My TimeHop reminded me that last year, and three years ago, I was in NYC for festivals around APAP, which is always one of the most invigorating parts of any year I work it in.
James Brandon Lewis, Kirk Knuffke, and Gerald Cleaver at Arts for Art Inc, 01/06/2021
Of the overlapping black music traditions, relatively few hands dig into the fertile intersection between R&B and free jazz. Arts for Art – a storied non-profit that hosts the annual Vision Festival among other services to the culture – kicked off their 2021 with one of the finest examples of the sparks that fly when those two forms hit one another: a trio of sax player James Brandon Lewis, cornet player Kirk Knuffke, and drummer Gerald Cleaver.
As Lewis said in the post-set discussion, “Charles Gayle and Grover Washington, Jr. both came from the same place I did, Buffalo.” This trio wove excerpts of the Bill Withers classics “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Just the Two Of Us,” the latter a collaboration with Washington and a massive hit, along with Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll Be Free” into an unbroken 45-minute meditation and exultation.
Lewis’s liquid tone and Knuffke’s sharp, jabbing punctuation aligned on deep hooks like the revolving “I know” section of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” building up the tension and exploding that feeling into a bonfire of abstraction. That jousting coiled into a mournful funeral march before clicking into a more urgent, insistent gear.
Through all of these changes, Cleaver’s drums commented and steered the ship. The one section where he slid into head knocking funk beats felt like an unexpected blast of sun cracking velvet clouds, then as soon as I grasped it, he and the trio were onto something else.
Everyone in this trio intimately understood both musical forms and used the tropes for their cathartic power as well as misdirection. They didn’t shuffle free playing and dance music; they burned them into something fresh and personal.
Under the Radar, presented by The Public Theater
One of the brightest lights in my personal APAP – and the conduit for many of my favorite things at the Wexner Center every year – is the Public’s Under The Radar fest. This international sampling of moving, riveting performance art and theater pivoted brilliantly to online this year. I’ve checked about half of it so far and there hasn’t been a dud in the bunch.
Best of all, these are available on demand through the 14th, at https://publictheater.org/programs/under-the-radar/under-the-radar-2021/
Highlights for me so far:
Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran by Javaad Alipoor
This two hander – which won a prize at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – featured Alipoor and Kirsty Housley narrating – with dazzling imagery the self-destructive microcosm of the idle rich in Tehran. In doing so, they draw out heartbreaking truths about the decline of civilizations, the scars of colonialism, and the blur between long-term consequences and immediate decisions.
Full of poison-dagger lines I was still chewing over days later like “There isn’t an anthropocene that connects us, there’s a scar that divides;” vaporwave summed up as “A ghost made of bits and pieces of a past that never quite was;” and a description of Dubai as “It’s like long generations of the past returning eternally to party with them.”
the motown project by Alicia Hall Moran.
One of our finest American singers, plumbing the rich terrain between Opera and popular music, Alicia Hall Moran assembled a ferocious band for this, including her husband Jason Moran on piano, Reggie Washington on bass, LaFrae Sci on drums, and Thomas Flippin on guitar, alongside fellow powerhouse singers Barrington Lee and Steven Herring.
Moran drew connections between the Motown songbook and classical “art music,” giving both sides equal weight without sanding down either’s essence, and wove them into a crushing portrait of desire. An aria from The Magic of Figaro sparked off the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “Sugarpie, Honeybunch.” A torturously slow “Heat Wave” was a languid blast from better seasons. A “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” drew every nuance out of that Stevie Wonder classic without bogging it down. If I see something better this year – even after theatres open – it’s been a good damn year.