Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Harvey Taylor feel for our nation and people

Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of City Lights Book Store, which he founded in San Francisco long ago. Ferlinghetti, who turned 100 in 2019, remains pertinent today. Courtesy The Nation

Can we feel pity for our own nation? Our own people? Hear those questions arise in the poem “Pity the Nation” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Milwaukee poet singer-songwriter Harvey Taylor recently used his considerable gifts of recitation to revive the powerful ideas of Ferlinghetti, The 100-year-old beat-era bard, who first wrote “Pity” in 2007, during the Bush-Cheney administration. 

The poem feels as pointed as ever today. Taylor also employs the darkly expressive banjo and harmonica of Jeff Hinich on “Pity,” and the second poem offered here, “Immigrants,” penned by the Taylor himself. Both are offered “to motivate creative resistance to corruption and criminality in ‘high places’,” he says.

Taylor’s own verse addresses the idea that most Americans are immigrants or descendants thereof and, in that sense, related to today’s often-desperate and courageous migrants, risking their lives and families to escape violence by coming to America’s borders.

A desperate migrant family retreats from tear gas at the Southern U.S. border in 2018. Are they illegal? Should we muster pity for their plight? For our own nation and people? Harvey Taylor ponders such matters in poetry. Courtesy ABC News.

Heavy, dark matters simmer within these verses, yet both remain extremely palatable, given Taylor’s deft and mellifluous recitations.
And he magnanimously offers wise respite to burdened or resistant spirits, with a third poem “How Happy They Must Be.” This he wrote inspired by a splendid realm of wildflowers encountered while driving through a bucolic countryside.
This poem is brightly colored by Taylor’s own warmly buoyant trumpet playing, double tracked, with and without mute. After the previous brooding poems, this feels like taking a deep breath of fresh, pastoral air.

The three brief recordings add up to a three-part tonic, the kind only poetry recited with doses of graceful verve and insight can provide.

Poet-musician Harvey Taylor. Courtesy

Taylor plans to collaborate with a talented video artist, Susan Ruggles, for a new incarnation of these readings. Culture Currents will keep you posted when these videos appear.

Here’s the Link to Taylor’s own website recordings:


These readings originally aired on “The Grass is Greener,” a program hosted by Babbette Grunow and Gary Grass, on Riverwest Radio, WXRW-LP 104.1 FM.

2019 NPR Jazz Critics Poll includes your blogger’s list of best jazz albums

Pianist-composer-bandleader Guillermo Klein (seated fifth from left), and his star-riddled band Los Guachos, produced the year’s best album “Cristal,” in the opinion of Culture Currents’ Kevin Lynch Courtesy WBGO 

After a few years’ hiatus, I re-joined Francis Davis’ longtime culling of jazz critics in a poll that began at The Village Voice in 2006, and has morphed into a National Public Radio-sponsored survey, now the largest annual poll of jazz critics. So, if you’d like to refer to the best critical consensus on what to listen to or buy in jazz, here’s a great guide.

If you have a favorite critic among participants, you can find his or her list, including mine, in the link to all the critics, in the opening essay (or here: all participating critics.) Davis’ two short essays provide fine overviews of the year and of critical preferences. He notes a surprise top consensus winner, Diatom Ribbons, by the fairly unknown Canadian pianist-composer Kris Davis (see photo below.)

My top choice, Cristal, by Guillermo Klein and his brilliant medium-sized ensemble Los Guachos (The Orphans), bolstered my sense that Latin Jazz is moving close to the center of the jazz fulcrum of artistic power and influence.

Guillermo Klein y Los Guachos released “Cristal,” my choice for the best jazz album of 2019.  Courtesy

This year, Puerto Rican-born alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, who is also in Klein’s band of “orphans,” (he’s seated to Klein’s left in the photo, at top) gave us an album that just missed my top ten, Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera. The NPR critics group similarly ranked Sonero number 12 in their consensus voting.

Zenon is also an original member of the SFJAZZ Ensemble, which scored in my top 10 with The Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Original Compositions. Jobim, of course, is the father of Brazilian bossa nova.

These albums follow trumpeter former-Milwaukeean Brian Lynch’s dazzling Madera Latino, a 2-CD 2018 Latin-style take on the music of trumpet icon Woody Shaw, one of my picks for best of that year.

Otherwise, I was deeply impressed by Forward, the debut album (and a live performance I saw) by The Paul Dietrich Ensemble, a Madison-based orchestra. Maria Schneider Orchestra drummer Clarence Penn is the album’s co-billed artist. Schneider’s style and sensibility deeply inform Dietrich’s music. Among the band’s featured soloists was Chicago alto saxophonist Greg Ward, whose own album, Stomping Off From Greenwood, also made my top 10 list.

I reviewed the album here and for The Shepherd Express:

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

Pianist composer Kris Davis (center, in blue) and her very diverse ensemble delivered the best album of 2019, according to a poll of 140 jazz critics. Mimi Chakarova/Courtesy of the artist

Here’s a link to the whole 2019 NPR jazz critics poll:

Here’s my own NPR ballot of best jazz albums for 2019:

14th Annual Jazz Critics Poll: 2019

Ballot 2019

Kevin Lynch (The Shepherd Express [Milwaukee], No DepressionCulture Currents)


  1. Guillermo Klein y Los Guachos, Cristal (Sunnyside)
  2. Kenny Barron & Mulgrew Miller, The Art of Piano Duo: Live (Sunnyside)
  3. Lee Konitz Nonet, Old Songs New (Sunnyside)
  4. Wadada Leo Smith, Rosa Parks: Pure Love: An Oratorio of Seven Songs (TUM)
  5. Greg Ward Presents Rogue Parade, Stomping Off From Greenwood (Greenleaf Music)
  6. Tobias Meinhart, Berlin People (Sunnyside)
  7. Kendrick Scott Oracle, A Wall Becomes a Bridge (Blue Note)
  8. SFJAZZ Collective, The Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Original Compositions (SFJAZZ)
  9. Paul Dietrich Jazz Ensemble Featuring Clarence Penn, Forward (self-released)
  10. Romain Collin, Tiny Lights (XM)


  1. Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance -3CD -18)
  2. Gil Evans Orchestra, Hidden Treasures: Monday Nights Vol. 1 (Deko Music)
  3. Paul Bley-Gary Peacock-Paul Motian, When Will the Blues Leave (1999, ECM)


  • John Allee, Bardfly (Portuguese Knees)


  • Joshua Catania, Open to Now (Shifting Paradigm)


  • Guillermo Klein y Los Guachos, Cristal (Sunnyside)

Note: Gil Evans Orchestra should be considered under New releases (recorded 2016-17).


The Atlantic’s steady-in-the-storm December issue carries me to the brink of the tidal catastrophe it references

“Watching Americans Watch Parades.” Lebanon, Kentucky, September 24, 2016. Photo courtesy Photo by George Georgiou

The times, they are a changin’ yet, and what goes around comes around, treading over the blood and tears on the tracks, the ravaged hearts struggling on.

The Atlantic remains required reading for anyone with an open and inquiring mind about culture, politics and the world, regardless of your persuasion. The November/December issue How to Stop a Civil War might’ve been transported to the publication’s earliest years as an abolitionist publication. What might’ve happened? You unlock this door with the key of imagination, as Rod Serling would say. Times are more complicated but the conflicting dynamics, especially on race and “the Other,” is not much different.

Since then the magazine has evolved into a sometimes exquisitely-balanced — sometimes walking a tightrope — but morally inquisitive and rigorous publication without such a clear agenda.

The November 1857 Atlantic Monthly (left), a voice born in a time of crisis on the verge of The Civil War, and the current magazine and app. Courtesy the Cover art of December 2019 issue by Sam Kaplan, Brian Byrne and Atlantic creative and art directors.

Look at the December issue’s cover, beside the debut 1857 issue. A pejorative adjective comes to mind with this bleeding image. On second thought, in such times this cover speaks powerfully to painfully melodramatic times. That’s the adjective. But the cover with the new bold but elegant but assertive “A” logo reflects courage and resolve in our time of crisis, as is the sum part of the issue’s theme articles. The mag’s art and creative directors see the startling hand image as a metaphor for a “body divided against itself,” deftly echoing Lincoln.

Introducing the edition, editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg delineates some connections and distinctions with great urgency in the opening salvo for peace if not necessarily civility (more on that later) “A Nation Coming Apart,” by referencing the magazine’s debut issue.

But it showed how measured and penetrating the publication can be in its range of reporting.

How far do they cover the stormy waterfront?

The first of three thematic sections of the main body of the issue is titled “How to Stop a Civil War.” They set a provocative edge in one of the first pieces, an interview-feature on Daniel Miller, leader of the Texas secessionist movement on among the most mot intellectually stimulating right-wingers around. Union stalwart-angel Abe Lincoln would shudder, of course. I loved a brief, delightfully insightful photo essay (more a diptych mural, really) by George Georgiou Watching Americans Watch Parades. (See top photo)

Yoni Appelbaum’s edge-of-dystopia piece “How America Ends” follows his recent cover story which helped spur the intellectual charge to impeach Trump.

His historical perspective reaching into the Civil War legacy brought to mind a great novel a read and reviewed, Cloudsplitter the extraordinarily personal-yet-big-picture story of radical abolitionist John Brown, narrated by his son, and written by the gifted and inspired Russell Banks.

Yet the issue is also very to-the-media-and-cultural moment. Don’t miss “Why it Feels Like Everything is Going Haywire,” a social-media “conversation-essay” by Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, with a powerful big-picture perspective.

Then there “Too Much Democracy is Bad for Democracy” by Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja (illustrated above by Ilya Milstein), which indicts our democracy primary election system but doesn’t rail against the Electoral College, which seemed an oversight. They argue for returning to a system of relying more on knowledgeable party experts, in the proverbial back rooms. Elsewhere, conservative columnist David Frum does address the Electoral College dilemma by asserting that a second Trump term, with a Republican Senate majority involves a deliberative body that’s “less democratically representative than the Electoral College,” in “When Trump Goes.”

Part 2 of the issue is titled “Appeals to our Better Nature”

The very meaty and challenging section is anchored by “The Road to Serfdom: How Americans can Become Citizens Again,” by Danielle Allen. “Can This Marriage be Saved?” examines an effort at applying couples-counseling technique to red and blue state group participants.

Part 3 is titled “Reconciliation and its Alternatives”

In “The Enemy Within: What Principles of Democracy Must Citizens Live By?” recent Secretary of Defense James Mattis boldly declares: “Cynicism is cowardice. And cynicism is corrosive when in it saturates society, as it has saturated much of ours.”

As thought-provoking as any piece is “Against Reconciliation,’ by Adam Serwer,  which argues the dangers of a political middle acceding to those who would exploit America only further. He says the gravest danger to American democracy isn’t an excess of vitriol—it’s the false compromise of civility. Serwer likens the current state of American politics to the Reconstruction era, “when the comforts of comity were privileged over the work of building a multiracial democracy.” He argues that the illusion of peace and civility is often purchased at the expense of true progress. “The danger of our own political moment is not that Americans will again descend into a bloody conflagration. It is that the fundamental rights of marginalized people will again become bargaining chips political leaders trade for an empty reconciliation.”

Finally don’t miss “What Art Can Do: The Power of Stories that are Unshakably True,” by Lin-Manuel-Miranda, creator of the Broadway masterwork, Hamilton.

Buttressing the Americana photo diptych is an essay on the great American gritty verite photographer Gary Winogrand, “A Street Full of Splendid Strangers.”

You begin to sense how brilliantly and carefully this issue was conceived and realized.

For what it’s worth, I’ve done nominating for the Pulitzer Prize a few times (in music) and was leader writer of a Pulitzer-nominated group project, and this issue is surely a powerful candidate for the coveted prize, in some group-project category.

That’s not even counting the culture review and feature pieces, which only strengthen the issue. See reviews of Margaret Atwood’s sequel of sorts to A Handmaid’s Tale, and of Martin Scorcese’s autumnal new American gangster film, The Irishman. A Q & A with first-time director Director Melina Matsoukas on her Queen & Slim, a “black Bonnie & Clyde film” starring Daniel Kaluuya, (Black Panther, Get Out) and Jodie-Turner Smith. “I wanted to showcase black love, and unity, not just romantic love. Black unity is the greatest power against oppression, Matsoukas says.

 David Blight also offers a mediation titled “The Possibility of America: Frederick Douglass’s Most Sanguine Vision of a Pluralist National Rebirth,” drawing from his 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” The black social and civil rights pioneer was also original a prophet of struggle fomenting progress.

Here’s a link to The Atlantic’s December issue: “How to Stop a Civil War.”

Which leads me back to Banks’ 1998 novel Cloudsplitter, (a finalist for the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner Awards) and all we might gain from reflecting on the extreme socio-political dynamic that inspired Brown to such drastic measures as murder, for the sake of finally freeing black slaves.

Radical abolitionist John Brown on the verge of splitting clouds, and America, with his zealous lightning strikes. Print by John Steuart Curry.

He remains a controversial figure. When I mentioned I was reviewing this book to John Patrick Hunter, a progressive political icon at The Capital Times, Hunter immediately declared, “He was a hero!” His spouse Merry, standing beside him, softly shook her head. “Killing people, I have problems with that,” she said.

Lincoln, of course, saw the ensuing conflagration as the crucible to preserve the Union, just as much as slave liberation. To me, the book’s story feels unshakeably true, and burning a brand of passion into our times. Cloudsplitter is a long but rewarding and psychologically fascinating novel. So read my review and do consider reading the book, as a profound message to the groaning pain of our changin’ times:


 Friday, May 1, 1998

Edition: All
Section: Editorial
Page: 13A
Source: By Kevin Lynch
Type: Review
Memo: Kevin Lynch was an arts writer for The Capital Times.


   Russell Banks’ majestically sad and impassioned novel about the abolitionist John Brown is a great and inspiring book. It is also dangerous, in the way that America is perilous and contradictory in its ever-shifting bedrock of independence for all people, rife with subtle and vile abuses.
The danger factor has been glossed over or ignored by critics who have been tossing deservedly glowing literary laurels at the feet of Banks.
I suspect the author would kick those politely aside, to search out responses from ordinary, deep-rooted Americans, descendants of slaves or of Civil War fighters, or any lovers of freedom and equality.
When he finished his last novel, “Rule of the Bone” about a teenage runaway, Banks did more than tour the tony bookstore circuit. He went to urban high schools to discuss its implications with students.
That, too, was a somewhat dangerous book, if one saw it as simply glorifying Bone’s rambling, delinquent lifestyle.
Now “Cloudsplitter” might be seized as an argument and excuse for terrorism. While copiously researched, it creatively humanizes the radical whose acts of carnage in the name of God and freedom brought this nation to the brink of the Civil War.
But John Brown’s vision of freedom still burns at the core of America’s best ideals, even if his Bible-based philosophizing and fiery charisma suggest cultism. The story’s narrator, Brown’s son Owen, convincingly recounts how, in growing to manhood, he fell increasingly in thrall to his father.
Early on, Brown’s family is stunned into clarity when he reads aloud scores of shameless “missing property” notices: “Runaway, a negro man named Henry, his left eye out, some scars from a dirk on and under his left arm, and much scarred with the whip” . . . “I burnt her with a hot iron on the left side of her face; I tried to make the letter M.”
As the voices of father and son alternate, the unthinkable need for their radical violence seems a matter of historic necessity.
The new western territories of the 1850s appear to be on the verge of becoming slavery states. The balance of power is clearly tipping toward the South’s political position. The reactionary Fugitive Slave Act has enabled the whim of any Northern white to deliver escaped slaves — or any freedman — back to Southern plantations. The president is Franklin Pierce, an unspoken sympathizer with slavery.
Banks’ storytelling builds a rumbling suspense, like a slowly rising earthquake, opening the cracks of the nation’s horrid moral crisis.
John Brown is an inept businessman, but he has a strangely burning brilliance as a radical abolitionist. His strategies grow from analyzing military battles and maxims in the Bible and by traveling to Waterloo to understand Napoleon’s mistakes. When the violent, racist hordes called the Border Ruffians appear to take control of Kansas, Brown and his rag-tag bunch of sons and followers respond with their shocking guerrilla counterattack, in Pottawatamie, Kan. Would it be enough to spur action from the seemingly passive Northern abolitionists?
Unlike the rhetoric of many right-wing militia types, this story is not about craven self-interest masquerading as patriotism. It is not about people lusting to possess AK-47s, to assert the “right” to act out their worst bigotry and paranoia.
John Brown’s life mission to deliver America’s blacks from slavery reveals him as the most fearless liberal of all, priming for “the revolution we should have fought back in ’76!” as he tells Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist.
Douglass ironically notes that the British “have outlawed slavery for close to a quarter of a century now.”
Many reasonable people understandably see a madman in John Steuart Curry’s famous portrait of Brown. He was grandiose, flawed and deluded about what he could accomplish. But this preacher’s religious fervor did not harbor political ambition — only the affirmation that the nation’s soul would be saved by the death of slavery.
As Banks tells it, no other American had Brown’s boldness of vision, not even Douglass, who tried to discourage Brown from his ill-fated raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859.
This novel moves with the emotional restlessness of a family and a nation just awakening to the need, finally, for a bloodletting, and a long, harsh, self-defining victory over its demons.
Among a spate of strong secondary characters, two are unforgettable — Brown’s freed-slave compatriot Lyman Epps and Owen’s simple, pure younger brother Fred — whose fates spur the story’s motion as clearly as any political act. They give the novel gut-wrenching human dimensions that Banks has now mastered over his 12 works of fiction. (Filmmakers are finally grappling with his dramatic potential, with “The Sweet Hereafter” and the upcoming “Affliction.”)
As with “Affliction,” Banks fearlessly looks at the violent instincts coursing through blood ties.
“Cloudsplitter” is the name of an Adirondack peak that symbolizes his father for Owen. This novel stands just as massive, shadowed and unshakable. That is why it transcends terrorist cant. It is rigorous moral fiction, examining its lead characters’ motives and actions from all possible angles, finding epic heroism and life-haunting fault, especially in Owen himself.
This John Brown is a caring father and husband and “regardless of their race or station, he pointedly treats women as equal to himself,” Owen writes.
His father only lords over others about slavery, the son explains. “To Father, white and black Americans alike were bound by slavery: the physical condition of the enslaved, he insisted, was the moral condition of the free.”
It is Owen who dwells in the blood-lusting darkness of the Brown family’s worst impulses. He long ago lost his faith, which remains the fundamental difference between him and his father.
Now, many years after the debacle of Harpers Ferry, he agonizes that his spiritual void contains a root of his violence, betrayal and cowardice.
He was the sole survivor.
This feels like the masterpiece of a writer who matters like few others today. “Cloudsplitter” conveys the sweep of a mighty land and the historic weight of Owen’s burdens. It reads as a private confession with an inexorable, gravitational pull.
One arrives at the end as if waking from a long dream of America, risen from the nation’s subconscious. Owen and John Brown are archetypal men one may grow to love and perhaps fear, as does a son for a great, dominant father.
As one grows to love and perhaps fear America itself, with its astonishing freedoms, its shifting moral ground and its devastating power.








Re: SF debacle: The bruised Pack still ascending, and above most already

Packer kick returner-runner-receiver Tyler Ervin. courtesy Getty Images
Yeah, I could stomp on the Packers when they’re down, like most are now. But an old die-hard fan/friend requested “words of solace” from me, so here’s how I responded:
First a big sigh. Letting the dark winds of disappointment and pain escape a bit more. Whew!
I liked the Packers’ apparent poise under duress (see 2nd half rebound) but they should’ve acted more aggressively sooner — on the first drive which ended 3 & out. I would’ve thrown a play-action deep post, on the first play.
So by the end-of-the-half pick, it was a duck in a shooting barrel.
OK. I have faith in Gutenkunst, but more in his free agent dealing, so he might find a fast, quick inside LB, maybe another TE.
The draft class is loaded with wide receiver talent, so someone should stick and help this time, preferably a guy who does 4.4 40 or less.
Here’s a thought nobody’s addressed. Despite his dopey bounce-off-the-face mask muff, I think Tyler Ervin has comparable potential to Niners’ Raheem Mostert, who was mainly a kick returner till coming to SF, and took a long time to bloom. But Ervin I think has even more previous experience as a RB. Check this from Wiki:
“In his redshirt senior season of 2015, Ervin rushed for a single-game school record 300 yards against Fresno State (Davante’s school) and for 263 yards against New Mexico.[7][8] In the 2015 Cure Bowl, his final collegiate game, Ervin got his longest career punt return touchdown, for 85 yards in the Spartans’ 27–16 win over Georgia State.[9] He finished his senior year with 1,601 rushing yards on 294 carries with 13 touchdowns and 45 receptions for 334 yards with two touchdowns.[1] Along with first-team All-Mountain West Conference, Ervin earned multiple national honors, the Athlon Sports All-American second team and his second straight Sports Illustrated honorable mention All-American title.[1]”
The Packers remain a step behind San Fran in scheming as well as team speed. I think they’ll prioritize those gaps in the off-season. They have at least one extra sixth-round pick from the trade to Oakland of KR Trevor Davis. I think the Packers have more room for improvement than SF, and will be better & deeper next year, though maybe not as lucky injury-wise.
A-Rod sounds quite optimistic, even after a nasty loss. Eliminate the turnovers next time, get a few yourself (they should’ve stripped Mostert at least once — I know they have to touch him first (ha), but with all those carries!) and it’s another ballgame. The desperation bomb throw Sherman picked at the end hardly counts, it was incomplete anyway.
Restrap you’re cheesehead helmet, and buck up. Me too!
The grass is always greener, and golden, on the other side.

Magnificent retrospective of visionary nature painter Tom Uttech closes this weekend at Museum of Wisconsin Art

Nin Gassinsibingwe (I Wipe My Tears), 2019. The size, 84 1/8 inches x 95 7/8 inches, is typical of the large scale the artist works in.

Tom Uttech, Into the Woods, The Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Avenue, West Bend, through January 12. 262-334-9638.

Time honors those who honor time, especially gifted cultural misfits, those who follow their vision, even to the most remote, forbidding or mystical realms, to the most precarious peak, who then muster the spiritual courage to take the deepest plunge that fate’s cavernous voice demands.

That seems like Tom Uttech’s artistic odyssey.

First, let me reach back, nearly a half a century, into the early stages of his saga, from my own nearby perspective. As a sculpture-concentration art major at UW-Milwaukee in the early 1970s, I had very little direct contact with painting professor Tom Uttech.

We sculptor-types hunkered and toiled in the blasted heat of the bronze-melting furnace, amid the grime and dust of the sculpture department in the fine arts building’s basement. Uttech, and his fellow painting faculty and students, dwelt in the comparatively exalted strata of the building’s top floor, blessed by generous shafts of illumination, only skylights separating them from the heavens.

There was a political aspect to this. The painters possessed a sheen of superiority, far above the sweaty, purgatorial Neanderthals pounding hammers and chisels, grunting to hoist crude masses of stone and wood, or be-goggled to wield flashing welding torches or hellish crucibles of molten metal. Sure, in our dreams, artistic glory lay, a la Michelangelo, entombed in those recalcitrant, flinty hunks, and Rodin-esque eloquence within the laboriously-assembled casting molds.

But, yeah, we knew our bottom-rung place in the realpolitick scheme of our art department. Yet, that doesn’t mean that, at some psychic level, I wasn’t intensely aware of Uttech’s quietly gathering power, as a somewhat mythic artistic presence in the building.

I’d occasionally see him floating through the department’s mid-level floors, where I took life drawing and other required 2-D media courses for art majors, and which he occasionally stooped to teach. The verb has multiple aptness, as Uttech’s looming presence had partly to do with his physical stature as surely the tallest person in the art department, during those years. His lanky body seemed to meander slowly to airy realms. Like many tall, gifted persons, he had a slightly aloof bearing about him.

This mural, created by Red Grooms, is in the UW-Milwaukee art department commons, and depicts art faculty and students from the early 1970s, with painting professor Tom Uttech towering over the others. Photo by Kevin Lynch *

His stature and aura befit him as the undisputed North Star of the art department faculty. This had to do with the peculiar gravitational pull of his genius, something which this sculpture major felt, but only came to understand in time, perhaps begrudgingly. Maybe, like the many towering trees he painted, he often felt the wind whistling though his high-perched ears and eyes, singing siren songs of the north country. He doggedly trod a pathway to his visual and thematic sources across the region between Wisconsin and the Quentico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada.

Bud Lake, from a 1974 photo print Uttech dubbed “Onimik Sagaigan,” was an area of Ontario that inspired the painter’s imagination. 

So, time has decidedly honored Tom Uttech, as he’s done more than his reciprocal part for career destiny, and the grand strangeness of nature. This is abundantly clear by the magnificent and transporting retrospective of his work, Into the Woods, at The Museum of Wisconsin Art. It will close Sunday, January 12.

So heed my warning: Do not missed this exhibit encompassing, as nothing ever has, the grandiloquent accomplishment of one of the greatest artists Wisconsin has ever claimed her own, a man who’s mapped out a vast landscape of singular fashioning, as a true American original and visionary.

More than most artists, Uttech possesses the powers of a sorcerer wielding paintbrushes – if he swirled them just so they’d open a swirling vortex into a realm of nature as otherworldly yet vivid as one is a likely into encounter in one’s lifetime.

And yet that uncanny effect feeds on quietude, deriving from the extraordinary scale and imaginative leaps he takes consistently in his canvases. One senses a contemplative, even Zen-like authority in his artistic travels, as exotic as they appear, something deeply moving the more you open yourself to this work. Here, Nature gives birth to a thousand nights and lives, to myriad snorts, cries, growls and howls – emitting from the weirdly eloquent creatures that haunt the twilight of this man’s fertile imagination.

Of course, this art is soundless, but it seeps into the viewer as if all five senses quiver under exquisite siege. In some canvases, peculiar dramas stand poised to play out: Flora and fauna seem like they might just die even as they radiate strange, regenerative power. They might become another version of themselves, reincarnate.

“Makwa Pindig Wabashkiki” 2011

For example: The painting “Makwa Pindig Wabashkiki” centers on a tall, standing black bear peering out towards the viewer. Two great-antlered elks flank the bear, also looking towards the viewer in alert sentinel posture. All wait from a safe, wary distance. These two species, natural enemies, here seem allies; atmospheric mist shrouds the forest. All around them, highly animated tree branches and other flora perk up, as if anticipating something. Is the presence they sense a blessing or a curse, harbinger of tragedy, or transformation?

One may be inclined to stand before such a canvas, as with others in this show, and wait for something to happen. Such pregnant ambiguity typifies the aura of mystery that Uttech masterfully trades in, painting after majestic painting.

But how did Uttech get to such a certainly unfashionable artistic place? As a university professor in the 1970s and ’80s, he was intensely aware of trends in contemporary art, fading abstract Expressionism, pop art, minimalism, conceptual art, etc., all of which left him uneasy, and ultimately an outlier. But a fearless one who knew where he needed to go, to a realm more personal than an art movement, and perhaps more far-reaching. He arrived at a sort of Zen maximalism, if that makes any sense. Early modernist surrealists certainly took their imaginations to extremes, often tuning them inside out, as does Uttech. Yet, he’s worked in a private yet generous a realm derived from traditional nature painting. His titles mostly employ language of the native American Ojibwa tribe, who inhabited the region before European colonization.

Further, his work seems that of a much older and more literary soul than the surrealists, perhaps one borne of the 19th century and its transcendentalists, notably Emerson, but with a hoary helping of Thoreau, and deep inlets to the haunted black forest dwellers of Hawthorne.

Yet to see this art, one senses a man who evolved into a sort of contemporary mystic, as well as an obsessive virtuoso. A key work illustrating the former trait is “Painting for Buckingham Lake,” a luminous early painting from 1973. Unlike most of these color-saturated works, this one appears to have given up the ghost, a central specter-like figure bathes in pale blue and white light. The silhouette appears human but a mighty rack of elk antlers seems to emit from his head, recalling The Magus, the titular half-man, half-horned mammal god-like creature inhabiting a mysterious island in a magical post-modern novel by John Fowles.This is something the painter only could’ve encountered in the deepest forest of his dreams.

Painting for Buckingham Lake, 1973

More typical here are large, stunning scenes teeming with birds and furry mammals, often all rushing together off the canvas view, drawn by some obscure force beyond. These are rendered in breath-taking detail and into almost infinitely deep perspective — an artistic style and vision I have never quite seen elsewhere in 35 years of writing about art. (see Nin Gassinsibingwe (I Wipe My Tears) 2019, at top) The paintings persistently evoke the questions: What larger spirit-force holds these scenes in the hollow of its hand? To what end? And what does it feel like to sense such questions?

Uttech today, now an avuncular 77, may have once, deep on his quests, mutated into an unfettered shaman, with craggy roots sprouting from his orifices. He does remain a bit of a spell-casting oracle, speaking today of a “secret” as the key to not only his art but also to our species’ troubled relationship to nature.

Uttech offers quiet empowerment, a sense of belonging, affirmation and adventure in a comment on a website marketing his artwork: “Since these pictures are about nature and our role in it, the knowledge gained might grow into love of nature, and thus into concern for its well-being,” he says. “This concern could lead to action to protect nature and, therefore, ourselves. The best response to my paintings would be for you to go straight to the wildest place of land you can find and sit down to let it wash over you and tell you secrets.”

Tom Uttech’s art creaks wide a vast doorway, luring all viewers to enter with open imagination and heart, to travel the right way back, into our whole humanity on earth. Perhaps the secret has something to do with survival.


Uttech art images courtesy Museum of Wisconsin Art.

  • The Red Grooms mural is also the new theme image for my Culture Currents blog, at the very top.




Jerry Bergonzi Quartet displays inventive mastery of modern jazz


Jerry Bergonzi blowing at Bar Centro. Photo by Leiko Napoli

An ease of execution arises when musicians achieve full mastery of a creative medium like jazz. The relaxed energy evident in this authority emanated from all four corners of the Jerry Bergonzi Quartet Sunday at Bar Centro. This allowed many outlets of excitement, ideas, passion and soulful style. The most stunning moment came quite soon, when the tenor saxophonist-leader, in effect, cut off the right arm of John Coltrane.

In that act, he demonstrated mastery of his own voice, laden as it is with influences. I’ll get to my perhaps-startling metaphor shortly.

The quartet opened with a “simple blues” they titled “Let’s Pretend,” which Bergonzi revealed afterwards as his adaptation of Coltrane’s “Village Blues.” That tune, from the classic Coltrane Quartet’s first recording in 1961, affirmed Bergonzi’s deep sense of modern jazz tradition. It’s a terse four-note phrase, extended slightly. Bergonzi asserted a powerful Trane-ish tight-reed tone that allowed fiery expression through discipline. Yet it helped the band warm up their chops perfectly. Bassist Billy Peterson especially showed he was poised for the show, with elastic, throbbingly-musical dexterity.

Gear-shift to a fast tempo for the standard “Green Dolphin Street” but here “de-harmonized” and with other alterations, Bergonzi explained. What happened would’ve stunned Coltrane were he sitting in the crowd. He once famously declared that he would “give his right arm to play like Stan Getz.” Sure enough, we witnessed — in a few short moments — Bergonzi shift from Coltrane to Getz mode. Not many saxophonists can do this with such swift execution.

So suddenly his sinuous solo sounded at once like he’d “reharmonized” the changes and that Getz’s ghost had arisen, with his famous bittersweet lyricism in a tone suggesting fine-hammered, burnished silver. But the solo bore Bergonzi’s own ideas, a flinty sort of cubist reshaping of “Dolphin Street.”

Lest anyone doubt his stylistic latitude, Bergonzi quoted from Getz’s most-famous hit “The Girl from Ipanema,” in a solo later in the set.

Jerry Bergonzi Photo by Leiko Napoli

The ensuing tune, Kenny Dorham’s “La Mesha”(from tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson’s debut Blue Note album.) is ballad-like, with a fairly beguiling melody. Pianist John Campbell gave it a striking pivot point with an acerbic Monkish chord that he stopped and let ring out for several beats. This pinpointed the taking off of the tune’s flight and Campbell’s own wide-ranging facility on the keyboard throughout the set. Bergonzi’s blowing here was as passionate as it was pretty.

Another sly tune reinvention was punningly presented as “Table Steaks,” as a musical quiz of the source tune. By its end, a few folks figured out it was Benny Goldson’s “Stablemates.”

Here and throughout, drummer Adam Nussbaum buoyed the band’s hard-swinging invention with a circular slash, bash, and shimmer attack.

Drummer Adam Nussbaum with the Jerry Bergonzi Quartet at Bar Centro Sunday. Photo by Leiko Napoli

Two originals offset the reinvented standards: the genial and glowing “Love Thy Neighbor” and as “Freedom From.” “This was  originally called ‘Freedom from Religion’ but too many people took that the wrong way,” Bergonzi explained.

“So now it’s freedom from gluten!” he joked. Here’s where he quoted “Ipanema.” The effect was to assert that the veteran Bergonzi was free from, as much as indebted to, his influences. He seems to believe passionately in the jazz tradition without making a religion of it, with faith in its power to generate artistic creativity and, just perhaps, a measure of humanity’s enlightenment and liberation.

This was one of the biggest events to date for Bar Centro, a  fast-growing Milwaukee jazz venue.

The Jerry Bergonzi Quartet at Bar Centro L-R: Adam Nussbaum (drums), Billy Peterson (bass), Bergonzi (sax), John Campbell (piano). Photo by Leiko Napoli


Culture Currents has been down for quite a while due to technical difficulties. We’re glad we’re back, and that you’re back, Thanks for you patience. — Kevin Lynch