Mike Neumeyer’s hard-to-resist power of positive vibes

 

I strive to be neither an optimist or a pessimist, as Herman Melville, somewhat of a spiritual role-model, described himself. My orientation to Melville distinctly more than to his clearly-optimist contemporary Walt Whitman (as great as lovable as Whitman is!) suggests a personal intellectual bent.

Similarly, I’ve always been fascinated by existentialism, but as a resonant, timely, and influential cultural phenomenon, more than a philosophy I instinctively embrace. Now, alas, the adjective “existential” has been drained into an almost a meaningless quasi-political cliche, as apt as that may be.

On the other hand, many more people now understand the basic concept, if not its philosophic implications.

Nevertheless, if anything, I harbor the arc of history that bends toward justice and hope, and realization for self, community, and nation, though I’m still worried about the latter.

Which brings me to the curiously remarkable Milwaukee musician and composer Mike Neumeyer, who I have critically appraised in this blog previously. 1

Multi-instrumentalist Mike Neumeyer, showing his mallet chops (top), and personality (above).

He’s at it again, a video of his self-styled vocals, accompanying an extremely skillful production of multi-screen instrumental performance.

“Life” allows for a broad philosophical application, but emerges as a combination of feel-good geekiness and sophisticated, hip musicality.

The you-gotta-believe affirmation of his lyric and singing is enhanced by the beaming sophistication of his jazz-improv playing, and its cultural range, as he comingles the traditional African djembe hand drum, along with his two main axes, vibes and marimba, and an atmospheric touch, a synthesized sort of vibes mallet board.

It’s beautifully presented from different angles but without overwhelming the viewer — while infiltrating the open mind/heart with his big-gulp-of-yes vibes message. And what’s delightfully disarming is his self-aware goofiness, here in the form of the various T-shirts and hats he appears in, like an irrepressible Mad Hatter, including a highly caloric ten-gallon cheese-head hat.

Neumeyer has also done plenty of adroit four-mallet “pure” music playing and recording, as well. Those inclined to diss such a talented and likable artist might check in the mirror for Scrooge-like cragginess emerging (say, a crookedly distended eyeball and brow while feeding your default mood).

Plus, it seems we could use all the positive-reinforcement creativity we can get, especially after I just read an unsettling, stare-deep-into-American-apocalypse essay about the growing threat of racist white-supremacist militia groups, in the latest New York Review of Books. It’s right here:

How Can We Neutralize the Militias?

So, I’m hardly just peddling Pollyannaism. I hope Melville would approve, given that the “lone orphan” Ishmael (and that author’s slightly dominant alter-ego) does survive the catastrophe, to tell perhaps the greatest American fair-warning parable epic, Moby-Dick.

I hope we have a Neumeyer-ish Ishmael musician (and author and political type) — A Brave New World Geek Squad — to survive, and keep hope and power alive, through what worst may come.

Meanwhile, thanks, Mr. Neumeyer, for your geeky, vibrational gust – more like an uplifting, meditative breeze – of affirmation.
May the force be with you, and us, and our democracy.

OK, that’s a hoary trope, but right now “the force” seems to have some replenished potency in the face of numbingly countless “existential threats.”

So, onward fellow citizens and creative types, and ride the righteous vibe as far as you can.

____________

  1. Here’s my previous comment on Neumeyer a song., “Living the Dream,” with its  political implications:

    Vibist Mike Neumeyer gives us the sound of changing our lives, of “Living the Dream”

    And here’s my first comment on a video of a self-accompanied song by Neumeyer, inspired by the death of his father:

  2. Mike Neumeyer builds a vibrating stairway to heaven, for “dad” and cancer research

The late Nanci Griffith leaves a tender hole in American roots music

Nanci Griffith. Courtesy The New York Times

Though slightly belated, my regard for, and honoring of, the late Nanci Griffith is no less ardent. It was a shock to hear of her passing, August 13 at 68, and only now am I gathering some thoughts and feelings. I was also belated in becoming a true fan of hers and, though I saw her live once, I missed the opportunity to write substantially about her in her lifetime.

She had survived breast cancer and thyroid cancer in the mid-1990s but, by her choice, the cause of death is unreported. But Nanci Griffith was a great talent of contemporary singer-songwriting, or what even became “progressive country,” or, as she preferred, “folkabilly.” She was among the most historically mindful and learned of such artists, living within and extending their own tradition. It was all the more impressive that she was a woman in a genre, like so many, still dominated by men, especially as she was part of the extraordinary generation of Texas singer songwriters that emerge from the so-called “outlaw” era of troubadours.

With her apple-cheeked prettiness and easy smile, she hardly seemed “outlaw,” but Griffith understood well the expanding possibilities of contemporary songwriting that the alt-country outlaw movement provided.

Yet she may have involuntarily related to the outlaw sensibility. Griffith told The Irish Times that her family as “really dysfunctional”, and her song “Bad Seed,” from the 2012 album Intersection was addressed to her father, and included the lines “Bad seed, there’s a darkness I can’t hide – too much pain to keep inside.”

She learned to play guitar by watching a PBS TV series hosted by Laura Weber and started to write her own songs. At the age of 12, she debuted as a singer-songwriter at The Red Lion club in Austin.

She was inspired by country-music icons like Loretta Lynn. “She was the first singer I ever saw of the female gender who wrote her own dad-gum songs and played her own rhythm guitar,” Griffith said of Lynn in a 1989 Austin City Limits appearance. , and she defined herself by saying: “You take a whole lot of Woody Guthrie and a whole lot of Loretta Lynn, swoosh it around and it comes out as Nanci Griffith,” she told The Irish Times.

The great African-American songwriter Odetta was another key influence, as was the fellow Texan Townes Van Zandt, with his uncanny gift for vivid and moving storytelling songs.

Years later, the book she co-wrote, Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices was subtitled A Personal History of Folk Music, and conveyed the depth of her appreciation of the vistas the art form spanned. Certainly since Bob Dylan, singer-songwriting, as she exemplified, became more skilled, nuanced and literate, and worthy of the mantle of “art,” even though it was nominally a “mere” folk art form.

Impressive and reflective with a certain ambition, the book conveyed her insight and ideals about the long line of folk song-writing tradition. “”Preserving the history of each generation of humankind is like creation to me. There is the urge to continue that. And the way I do it is through music. I certainly try to bring real live people into my music and champion regular people, regular folks.” 1

Author and activist Gloria Steinem commented: “Nanci Griffith Is a poet with a guitar, a creater of both thought and sound, and now she introduces us to the full music that inspired her. This book stands on its own and explains the layers of depth we hear in Nanci’s songs.” 2

The 1998 book took off from off from her acclaimed 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms, which probed the history of folk music with brilliant pinpoints.

That album (which earned her a Grammy) and its sequel, Other Voices, Too (A Trip to Bountiful), provided as deep and concise a sense of historic and contemporary folk and songwriting traditions as well as anything this side of Smithsonian collections. It honored and and interpreted, among others, the work of Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Woody Guthrie, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Johnny Cash, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Kate Wolf, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Ian Tyson, and even reaching as far back as Stephen Foster, and a traditional African song. 

Nanci Griffith, Jim Rooney, center, and John Prine hug after a performance by Nanci Griffith and John Prine at the Americana Music Association awards show in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009. (AP Photo/Josh Anderson)

Yet there wasn’t a whiff of the academic about this. Aided by her longtime producer Jim Rooney (pictured above with Griffith and John Prine), these albums sounded all very personal for her. She sang all of the songs though sometimes with guest performers. Her starkly testifying interpretation of Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley” carried at least as much emotional weight as the songwriter’s own, given that it is the tragic story of a young woman, named Caroline. 3 

Part of the song’s genius is Van Zandt’s understated narrative voice. A recent You Tube comment, remembering both artists, cherished the line: “and it seemed to me, the sunshine walked beside her.”

Speaking of the legendary Van Zandt, Griffith was instrumental in producing one of the most memorable live tribute concerts, an Austin City Limits program (available on YouTube) which gathered, for a round-robin of Townes songs, a splendid lineup that included herself, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Peter Rowan, Jack Clement (Van Zandt’s producer) and John T. Van Zandt (Van Zandt’s son).

Griffith’s voice, a crystalline contralto with clarion projection, sometimes was characterized as a girlish, and could convey vulnerability and tenderness, but I never heard easy sentimentality. Her voice was fully capable of a steely strength, a quirky Texas twang, tart irony and even a virtual growl, as the lyric or emotion demanded.

Some observers sniffed at an apparent literary self-consciousness, when she posed on several album covers clutching favorite books, by authors like Larry McMurtry and Truman Capote. But this struck me as heartfelt celebration of literary value, especially as she proved her substantial skill at songwriting and storytelling, and as a luminous melodist, even from some of her earliest recorded efforts. That included songs like “Love at the Five & Dime,” “Ford Econoline,” “Mary and Omie,” “Gulf Coast Highway,”  “I Wish It Would Rain,” “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go,” “Once in a Blue Moon,” “Saint Teresa of Avila,” “Bethlehem Steel,” “If I Could Only Fly,” and “Hell No (I’m Not Alright),” among others.

Nanci Griffith on the back cover of “The Last of the True Believers,” from 1986. Courtesy flikr

Her title song from the album Clock Without Hands borrows the title of Carson McCullers’ last novel, and contemplates the metaphor, awareness poignantly muted and transient:

I’m a clock without hands/ I’m walking through the midnights/ Counting all the moments/ Of the loves I’ve left behind./ Crying on the shoulders of the days/ I’ve forgotten now.

And Griffith selected covers with great acumen. Two of her most popular songs were by others, “From a Distance,” and “Lone Star State of Mind,” not to mention the brooding Sinatra standard “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” or, by contrast, Sonny Curtis’ fiery ode to lost-cause rebellion (with Curtis harmonizing) “I Fought the Law,” other signs of her artistic and critical powers.

She also had the vision, or chutzpah, to record an album of her work titled Dust Bowl Symphony, with the London Symphony Orchestra, which proved more cinematic than grandiose.

Though she hadn’t released a studio album since 2012’s excellent Intersection, there’s still a sense now of “where do we go from here?”, as Nanci Griffith, like the clock without hands, intuitively beat an illumined pulse forward, as much as she did on the present and the past.

____________

1 Nanci Griffith and Joe Jackson, Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices, A Personal History of Folk Music, Three Rivers, 1998, 71

2 Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices, back cover.

3. Here’s Griffith and Van Zandt doing “Tecumseh Valley” together. The pathos seems lightly carried, with the see-saw rhythm. And yet, deferential Griffith has her radiant moment:

Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts is finally back with live music, this weekend

It’s more than “mere light” — it’s a luminous light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that we can actually see, hear, and feel. With the Jazz Estate still in a worrisome limbo, the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts will give the Milwaukee jazz and creative music community a gentle jolt — finally offering its first live post-pandemic performance event Saturday.

Mere of Light harpist Elyse Leda Fairyland. Courtesy Bandcamp.com

It’s an experimental, environmentally-oriented multi-media event: a trio called Mere of Light, at 6 p.m. Saturday August 21, at the JGCA, 926 E. Center Street. The slightly outre humility of the group’s name may belie what will unfold, and I can’t attest to much more that this information from the JGCA (I’m working on a couple of other assignments for Shepherd Express.) It’s a recording release event for Mere of Light’s new EP, Fell Tales, which involves “field recordings and poetic lyricism to draw connections between the current world and fantasy realms.”  The music and vision arise significantly from the harpist Elyse Leda Fairyland. It sounds a bit enchanting and very JGCA, which thrives creatively on unpredictable arts activity: https://jazzgallerycenterforarts.org/events/2021/8/21/mere-of-light

The event, running from 6 to 10 p.m., also includes Annie Grizzle, a multimedia artist interested in “the nonsensical intersection between the mappable and the abstract.” Annie’s work has been featured in X-Peri, Radioactive Moat, Reality Beach, Metatron, and numerous other publications.

The third performer is C.Vardi, who is working on a “project of processing existential and geological trauma through chiaroscuro drone music.”

(Adios Amigos?: The previously scheduled JGCA event, “Audios Amigos,” with Brooklyn-based composer-performers Lainie Fefferman and Jascha Narveson, has an unfortunately prescient title, given a slight play on words. The performance, slated for Friday August 20, has been cancelled due to “unforeseen circumstances.”)

The venue actually got through plague (which is really not over!) on the financial upside, partly due to strong visual arts sales, and a dedicated volunteer board, and strong corporate funding as a non-profit.

Among the venue’s many excellent visual art exhibits are two which will close on Saturday, Aug. 20th: “Nature Neglected — “Are We Loving it to Death?” and “Imagine It!”

An image from the JGCA exhibit “Nature Neglected,” closing Saturday. Photo by Virginia Small. 

The first actual jazz event at the storied community-oriented arts venue on Center Street (remember The Milwaukee Jazz Gallery?) will be guitarist-vocalist Don Linke’s Trialog, featuring drummer Victor Campbell and sponsored by the Jazz Foundation of America, at 7 p.m. on Friday Sept 3.

Then follows the jazz duo of Michigan-based, Coltrane-influenced saxophonist Ben Schmidt-Swartz, with ace Milwaukee drummer Devin Drobka at 7 p.m. Thursday Sept 9.

It’s a small, relatively intimate venue, so stay mindful, get COVID vaccines, practice heathy social distancing, and masking, when appropriate.

But believe in our culture, and our nation! Supporting the JGCA is a great way to express your belief.

________

Stan Getz, Part Two: Getting closer to “The Girl” who transformed jazz styles, and captivated the whole world

Ah, bossa nova! If you remember, it’s the sound of a southerly summer. It’s jazz with a deep, dark tan, and warm wind rippling through its hair.

So this post (delayed offline by storm issues for a week) rises from an exchange between myself and WXRW-FM “Artful Lives” radio program Elizabeth Vogt. This prompted me to seach out a video of Astrud Gilberto singing the huge early 1960’s hit  “The Girl from Ipanema” with Stan Getz, not included in my previous post about Getz.  Here it is.

This is the “single” version of “Girl,” with Getz and his quartet, including a very young Gary Burton on vibes. This version is iconic, the key to a 2 million copy-selling album, the biggest hit album in jazz history at the time.

It’s interesting to note that, despite her vocal skill and charm, Astrud was not a professional singer, and you can see that in how she has no idea what to do with her hands. In fact, the recording of “Girl” was her recording debut. a stroke of producer genius!

Just for fun, here’s a rather sultry cartoon version of the single (sorry about the ad):

Courtesy Walt Disney studios.

However, the greatest version of the song is the full-length original on the album, which opens with Joao Gilberto (Astrud’s husband) singing the first verse in Portuguese, with exquisitely tender poignance, as the boy in Ipanema whom “she just doesn’t see.” Here’s that recording from the extraordinary album Getz/Gilberto.

On the original single heard here, the piano playing, and piquant solo, is by the song’s composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim, the greatest Brazilian jazz composer.   Vinícius de Moraes.wrote the Portuguese lyrics. English lyrics were written later by Norman Gimbel.

Here’s the fascinating backstory on the song, including the woman who inspired it.

Ipanema is a fashionable neighborhood located in the southern region of the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Helô Pinheiro, the woman who inspired the song, is pictured in 2006.

“The Girl from Ipanema” was inspired by Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto (now known as Helô Pinheiro), a seventeen-year-old girl living on Montenegro Street in Ipanema.[12] Daily, she would stroll past the Veloso bar-café, not just to the beach (“each day when she walks to the sea”), but in the everyday course of her life. She would sometimes enter the bar to buy cigarettes for her mother and leave to the sound of wolf whistles.[13] In the winter of 1962, the composers saw the girl pass by the bar. Since the song became popular, she has become a celebrity.

In Revelação: a verdadeira Garôta de Ipanema (“Revealed: The Real Girl from Ipanema“) Moraes wrote that she was “the paradigm of the young Carioca: a golden teenage girl, a mixture of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace, the sight of whom is also sad, in that she carries with her, on her route to the sea, the feeling of youth that fades, of the beauty that is not ours alone—it is a gift of life in its beautiful and melancholic constant ebb and flow.” – Wikipedia

 

 

 

Retrieving Lost Moments in Time with Stan Getz

A portrait of Stan Getz. Courtesy RW Theaters.

Why now? Why Stan Getz now? Because he’s a voice in time and beyond time, a voice within and wherever. Wherever I go, I’ve come to know, I yearn to hear him, and all he has to say.

I understand now, as well as a non-saxophonist can, what John Coltrane meant when he said of Getz, “We’d all sound like that if we could.”  Coltrane was, among other things, a supreme master of balladeering, where many saxophonists make their bid for a sound as beautiful as possible.

My own analogue to Coltrane’s indirect superlative: I would carry Getz’s sound with me further than any other instrument’s, if forced to forsake all but one. Maybe it’s a Sophie’s choice between Getz and Miles Davis.

As a relatively young journalist, I had already reviewed a Getz performance at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery for The Milwaukee Journal, a highlight among many superb artists I heard and reviewed there. Two years later, I interviewed him in Chicago, then wrote a feature previewing a Getz performance at a Rainbow Summer concert in Milwaukee. There I met him again afterwards and, though brief, the reacquaintance still holds a tight grip on my heart. You see, after a brief exchange of pleasantries, I agreed to accompany him in a walk to his hotel room, but he had one small condition.

Would I please carry his saxophone for him? After the performance, he was fatigued, partly the byproduct of years of abuse of his body with drugs and alcohol.

I accepted the task gladly, and the instant thrill of carrying one of the world’s most revered artistic instruments, beside its owner and artmaker, inspired a short poem, “Bossa Not So Nova.” 1

So, I’ve written about Getz in three modes but, mea culpa, it still doesn’t seem enough.

Lately I’ve revisited him upon buying a used copy of the Getz musical biography Nobody Else But Me, by Dave Gelly. It discourses across the artist’s career with close readings of numerous Getz recordings, his legacy beyond memories, as he died in 1991.

This excellent book prompted me to dig out an array of Getz recordings.

As I write, I’m listening to him essay “Infant Eyes,” an exquisite ballad by another giant of the tenor sax, Wayne Shorter, and each limpid whole note unfurls with delicious tenderness and knowing delicacy.

The album “Moments in Time,” recorded in 1976, was released in 2016. Courtesy Resonance Records.

But he’s much more than a fatherly cradle-rocker.

I couldn’t have responded to this recording much earlier than a few years ago, when I obtained a copy of the Getz album Moments in Time, recorded live by Getz’s Quartet in 1976, but not released until 2016 on Resonance, a label specializing in what I’d call “jazz archeology.” 2

And there’s more affinity between Getz and Shorter than a few of Wayne’s tunes in Getz’s repertoire. The sound of their voices resonates similarly, an exquisitely soft vibration, a singing like a distinctly masculine bird that — warbles and vibratos aside — can hold a note like a distant horizon of destiny. Both saxophonists have lived lives deeply shadowed by tragedy, likely informing their profound sensibilities.

Indeed now, the tune playing is “The Cry of the Wild Goose,” by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and it belies one misplaced reservation I held about Getz in the past.

He disabused me of it when I saw him in 1982 at the Jazz Gallery.

But I’m referring to back in the mid-1960s, when he broke into broad public awareness with his lilting bossa nova luminosities. He could hold and caress a note as if it were palpable and breathing which, with him, it truly was. Such audible tenderness enchanted me as much as any other single jazz artist did with one recording, Getz/Gilberto.

Cover of the famous album “Getz/Gilberto.” Connect Brazil.

And sure enough, right now with Horace Silver’s “Peace” (from Moments in Time), Getz is beguiling yet again. But back during the bossa nova craze, for all my admiration, I doubted whether Getz was capable of anything approaching what I call “The Cry.”

I do hear a cry in the “wild goose cry” tune I’d just heard, but I’m referring to a sound often heard among saxophonists in the 1960s, during the same time Getz lulled and seduced with “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Getz and vocalist Astrud Gilberto who sang the huge international hit, “The Girl from Ipanema.” which propelled the album “Getz/Gilberto” to great sales heights and an “Album of the Year” Grammy.

Getz/Gilberto, created, arranged, and recorded by virtually all Brazilian musicians, racked up unprecedented sales for a jazz recording (2 million copies in 1964) and became the first non-American album to win a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, in 1965.

The notion of “The Cry” is the expressionism that numerous saxophonists especially began manifesting during that period of social upheaval and raised consciousness over racial injustice. It’s a heavily freighted topic and subtext. So perhaps its unsurprising that a naturally lyrical white saxophonist isn’t easily associated with it. Nevertheless, over the years, the true and extraordinary range of Getz’s expressive power expanded, and his own version of “The Cry” arose, as such a vivid contrast to his inherently singing style that it carried the weight of striking effects, like a sculptor’s chisel discharging chards and sparks, to convey how life can force us to extremes of feeling and response.

To me, Getz seemed to be universalizing the plight and poignance conveyed in “The Cry,” most often associated with African-American musicians. This is not to minimize the racial suffering those artists endured and expressed, but to find the shared humanity in it. Getz’s suffering might be arguably his own demons’ making, more than of a cruel society built on systemic racism. He even was capable of violence under the influence, which he always regretted, even serving brief incarceration.

Gelly insightfully notes a great irony, how the drugs and liquor might’ve facilitated an “alpha state” in which, Getz explained, “the less you concentrate the better. The best way to create is to get in the alpha state…what we would call relaxed concentration.”

Such can be the price of art. Does that make it ill-begotten? Illegitimate?

As a Russian Jew, he may have had ancestral instincts of suffering and class oppression hounding his psyche. Accordingly, he seems a different sort of expressive animal — “Nobody Else But Me” as he might say. The simplicity of the declaration also may reflect Getz’s uniqueness, his fingerprint identity, his sonic originality as a pied piper whom, when heard, we still feel compelled to follow, decades after bossa nova first sailed across waves and valleys. Years after his last living breath.

Thank the music gods for his voice, retrieved and captured.

_________

1 a poem about Stan Getz (written to the cadence of “Girl from Ipanema.”)

2 Moments in Time comprises mainly classic and modern jazz standards with Getz’s working quartet at the time: pianist Joanne Brackeen, bassist Clint Houston and drummer Billy Hart. However, Resonance also released simultaneously a Getz album Getz/Gilberto ’76, highlighting guitarist-singer Joao Gilberto, and Brazilian songs,

pps. I also wrote about Getz when I found a used copy of his album Sweet Rain, as few years ago.

 

3. Here’s a review of a live Getz performance at The Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, in 1982:

 

Vibist Mike Neumeyer gives us the sound of changing our lives, of “Living the Dream”

The Rev. Martin Luther King had a dream that “we as a people” would get to. 

We all know plenty of cynics and often might think they’ve got it right, as rotten as the world seems. After all, TV pundits and journalists of all stripes give us the daily double of bleakness and societal tragedy. Yet social and political activism, the fuel of empowerment against daunting forces of darkness, also burns brightly in America today.

Jesse Jackson famously said “keep hope alive,” a descendant of Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I have a Dream” speech, and a father to Barack Obama’s profound book, and flagship theme, The Audacity of Hope.

It’s notable that all three great leaders were African Americans, who categorically need and benefit from self-motivational perseverance and pure survival instincts.

Such thoughts arose when I heard vibraphonist-marimbist Mike Neumeyer’s self-described “motivational inspirational music,” specifically a video I came across recently, created in April, titled “Live The Dream.”

After hearing it I thought, Yes, what about “living the dream?” What about “the audacity of hope?”

I was so struck by “Live the Dream” that I had to share it and comment:

I know when you first hear him, the music will seem almost effortlessly uplifting, which many people these days have built-in resistance to. It’s sad that such is the case, because we need the power of music to change people’s spirit and outlook more than ever today.

So I would suggest you simply go with the full-chested lyricism of Neumeyer’s song, which he sings in multiple vocal parts while accompanying himself on vibraphone, “Malletstation” synthesizer, and djembe, a conga-like hand drum. Especially considering Neumeyer isn’t known for singing (but he can sing!) the effect is stunning and, if you allow it to take you, rather exhilarating. The voices almost soar with the vibes-synth boost.

It’s a marvelous example of what one resourceful, positive-thinking musician can do today in his own recording studio with multiple tracking. For some, it might seem a bit slick, if not a bit too “feel good.”

However, I must counter that notion with an anecdote. I met Mike Neumeyer last year, shortly before the pandemic hit, when I sat in on a free-jazz improv workshop at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in Milwaukee.

The premise of this workshop is the polar opposite of musical slickness, rather a striving for the ultimate in improvisational spontaneity and collective possibility. Neumeyer, although a highly accomplished musician, embraced the idea of free improvisation and did an excellent job as the guest workshop leader. His strong musical ideas, engaging style and personality made it all seem like a stimulating good time rather than intellectually challenging  or daunting, which the idea of free musical improvisation can seem.

Now consider his primary tools. On “Live the Dream,” hear his enveloping improvised solo on vibes. This can be an almost magical instrument – percussive yet melodic and harmonically buoyant and resonant, and sometimes quite sensual and sonically intoxicating. And in Neumeyer’s hands, marvelously exuberant in its lyricism, as in this case. As for his secondary instrument , the marimba – the wooden bars, by contrast to the vibraphone’s metal, make it a naturally warmer sound, where sometimes the vibes can sound chilly (The marimba can be heard on the instrumental version of the song 1 ). Neumeyer understands well the assets and limits of each instrument. Here, he rides the proverbial “good vibes” for all they are worth.

“All you have to be is willing to change,” he sings.

The message of the lyric suggests one can change your life in order to start “living the dream.”
Anytime I hear that philosophic proviso, that “you must change your life.” I think of the profound words of Rainer Maria Rilke. The phrase “you must change your life,” is Rilke’s most famous utterance. He is considered by many as Europe’s greatest poet of the modern age. As for me, his luminous beauty and wisdom prompted me and my bride to chose several of his poems in our 1997 marriage ceremony and program.

His quietly direct phrase is best appreciated in the complete poem from which it provides the closing line.

The poem is “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” in which Rilke meditates on the headless body of the Greek god, as embodied in an ancient sculpture.

:We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life. 2

You might draw enough from the closing two clauses:

“for here there is no place that does not see you. / You must change your life.”

But Rilke Is observing the extraordinary powers of beauty in the statue, the brilliance of the evoked gaze, the dazzling curved breast and the smile that runs through the whole body “where procreation flared.” Indeed, the Apollo figure bursts “like a star.”

Here, the poet gently places his hand on the museum-goer’s receding shoulder. He draws, from this sculpture’s positive potential and creative radiance, the wisdom that the observer must not walk away content with the status quo, that such artistic genius, truth and beauty must show how, almost mystically, right here, there is “no place that does not see you” in your complacency, your wooden-legged stolidity.

And yet, the effect of the sculpture’s presence, mystical or not, is a real sensation, Rilke insists, otherwise the sculpture “would seem defaced” by the decapitation.

Such is the force and inspiration of wondrous art. Apollo was a god, but also a human being, with an inner place where “procreation flared.”

Ergo, the power you sense: You must change your life.

Almost embodying his evocation of Apollo’s missing head, poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s own eyes seem to say he meant it when he wrote, “you must change your life.” Courtesy apieceofmonologue.com

For me, I get something of that feeling listening to Mike Neumeyer, now. Indeed, you don’t need a great poet to draw such a message out of a marble sculpture, you can feel and hear it in this music.

Isn’t it high time to start working towards living your dream, however you envision that? High time, that more people, one by one if needed, start living the dream Martin Luther King had?  He knew, with almost god-like prescience, that “I may not get there with you.”

Aye, the TV tragedy. Guns and senseless violence. And yet, King promised “we as a people, will get to the promised land.” Might we still get there, even today, by changing our lives? That takes “inspiration” and “motivation” which gets us back to Neumeyer’s “Live the Dream.”

We do it one by one, by active heart and mind, until the people, the nation and the system change. One has to think, how else?

____________

1 Neumeyer has also recorded a instrumental version of “Live the Dream,” which includes marimba, here:

2. From Ahead of All Parting: Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell and published by Modern Library. © 1995 by Stephen Mitchell. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

 

On interviewing and covering Sun Ra: Part two of the “Artful Lives” radio interview with Culture Currents’ Kevernacular

Sun Ra (top), and his Myth-Science Arkestra (bottom, above). 

The one-of-a-kind Sun Ra rises (or descends from Saturn?) in memories, in conversation. Here’s part two of Riverwest Radio’s Elizabeth Vogt interviewing me about interviewing and covering the sometimes-astonishing, visionary jazz band leader Sun Ra. The occasion of coverage was Ra performing at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery in 1982.

Artful Lives

Riverwest Radio revisits magical times when Sun Ra dwelt on this planet and visited Milwaukee

 

Sun Ra (center at keyboard) and members of his Arkestra, including (L-R) Marshall Allen, John Gilmore and June Tyson.

“Space is the Place!” Belated thanks to Elizabeth Vogt, the multi-talented and enlightened host of “Artful Lives” airing Mondays at 3 p.m. on WXRW Riverwest Radio. 104.1 FM. She produced, edited and hosted a two-part interview episode with me about the extraordinarily “cosmic” jazz bandleader Sun Ra, based notably on my experiences interviewing and reviewing him in the 1980s, especially for his 1982 appearance at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, the precursor to the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, for which her program benefits. It was a blast (-off into outer space!). The first episode (linked below) is also available in Elizabeth’s recent WXRW archives. The second episode airs Monday at 3.

Besides the program, the link page includes photos of Sun Ra and his long-time fellow traveler, alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, who leads the current Sun Ra Arkestra; a scanned review of Sun Ra I wrote from 1982; and links to Sun Ra YouTube videos.

Here’s the link to part 1:

Artful Lives

 

__________

The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts is seeking an executive director, a paid position

The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in 2020. All photos by Elizabeth Vogt.

The Mark Davis Trio (L-R, Davis, Dave Bayles, Jeff Hamann) at the JGCA Pianofest.

As an arts journalist, I have no formal affiliation with The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts. Nevertheless I’m very interested in seeing it not only succeed, but grow and evolve. My motives go back to it’s nominal inspiration, the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery at the same location.

The vibrancy of that community-oriented music venue was a key factor in my early journalistic career when, in 1979, I started covering it and other jazz (and other music and arts) in a surprisingly blossoming local scene for the pre-merger Milwaukee Journal 1

Today’s JGCA is a more formal non-profit arts organization, heretofore mainly run by dedicated volunteers. It has steered through many lean financial years with dogged determination, vision, applied talent and important involvement from Milwaukee’s Riverwest community.

Drummer Paul Westphal, violinist Linda Binder and bass clarinetist Rick Ollman at the JGCA Seeds Sounds concert series.

The JGCA emerges from the pandemic with growing optimism and even a successful visual arts business year, according to organization president Mark Lawson. The venue’s excellent recent group art exhibit, ReBegin, reflecting on the pandemic experience — which I reviewed for The Shepherd Express and this blog — is an example of its current artistic viability, even if they haven’t had live music since the pandemic shutdown. Lawson says he anticipates live performances returning to the center “sometime in July.”

So, the JGCA is ready to hire its first executive director, a paid, part-time position that could evolve into a full-time job. They are advertising for the position on their website, linked here, with details on the job: JGCA executive director job post

Applications are being received through June 25.

If you are a creative, take-charge person dedicated to the performing and visual arts, and have the right stuff to lead a small but serious arts organization, you might be the person for this job. I imagine, especially among the millennial and Gen-X generations (or perhaps even some baby boomers), there are a number of people in this region who could do this job, especially considering the many under-employed but talented, experienced and aspiring professional people with liberal arts orientations. The center’s music side is geared to jazz, free-improv, experimental music, and hip-hop, etc., but the new ED could help shape that direction as well.

The center owns a fine Yamaha baby grand piano and raised funds for significant recent building renovations and upgrades, including a new digital recording-quality sound system.

Bader Philanthropies, The Greater Milwaukee Foundation, and other funding sources, including many individual donations, have greatly aided the center’s viability.

If you read about the position here and apply, let them know (and let me know) you read about it here.

Good luck to all candidates and the JGCA, and more power to the best person who gets the job.

_______________

1 This writer’s work from that period, and that of other journalists, is documented in Milwaukee Jazz Gallery 1978-1984, an anthology of press coverage and other memorabilia, from founder-owner Chuck LaPaglia’s remarkable grassroots arts venue. The venue gained a strong reputation among many touring jazz musicians. The anthology is available at the JGCA, Boswell Books, Woodland Pattern, and through Amazon.

 

Diana Jones’ masterwork of border-crisis empathy belatedly gets stateside release

 

Cover of Diana Jones album “Song to a Refugee.” Courtesy Proper Records

The exquisite singer-songwriter Diana Jones reached a career peak with the 2020 release of her album Song to a Refugee, which I reviewed when it was released. However, at the time, her British label, Proper Records, only released it in the British Isles and Europe, even though the Greenwich Village-based artist’s inspiration and focus was the U.S. border crisis during the Trump administration’s travesty of policy cruelty.

The issue remains painful as righting the horrible wrongs of that administration will take time. Proper has now released the album stateside, prompting a fine interview feature from The New York Times. (Due to a peculiar Times change in link sharing, Culture Currents, as a Times subscriber, can only share the Diana Jones article link on my (Kevin Lynch) Facebook page post of this blog post).

Diana Jones, photographed for The New York Times

And here is my November review of the album, reposted:

Diana Jones sings a “Song to the Refugee,” as if she’s lived that life