qualities he values in this film. He’s provided some of the richest indie-courting-the-mainstream films we’ve had in recent years: Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska and Downsizing. So, he produced Small Town, which was written by Jason Naczek and directed by Milwaukee-native Niels Mueller and has racked up a slew of film festival awards. I suspect Payne saw the heart he brings to all his films even though this, to my eyes is, more than his satires, among other things, a gentle poke at small-town manners.

Producer Payne is also an actor’s director, having elicited some of the finest roles of various actors’ careers, including Laura Dern, Bruce Dern, Reese Witherspoon, Jack Nicholson, Sandra Oh, Paul Giamatti, George Clooney, Will Forte, (Aaron Rodgers-ex-girlfriend) Shailene Woodley, and character actor June Squibb, among others. So, there’s the imprimatur.

The biggest name actor in Small Town Wisconsin is Kristin Johnson, the Emmy award-winning actress for Third Rock from The Sun.

What we have here is a sort of fish-out-of-water story, times two. The main character Wayne Stobierski (Daniel Sullivan) is slowly being reeled out of his comfort zone — as a failing divorced father virtually immersed in alcohol, literally kicking and screaming — up into the harsh reality of losing any custody of his adorable son, Tyler (Cooper J. Friedman). He seems basically a good guy and an extremely sympathetic character, but Wayne also has anger-management issues. So, it’s obvious to everyone how he’s floundering as a father.

Wayne’s only daily responsibility is to one goldfish, Buster, who also is symbolically forced out of his little water bowl simply by Wayne’s inebriated neglect. So, we fear Wayne will meet a similar fate, which hangs over the story. Point beer tall boys, with occasional whiskey shots at the local bowling alley bar, seem to be his primary fuel (the small town’s street scenes are in Palmyra).

So, the writer and director proceed to force Wayne up on a tight rope, in varying degrees of intoxication, with the poor schlep tottering between high-spirited comedy and utter pathos. Bowling scenes seem a variation on those of The Big Lebowski and provide the most notable cultural context for small-town Wisconsin — easygoing solo and team sport play to sustain folks through the state’s long, cold winters. The director strives for balanced political context by including cardboard cutouts of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton observing the bowling matches. Wayne’s comical lane mishaps extend to an offbeat scene of him driving around drunk with his bowling ball, another symbol of self-destructiveness.

It is only Wayne’s fundamental if dysfunctional decentness that persuades his ex-wife Diedra (Tanya Fischer), to warily allow him one last weekend with his son, on two conditions: that he explain to Tyler that he’ll be moving to Phoenix with her and her new husband, and that Wayne be accompanied by a chaperone, his best friend, Chuck (Bill Heck), an archetypal clean liver. Tyler clearly loves his father even though he realizes he’s an alcoholic and understands, at a basic level, what the word means.

Wayne struggles to break the news to his son Tyler — that the boy will be moving with his mother and stepfather to Arizona. wsaw.com

That relationship provides most of the film’s heart squeezing and tear-jerking which is, in my book, hard earned, but with golden aspects, like the humble luck of finding a great baseball card in a random gum pack and making hay with that card. In fact, Wayne shows his true colors by financing his last big bid for his son’s heart (and perhaps more) by selling his baseball card collection, including his Hank Aaron rookie card. Though he pitches the weekend to Deidra as a typically rustic fishing and camping outing, Wayne’s secret idea is grander: give Tyler something he’ll always remember his dad by, a trip to Milwaukee, and the boy’s first major league baseball game.

Indeed, it’s a small odyssey with one eloquent classical allusion. Wayne declares Milwaukee’s baseball stadium as what “the ancient Romans called a coliseum.” Wayne, a drinking-on-the-job car mechanic, plans a night or two in Milwaukee’s finest hotel the Pfister, and the big game, “Milwaukee versus Chicago” (curiously the Cubs and Brewers are never specifically named). Sullivan, and increasingly Heck and Johnson, carve out richly-textured characters. Chuck’s personal situation almost drives him to find some new solace, on this trip. They end up at the Milwaukee home of Wayne’s sister Alicia, played by Johnson in one of the most substantial and affecting roles of her career.

Despite all the things working against him, Wayne is lucky to have a sister like Alicia (Kristen Johnson).  screen daily

One curiosity is that a movie this excellent has only earned about 80% Rotten Tomatoes critics rating, though a 95% audience score. As I see no real flaws in it, I might only speculate that it was victimized by our cultural schism between rural and urban. Milwaukee itself is somewhat idealized and the movie provides a rich panorama of the city’s diverse virtues, including a Lake Michigan boat tour of the lovely cityside, a visit to Usinger’s sausage retail outlet, and an impulsive quest to the McMansion of ex-Milwaukee slugger Gorman Thomas. I must leave the wiggling storyline in the water at that. Suffice to say, sister is the better angel on bro’s shoulder, in a story of redemption as tough-minded as it is bighearted.

So, I wonder if those less taken by it adopt the small-town viewpoint, as defensive about the characterization of the lead as an alcoholic, with little apparent self-awareness. Of course, alcoholics exist in big cities at least as much, if not more, than small towns. And the film’s makers walk their own tight rope of avoiding precipitously heavy-footed political commentary.

After all, ex-wife Deidra, Chuck and Alicia are fully sober and reasonably intelligent. And Wayne himself, in his lucid moments, displays a distinct sensitivity, especially interacting with his son. Is there a small-town critique that isn’t only defensiveness, and is this the posture of dissenting critics? The movie strives also for an overriding cultural point: We need to start bridging the gap of rural and urban, red and blue, because our commonalities as Americans are quite evident and valuable in such things as baseball games, road trips, fishing and bowling, and the gratifying and heartbreaking dynamics of nuclear families.

To me, a film like this also allows us to see our humanity shorn of illusions created by politicians promising the moon and snookering those who desperately grab onto, what appears to them, the fading American dream. Facts and stats bear it out: Urban minorities still have much more to overcome in America.  Yet a film like Small Town Wisconsin suggests that even a decent white man, with black heroes, can lose his grip and must, at some point, do something other than blame others for his apparent fate.

A final symbolic pattern surfaces: Two people, who help open Wayne’s eyes in Milwaukee, are black. A third black person, with a “halo” for a name, grew up in Milwaukee, and shows him a possible way to a new start in life.

 

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Ornette Coleman’s first two albums resurface and reveal the “genesis of genius.”

Album review: Ornette Coleman, The Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums (Contemporary)

Prepare to be haunted by a voice. Now, step inside the realm of Ornette Coleman. Few instrumental voices betray their player’s innards as deeply. The person inside that sound, strange to some, became fast friends with me when I first heard it. It’s a voice I’ve always felt close to, every time I hear it again. It tickles a brotherly bone in me, though we’ve never met personally.

That’s one of the rare qualities his saxophone playing evinces. And his mind and soul are on synchronistic display on his first two albums, finally re-issued as a box set on the Contemporary label. You readily hear and feel it all: a huge heart, a natural wit and strong empathy with his fellow players, his rhythm section as true fellows.

Trumpeter Don Cherry, at this juncture, almost as distinctive a voice, unlike any trumpeter you’ve heard. His trumpet tone splatters and smears at times. He sounds like a man talking and singing at once. Part of the singularity of both players was their unusual axes. Ornette’s white plastic alto sax and Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet (see photo below).

Ornette Coleman (left) and Don Cherry. Courtesy Pinterest.

Ornette’s sound is conversational and declamatory, but was also controversial at the time, the ultra-avant-garde. Some conventional players thought he didn’t know how to. Yet, he swings marvelously, as do his bandmembers which belies why this sounded so alien to so many people back in the late 50s (or was it mainly certain critics?). Plus, bluesiness also permeates this music. helping immerse it in a grand jazz tradition even as he’s like nobody you’ve ever heard.

Ornette’s “Genesis of a Genius” re-issue box set is available in CD (upper left) or vinyl LP.

The music is artistically direct, but never simplistic. Coleman said “Let’s play the melody not the background,” suggesting his one big step beyond conventional chord changes (after the first album here, he jettisoned piano in his groups, though much later added electric guitar). However, pianist Walter Norris on the first album comps with suitable harmonic ambiguity and solos with boppish elan.

Drummer Shelly Manne, who plays on the first album, once said Ornette’s saxophone “is the sound of someone laughing and crying.” Ornette’s voice is also one of the most amiable I’ve heard on a horn in a long while and here the voice and style are fully formed on his first two albums.

The tune “Compassion” is reflective as much as an outpouring of feeling with a sense of wry irony within the sound of suffering. So he creates his own substantial “background” straight from his melodic soul.

This reissue is especially a find, a revelation, because these two were over-shadowed by his ensuing series of superb albums for Atlantic Records, now collected in a 6-CD box titled Beauty is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings. That collection reveals Ornette’s full flowering as a composer, with a number of now-classic tunes, including “Ramblin’,” “Lonely Woman,” “Una Muy Bonita,” “Peace,” and the epic 37-minute “Free Jazz,” with a “double quartet” that included Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard.

If you love that stuff, or still tread through it with uncertainty or curiosity, you ought to hear where it comes from. That’s Genesis of Genius, this Contemporary set. The compositions are well-crafted but not as maturely as the Atlantics. And one technical complaint: Don Cherry’s trumpet is sometimes too low in the mix so it’s then difficult to hear his full phrasing on his solos. But his quite audible extended solo on “Angel Voice” is a buoyantly lesson in amiable, accomplished boppish storytelling.

“Lorraine,” on the second Contemporary album Tomorrow is the Question!, is a languid, yearning yet witty ballad that ought to be a classic. Akin to the soon-famous Atlantic ballad “Lonely Woman,” it’s titled for the late pianist Lorraine Geller, “because she was a wonderful piano player,” Ornette explains in the liber notes. Don Cherry notes correctly that drummer Shelly Manne’s all-brushes solo is “as musical as drum solo can be.”

Try this out:

As for “When Will the Blues Leave?” Answer: When the song is over. This catchy creation sounds like players blowing the blues away, with the resilience of their spirit and the wit of their musicality.

“Turnaround” has a sort of bluesy insouciance that makes you smile inside and out — you want to tuck it into your hip pocket as a tune, like a goodly handful in this compact box set, to scat-sing to yourself. Cherry’s solo is more audible here and delightful in its sly goofiness, yet very smart.

Vintage, seminal modern jazz, this set deserves a wide audience. This horn voice among jazzers, is right up there with Miles, Lester Young, Stan Getz, John Coltrane…

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This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express, here: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/the-genesis-of-genius-the-contemporary-albums-by-ornette-col/


 

The wonders and wiles of animals running wild in the artist’s imagination

Nova Czarnecki, “Return to Me, ” oil painting,  $4500

Heretofore, I’ve refrained from reviewing an art show that I am participating in. However, I’ll simply announce, with a bit of comment, this is the last week to see Feather, Fur, Scale and Tail at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 E. Center St. Milwaukee. The show runs through Saturday, June 18. This delightful celebration and exploration of animals is ingenious, diverse, colorful and textural, and rich in symbolism and beauty. Yet it is not without acknowledging the darkness that shadows the animal world from within, and from without, the perpetual threat of humans. 

It includes one of a series of pastel and ink drawings I have made, inspired by Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick. The one on exhibit depicts a scene in the first of the novel’s three climactic chapters, “The Chase-The First Day.” The image is titled “Ishmael Intuits the End from the Crows Nest.” The book’s narrator Ishmael is visible in the far background, at the top of the ship, as the whaling boat with Captain Ahab and Ishmael’s friend, first harpoonist Queequeg, approach The White Whale in the foreground. 

Kevin Lynch, “Ishmael Intuits the End from the Crow’s Nest.” pastel and ink. Not for Sale 

But the show is filled with excellent work: from the lovely gestural simplicity of a blackbird sitting on a branch in Carol Rode-Curley’s watercolor-like pastel, “Resting Raven,” to John-Mark Klapperich’s complex visual jokes — wall assemblages of metal objects transformed into animals. Among the most vivid actual encounters with an animal is “Sweet Pea,” Mary Lee Agnew’s photo capturing the ever-elusive fox, with ears so large you imagine him a winged mythical creature, caught for a fleeting moment, amid wind-blown leaps of prairie grass. (All pictured below)

More myth (as in artful truth-telling) seems to reside in, for me, a true highlight — Nova Czarnecki’s large (48” x 60”) oil painting “Return to Me” (at top). This seems a  (self?) portrait of an earth mother dwelling in watery depths and attracting creatures from the air, the land and the very currents wherein she sits with a mystical regality.

Most works are for sale, and are visible online. or in the gallery. Here’s a link to the online viewing, with gallery hours and information: https://jazzgallerycenterforarts.org/gallery-exhibits/2022/5/14/feather-fur-scale-and-tail

Carol Rode-Curley, “Resting Raven,” pastel, $300

John-Mark Klapperich, “Patina Sprockets,” assemblage sculpture, Not for Sale

Mary Lee Agnew, “Sweet Pea,” photography, $150

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Are you ready for The Madison Jazz Festival? Better be.

“Night and Day, you are the one”: You can’t beat the festival’s free live jazz on the hip and picturesque Union Terrace, overlooking Lake Mendota in Madison.

The Madison Jazz Festival is loaded and ready to bust out, starting Friday, June 10 to 19. Plenty of free-admission music as well as ticketed events. It seems to grow stronger and more richly conceived every year.

This one is headlined by the Christian McBride Quartet, Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, bassist-singer-songwriter-bandleader Chris Morrissey, The Jon Irabagon Quartet, The Thaddeus Tukes Trio and much more.

McBride, he of the eight Grammy Awards, and Grammy-winning Blade are established jazz giants, but one somewhat less-known act I’d love to see again is Irabagon, an astonishingly gifted saxophonist and clarinetist. Alas, I have a previous commitment that night. I am aiming to get into town for the “rising-star” vibist Thaddeus Tukes on Thursday June 16th at the Art Lit Lab.

Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band

Multi-instrumentalist Jon Irabagon

Vibraphonist Thaddeus Tukes

But there’s music galore throughout the city of Madison. And consider some intriguing side streets beyond pure concertizing:

Hip-hop-jazz word artist Rob DZ, a not-really-secret Madison weapon (for peace and understanding), hosts the New Breed Jazz jam for those who want to get musically involved.

Hip-hop word artist Rob DZ

Plus, our old friend, jazz maven Howard Landsman will host a listening session of “Rare Ellingtonia,” which should be mysteriously spiced and aurally delicious.

Another precious and soon-departing jazz amigo, Steve Braunginn, will present a live conversation with renowned drummer-bandleader Brian Blade. You’re getting the idea, I hope.

I’ll leave it at that, but do check out the website schedule with fine bio links to the artists:

Just click Here: https://artlitlab.org/programs/greater-madison-jazz/madison-jazz-festival

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Fishing Has No Boundaries provides empowerment and excitement for those otherwise deprived

At dawn Saturday, a celestial ceiling hovered over Lake Michigan and my three fishing companions at the Fishing Has No Boundaries event. From left: advocate Alex Classen, and two wheelchaired participants, Luis Classen (Alex’s uncle) and Darrin Malsack. Photos by Kevin Lynch, unless otherwise indicated. 

A celestial ceiling of clouds hovered over a radiant sunrise, as if heaven’s ethereal floor wasn’t too far aloft to reach. That slightly uncanny feeling lent my first indication this would be a special day. This luminous moment, pictured above, also blessed my three fishing companions, seen in silhouette, a few minutes before I even met them. So, I felt a quiet optimism even amid the slight chaos of the effort to get a variety of disabled participants, and their patrons (if they had one) matched up with boat captains and first mates.

The 501 3-C non-profit organization’s name, Fishing Has No Boundaries, * has both poetic resonance, for the most extravagantly intrepid of anglers, and a specific reference to enabling and empowering those who might not otherwise ever board a fishing boat, or handle a rod. It was founded in 1988 by a Hayward (WI) fishing guide after he broke his leg, and now has 18 mostly-Midwest regional chapters, but ranging from Colorado Springs to Cincinnati.

I’m fortunate that I still have fully able and mobile legs. A wayward flu shot and then a rotator cuff tear in my right shoulder on January 1, 2004, triggered an auto-immune attack which became a bilateral brachial plexitis. I ended up with a partially paralyzed left hand and, worse, severely chronic neuropathic pain in both arms and hands, ever since. I’ve become a one-handed typist as a professional writer. It’s been been my internal dwelling of living hell to this day.

I’ve tried gamely to not let the bilateral neuropathy limit me any more than it does. I got halfway through a PhD program in English at Marquette University, upon returning to Milwaukee from 20 years working at Madison’s The Capital Times, never telling anyone (wisely or not) of the MU administrative or faculty about my condition.

I use a medley of meds three times daily to manage the pain in my arms and, worst of all, in the left arm and atrophied hand. To this day, I’m literally dealt a losing hand on too many excruciating days which, with normal meds failing, leave me no other alternative but cannabis. (Though I hate to have to take it, the stuff is truly God’s gift!) 1

And in season, I strive to golf pretty much weekly (yeah, weakly) with three great high-school friends, John Kurzawa (a highly accomplished golfer), Frank Stemper and Ed Valent. The latter two go back with me to 4th grade, when my family moved to Shorewood and St. Robert’s grade school.

That brings me to my other great friend from St Robert’s, John Klett, who lived just half a block up from us on Beverly Road. John and I bonded strongly over mutual artistic inclinations (he would become a successful architect) and a passion for touch football, after my tackle football career was aborted by a serious broken leg in seventh grade. This was the intoxicating Lombardi era. So John’s younger brother Jim and a few other nearby neighborhood pals, including Bill “Tuna” Fliss, played in our street touch football matches, on Saturdays or Sunday mornings before Packer games.

John and I rekindled our friendship when I moved back to Milwaukee in 2009, and last year he invited me to participate in the Milwaukee chapter of Fishing Has No Boundaries. The whole point of this excellent organization is to provide a genuine fishing experience for people who are variously disabled, and to promote awareness and enablement of such people.

I’m hardly the worst-off participant, especially on a day when my meds are working. And last year, John’s son Jonathan came along as my able-bodied advocate. I needed his assistance during one fairly challenging reeling of a feisty Coho salmon, given that I needed to crank the reel with my relatively recovered right hand, while holding a serious fishing rod with my atrophied left hand.

I’d been out fishing with John and his brothers previously, but since becoming disabled I never seriously handled a rod. I had always enjoyed fishing even though my first Lake Michigan outing, a charter trip, with Frank and Ed decades ago, basically left me retching (wretchedly) with seasickness.

I really gained greater an appreciation for this sterling organization in this, my second year, and for my friend John Klett’s steady-as-she-goes chairmanship of the Milwaukee chapter, which rides increasingly high tides of success. This year the local chapter raised enough money for the event to be held at the South Shore Yacht Club, an upgrade in location. and with a hot lunch afterwards.

Plus, among all the wonderful volunteers, all the boat captains and first mates, the organization has strong and able members of the Milwaukee Fire Department who specialize in waterfront protection. These hearty fellows literally transport wheel-chaired participants to and fro, dock to the fishing boat. This photo depicts this critical aspect of enablement.

Milwaukee Fire Department volunteers hoist FHNB participant Luis Classen from the boat into his wheelchair, after our outing. Luis’s advocate, his nephew Alex Classen, watches at far right, and Captain Rick Sasek follows, in the background at left.

***

So Captain Rick Sasek’s cabin cruiser, The Salmon Safari, headed out on a chilly overcast morning. My participant mates were two quadriplegic men, Darrin Malsack and Luis Classen who, of the two, has the more advanced condition, at a C-6 cervical level. So Luis’s advocate assistance by his nephew, Alex Classen, would prove crucial. Darrin was actually a veteran fisherman who recounted catching a 75-inch sailfish in Florida and waxed rhapsodic about someday building the ideal fishing boat for his kind, which would enable him to fish standing up. “You can’t fish sitting down,” he mused.

Well, you can. Such an actual moment revealed the poignant value of FHNB. Here, such challenged people can let their angler’s dreams begin to unfurl, and catch the wind. It was Luis’s turn to reel in a fish. A salmon began fighting at the end of the line. His nephew Alex leapt into the fray and gripped the rod two-handed as Luis gamely began cranking in the line. Both his hands are significantly atrophied (like my left one), so he had to alternate hands in the long reeling effort. But he did it — the feisty fish finally flopped into the boat.

This was a prelude to the outing’s true climax. This time, able-bodied young Alex had the rod, with its thousand foot line, when the fish hit. Captain Rick and his longtime first mate Gary Dusyzinski both cried out, knowing immediately this was a serious foe. Rick checked the reel meter, which indicated that the fish had already pulled the line out beyond 550 feet. At one point, the mighty creature breached into the air and, even from this distance, prompted “oohs” and “ahhs.” Rick took the rod to demonstrate a technique for an extended battle  — alternated reeling with walking backwards with the taut rod to mid-deck.

After a bit of this in-the-moment instruction, he handed the rod back to Alex, who got the technique down pretty quickly. Still, this remained a hearty match against a strong fish’s will and guile. For a few moments, we thought we’d lost him but the line kept bouncing taut again. I had never witnessed anything like this. I flashed on the term “Nantucket sleighride,” used by 19th-century whalers when they were pulled along by a running, harpooned whale. It took 25 minutes before the silver-and-gray flashing fish finally arrived within netting distance. He proved too big for the net and jumped out once. I was slightly agog as Rick finally hauled the netted fish up. It was a genuine, broad-chested king salmon that would measure 36 inches and weigh nearly 23 pounds, his mouth bristling with mature teeth.

“This is so rare, at this time of the year, to get one of these,” said Rick, beaming with gratitude and pride. We’d quickly caught a bunch of Coho, and such success has partly to do with a savvy captain’s reading of fish grouping patterns and a new high-tech dynamic graphics screen depicting the region directly below his vessel.  

Advocate Alex Classen poses with his 36-inch King Salmon, shortly after he reeled it in in after a long, tough fight. The Milwaukee skyline lies in the far horizon.

Rick had also attached to this line a “dipsy diver” bait mechanism, which drops to the greater depths where king (or Chinook) salmon dwell. 1

The captain was so excited that he decided to have us all pose with the sudden large haul, which the last hour or so had produced. He leaned so far back over the edge of the boat to get this photo angle that I yelled out “Man overboard!” Here’s the photo below, with the king  salmon in the middle. We actually caught two more Coho after this shot, and concluded our bountiful morning by snagging a large, gorgeously speckled lake trout.

Our Fishing Has No Boundaries crew poses with our partial catch of salmon including Alex’s king salmon in the center. From left: Alex Classen, Darrin Malsack, Luis Classen and Kevin Lynch (Kevernacular). Photo by Capt. Rick Sasek. 

The captain knowingly predicted that this king salmon would be the prize-winning catch of the day, which proved exactly correct.

*** 

Chairman John Klett made the announcement as we munched on freshly grilled hamburgers and giant hotdogs and big chocolate cookies.

FHNB Chairman John Klett presents the prize-winning captain’s trophy to Salmon Safari’s Rick Sasek (left) while young Alex Classen holds the top angler’s trophy after snagging the largest fish of the day.  

In retrospect, I felt some of the respect for the great and small creatures of the watery world, whom narrator Ishmael eloquently honors in Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick. So, my first meal of one of these freshly-caught creatures, grilled up that night, held an aspect of sacred ritual. I thought of the lovely spontaneous prayer that John’s wife, Mary Nold-Klett, had offered for the gathering after the outing’s lunch. This well-conceived and organized event truly empowers the body and hoists the spirit, embodied in the great, glistening fish itself.

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  1. Unfortunately I missed the WI Cannabis Expo, which happened Saturday, concurrent to the fishing outing. (As a free-lance writer for a primary Expo sponsor, The Shepherd Express, I’d received a comp ticket). But properly taking care of the salmon catch (including offering a few fresh fillets to our neighbors) took precedent.
  2.  “Chinook” is a Native American term, the name of a tribe of the American Northwest and applied here to the species of large salmon originally caught in the northern Pacific Ocean, which can grow to as large as 100 pounds.

 

“Eddie? Eddie?!! Eddie!!!”

Eddie, before he went missing. Note the mystical third eye of his boy-nipple, and his favorite little red chew-toy ball. Photo by Ann Kathryn Peterson.

This is the story of our missing cat, Eddie. We were sure he was long gone in the wilds of the great outdoors, because we had searched our flat and the basement. Ann had gone down there “at least ten times,” calling his name and shaking cat treats in a container. Yesterday, it had been two weeks since he was missing. Ann, finally able to hold back tears, had pretty much “resigned herself” to never seeing him again, she had said at dinner on our front balcony.

Yesterday’s mini-heatwave prompted me, at about 10.15 p.m., to go down to the basement to retrieve a fan or two. I stored our fans in an ancient canning room in the far corner of the basement. The door creaked open, I walked in, turned the light on and grabbed the chosen fan.

I paused to decide whether to grab another one, and something drew my eye upward. I looked, and there, staring at me was a black cat, two feet from my face, squatting on a shelf.

A long moment of silence seemed eternal. “Eddie? Eddie?! Eddie!!!”

It was Eddie, his light-deprived pupils as round as little black saucers. We stared at each other for several more long moments. His face had the look of a cat’s nine lives all rolled into one, perhaps courting doom. I was utterly astonished. I can’t recall being more so.

Little Eddie had been trapped in this room for two weeks (to the day)? With no food or water? I was afraid to look closer, thinking I’d find an emaciated body. But I saw his beautiful, sleek black coat intact, and I reached to touch him on the head and neck, which he silently allowed me to do.

At this point, I needed to tell Ann as she can handle cats much more deftly than I, especially with my lame left hand. He was clearly very scared. I didn’t want him jumping out of my arms and go running in the basement. I closed the canning room door but left the light on, so he knew we’d return.

Ann was already in bed. When I got upstairs I said, “You’ll never guess what I just found.”

“What? What is it?” she cried.

Clutching Eddie to her breast, Ann carried him upstairs, beside herself in amazement and joy. He had a dazed expression on his face.

The other two cats knew something was up even though Ann took him straight into our back cat room and closed the door. They lurked and peered at the door.  What proceeded was about 15 minutes of all her kitty-kat talk, ranging from baby cooing and goofy, sweet nothings, to adoring chastisements, to her comically fake “man’s voice,” used when playfully teasing a cat.

I sat outside on a kitchen chair listening with warm befuddlement and gratification, over what had just happened. Eddie wasn’t eating any of the dry food in the cat room so I fixed up a heaping helping of squishy cat food and before long he was chowing on that and, Ann reports, rubbing against her body frenetically, and then rolling over in apparent happiness.

Ann decided to sleep on the floor with him, a courageous thing to do giving her arthritis. I went to sleep eventually and woke up early in the morning, to Ann asleep in bed next to me and Eddie walking around the bed, around my head, his ultra-long black tail lilting and flailing between it us like a charmed and intoxicated cobra. Then he flopped down between us. Unlike most cats, who knead and then settle into a space, Eddie just flops.

On the advice of her sister Caryn, Ann contacted the vet, who was able to get Eddie in for an examination this morning. He was indeed dehydrated, but not seriously so. He received IV fluids and will have a return visit in a week.

Eddie’s lucky he’s still young (less than a year), and as well-fed and nurtured as he had been. He typically would also eat from the other two cats’ foods dishes in a given meal hour, and has grown by leaps and bounds, literally. He’s lucky. too, being a slender cat. The vet explained that obese cats, when they get dehydrated, can have a reaction in their stored fat that actually threatens them.

I now recall Ann saying to me a number of times as we speculated about Eddie, after her numerous searches: “One thing I know. He’s not in the basement. And if he is, he’s dead.”

Cats are delightfully and confoundingly amazing creatures, in so many ways. How he got trapped in the small dark, dank room remains something of a mystery. My astonishment over Eddie’s two-week odyssey into cat hell remains, fresh and vivid as a nightmare, finally awoken from.

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Louisa Gallas offers incisive sanity for America’s gun madness, and its attendant politics

Louisa Gallas.

 

Culture Currents guest comment is by Louisa Gallas (a.k.a. Louisa Loveridge-Gallas), a beloved Milwaukee poet, who has quickly proven a fearless, fierce and incisive political commentator, on The New York Times online opinion page.

Here she responds affirmatively to an op-ed by celebrated columnist Paul Krugman. It’s a superb rejoinder to America’s gun madness.  

 

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Louisa Gallas | Michigan
YES! The perspective that gun violence is a public health issue, in fact, emergency, is essential. Any use of the word ‘control’ does alienate those who frame accessibility as their freedom. The NRA and legislators who promote guns create a real infection across the country and slander the original constitution’s definition of ‘well-regulated militia”, instead allowing any individual to legally buy a weapon to murder. The irresponsibility the NRA supports is a bacteria they grow in their laboratory and purposely release into the environment. They are a systemic disease based on a lethal skewed originalist interpretation of the second amendment. They have no shame about their demolition of public physical and mental health as they further the epidemic of murder, maiming and despair.

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Gunmania? Will the real America please stand up?

A man comforts an anguished woman after The Robb Elementary school massacre in Texas. Courtesy theglobeandmail.com

Why must people like this woman suffer through pointless mayhem, time after time? Such hell on earth, to say nothing of the victims?

I felt I had to respond to the latest gun-lust/ hatred/ madness in Texas, with 18 children and two adults murdered in cold blood, and counting. It’s America’s worst gun-violence toll since the Sandy Hook massacre, which a certain strain of Americans have twisted into a fake death conspiracy. That’s where we are. So I’m deeply grateful for the courage of poet Brian Bilston and of theater artist Julia Stemper, who posted his poem.

Below the poem is my further comment.

I, like probably others, initially thought this poem too facile and unfair a reduction of America’s incredibly diverse identity. And yet, so sadly, I asked myself, what other than than guns is a symbol more manifest in American political culture today?

It’s as if The Statue of Liberty’s torch has been replaced by a AK-47. We stand breathlessly aghast, waiting for her to drop her arm and fire — ravaging fellow humans of all ages and colors — to protect our “personal liberty.” Lady Liberty would then collapse in tears, over the madness infecting her.

More guns than Americans. A tragically lame, kowtowing Congress. Tell me, what single symbol today is more pointedly apt to signify the darkest, deepest corner of this blighted nation’s collective psyche, than its bloody gun lust?

Finally I offer my friend Julia Stemper’s own poem, echoing Bilston’s form, as a positive, proactive response:

It’s time to change this
Hug your children
And change this
Hug your children who have children
And change this
Hug your children who teach children
And change this
Hug your children who don’t deserve this
And change this
Hug yourself, you are a child
You don’t deserve this
Don’t hug a gun
Just change this
— Julia Stemper 
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