As spring rounded its bend toward summer, Anne and I took our first extended vacation since prior to the pandemic and it was a good mix of doing things, seeing both strangers and friends, and chilling the hell out. Saw phenomenal sets of Reigning Sound, Chuck Mead, and The Veldt. I think that influenced this month’s selections – reacquainting myself with the rhythm of airports, planes, favorite roads and coffee shops in beloved cities but also the surprising kind of slowed-down vacation where my usual Friday’s sort through new records was done with coffee on the porch of a beach house I’d never done before.
Columbus is returning to life and most of what has my number so far has been jazz – Randy Mather leading the Joe Diamond tribute act Rhinestone Quartet getting a packed dancefloor to the hard bop anthem “The Sidewinder” was magic. Brett Burleson leading another quartet with the great Eddie Bayard on tenor moving from one of his slow-burn ballad originals into an eye-of-the hurricane stomping take on Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning” almost knocked me out of my chair.
Also, as you can probably tell from the full-to-bulging nature of this list, a bounty of music to love. Continue reading for notes on the songs.
I spent April in an anxiety-ridden state of transition: a dash of survivor’s guilt, a splash of irrational exuberance, a sprinkling of always-remember-it’s-not-over-yet, and a magnum of remembering how my socialization muscles feel when they move.
May was better, even as my heart went out to friends still suffering – with a particular eye on the Hyderabad team who I work with every day and who have taken some horrific losses. Only time will tell, but I think this month’s selections reflect that. As always, thank you for reading, for commenting, for turning me onto stuff that made this list, and for being part of my life.
Netta Yerushalmy – Dance Dance Demonstration, presented by the Wexner Center for the Arts with Los Angeles Performance Practice
Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities, presented at the Wexner in 2019, was one of two or three things I still think about regularly. I’ve loved dance with the fierce ardor of a clumsy man – like watching a magic show – and a crazed metaphor addict for a couple of decades; the Wexner Center planted that seed with two shows: Savion Glover my senior year of High School and William Forsythe when I was in college.
Distant Dance Demonstration was a new work, filmed at the end of the summer in East River Park, choreographed by Netta Yerushalmy, and danced by Marc Crousillat, Stanley Gambucci, Nick Sciscione, Caitlin Scranton, Hsiao-Jou Tang, Babacar Top, and Symara Johnson. It was designed for the screen by Jeremy Jacob, with photographs by Maria Baranova, camera work by Alex Romania and Maira Duarte, and edited by Yerushalmy and Romania.
With this new piece, presented by the Wex and Los Angeles Performance Practice, Yerushalmy finds a way, with her steady crew of exquisite dancers, to not only make work in all of this but to thrive while acknowledging the hell of the pandemic and everything else going on with the world in a way that made me tear up even on a screen in my office. I can only imagine the crying I would have done if I’d been in the vicinity. It was hard not to have pangs of jealousy for the handful of assembled watchers we see in the margins.
Everything filmed from a remove kept entire bodies in focus and also nudged a reminder of the restrictions we were under – not too close, for the greater good; nevertheless, a lack, an absence. The title’s “demonstration” nodded to both the necessary and too-often-ignored-or-minimized Black Lives Matter protests and the demonstrations against the ill-advised profiteering plan to replace the beloved East River Park and its band shell for yet more ugly housing in a neighborhood so many of us loved.
The sumptuous filming uses a ‘70s-like patina of grain and discoloration and shifts from black and white to color with still photos as pop art punctuation, amplifying the drenched, saturated-in-history nature of these movements. They batter against the ugly history and dance with it, erupting with the joy of survival and connection in a way dance does better and more directly than any other form I can think of.
The framing by Yerushalmy had that deceptively easy, intoxicating manner of articulation that made interviewing her one of the great pleasures of my time writing about art. It’s an introduction that does what kept me coming back to the Wexner Center early, a handshake for challenging work that doesn’t strip away the mystery or undersell the joy and the pleasure of it.
I’m enormously thankful for the Wexner Center giving us this and profoundly regret I didn’t get to it sooner to tell more people and watch it four or five times.
As we get closer to the first little slice of normalcy – my second vaccine is coming up this week – there are reminders that we’re not out of the woods yet: horrifying statistics around the world, anecdotal evidence from every channel.
One that hit close to home for me was Saturday’s public announcement of my friend Bob Petric’s death. I probably didn’t know Bobby as well as at least 100 people on my friends’ list, but I had genuine conversations with him once or twice a week.
He was someone I thought about regularly: the sly one-liner, the big laugh when you landed, and that hand on your shoulder that reminded you he was glad to see you. When I was at a loss for what to do, getting off work or a summer afternoon, “Head down to Ace of Cups and see Bob” was always one of the best options on the table.
Before and parallel to that friendship was his presence in my life as a guitar player. I never got to see Girly Machine (I squandered a few opportunities as a kid), but I saw Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments every time I got the chance. The way he fused an almost hyperactive, polished technique to a frenzied wildness was breathtaking. There was the emotional quality of opening a nerve at the same time he compressed the entire history of the guitar and cracked the sky at the same time.
I saw a couple of TJSA shows that were shambolic trainwrecks but even those had a few minutes that affirmed I was in the right place. Far more often, they were mind-blowing. Petric’s melodic, fiery counterpoint to Ron House’s wry, cracked lyrics over a shifting series of great rhythm sections were what I’d reach to 9 times out of 10 when someone asked me what “Columbus music” sounds like.
A tangent: one late afternoon, Anne and I were at HiFi Bar in Manhattan (RIP) who had an astonishing jukebox, a precursor to the now-ubiquitous internet jukes, called El DJ. El DJ boasted a hard drive we controlled with a trackball through an interface that cross-referenced bands. One highlight of EJ DJ, for me at least, was a surprising number of Columbus acts: Times New Viking, Gaunt, New Bomb Turks, and, of course, TJSA.
As the two-for-one happy hour shifted gears, I put on “Cheater’s Heaven” off their seminal first record Bait and Switch and owner Mike Stuto lit up. “Who played Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments?” He exclaimed from across the bar, and Anne and I spent a great hour talking about Bob’s guitar, Ron’s singing, the connection between our town’s scenes. When I think about Columbus crossing the world – and there are a million stories – that’s the one I go to first.
So while this is not something I was digging, there’s never a bad time to remember our friends and tell the friends here we love them. If you’re reading this, I love you. If I haven’t told you lately, I’m sorry and I want to do better.
If you haven’t listened to TJSA, maybe the best place to start is the blistering live record from their legendary tour with GBV just released on Bandcamp:
Some other video evidence of this juggernaut at the top of his powers:
Spring feels good as it comes in fits and starts. Optimism leavened with more loss – most recently one of the best, kindest, most enthusiastic music fans I ever had the opportunity to know (and not know as well as I wish I had), Matt Bush. It’s hard to think of going back out to shows again and not seeing Matt’s face. Continue reading for notes on these songs.
We’re in both a golden age and a glut of music documentaries right now. The most moving example I’ve seen in a while, and I fully admit to my biases here, is Tamara Saviano’s gripping, intimate portrait of songwriting guiding star Guy Clark, Without Getting Killed Or Caught.
Saviano logged many hours in Clark’s world writing her excellent biography of the same name. She made the brilliant choice to tell his story through the voice of Susanna Talley Clark (also an acclaimed songwriter with big hits like “Come From the Heart” and “Easy From Now On,” along with being a painter and writer). Saviano uses Susanna’s audio diaries and her written diaries narrated by Sissy Spacek to capture that vital voice.
Because Susanna’s voice is so prominent, much of the movie focuses on the inseparable trio rounded out with Guy and Townes Van Zandt. Still, Saviano never lets it turn into a Townes movie. The impeccable editing keeps the focus without ever getting mired in minutiae.
Saviano also avoids the trap of too many talking heads. Every person in the film is someone Guy loved and who loved Guy and Susanna. The closest thing to a record label suit is Barry Poss from Sugar Hill, who helped resurrect Guy’s career at a low point. He adds vital color to Guy’s place in the burgeoning Americana scene. There’s no bending over backward to prove the subject of the film is important.
Everyone who appears – Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Verlon Thompson – knew Guy’s love up close. Nowhere is that more clear than Rodney Crowell, who almost serves as a joint narrator. The quick cutting from one of these almost invariably laughing voices to another reminds us of how art and personalities can bring people together. A scene which epitomized this feeling came with the clip of Guy taking a long drag of wine and pointing to a very young Steve Earle and saying “You need to hear this” to the camera from Heartworn Highways echoed through Rodney Crowell talking about writing the last song with Guy almost 40 years later.
There were more of those moments in this film than I could keep track of. One that echoes with me a couple of days after seeing this was the revelation he wrote “She Ain’t Going Nowhere, She’s Just Leaving” for Bunny Talley, Susanna’s sister, who killed herself. Then the hammer drop of Guy’s recorded voice recounting the story with the line, “Part of being alive is going through that veil of tears.”
Anyone with the slightest interest should check this out in its staggered digital screenings and whenever it finds a more permanent home. Without Getting Killed Or Caught reminded me how much I love my friends and was an incitement to be better.
Keyboardist Amina Claudine Myers is the beating heart of the soulful Chicago avant-garde that enraptured me as a teenager and shaped so much of my tastes then and since. Arts For Art, the organization that helps present Vision Festival, has done more to keep the flame of this music strain alive when we can’t gather than anyone else. They outdid themselves with a birthday set by the great one herself on solo piano.
In the same room they’ve used for other streams, Arts for Art deployed their typically excellent sound design and production values. Every vibrant note rang out of the piano and washed over me, almost making me forget I was so many miles away, watching it on Youtube.
A long ballad with sparse, affecting lyrics floated on chords that seemed to play in the dappled Sunday sunlight when I watched this. A speedier, percussive, swinging piece used clusters of notes to make me feel the pounding in my chest a little more deeply.
For this hour of her birthday, Myers treated us to gorgeous conversations with the universe, her intense history of the piano, and with the core goal of turning personal expression into a deeply felt sense of connection with her chosen community. I was lucky to even be in the room, virtually, for this reminder of everything I love about music.
Into a Lamplit Room: The Songs and Life of Kurt Weill produced by Otterbein University
I hadn’t checked in with Otterbein University’s virtual offerings this season until now, and I regret I wasn’t able to make my schedule such to write a full preview of their delightful Kurt Weill tribute, which aired last week.
I’ve long been a fan of Weill, in my case going back to a Grandmother who loved standards (and placed “September Song” so high it was practically the star on the Christmas tree) and the Hal Willner compilation Lost in the Stars I found on a campus record store run during High School.
And I love what Otterbein does. Their focus on very traditional, entertaining storytelling with rock-solid standards for singing and dancing occasionally lines up with my more idiosyncratic tastes for some of my favorite experiences in town – in recent years they gave us a Top Girls and a Fiddler on the Roof I still talk about.
Into a Lamplit Room, a 2013 revue devised by CCM Musical Theatre chair Aubrey Berg with arrangements by Julie Spangler, soars. I hadn’t realized how much I missed what they do until watching this a stellar young cast of Emily Baggarly, Lucy Breedlove, Nijah Dent, Ashton Lambert, Kate Maniuszko, Victoria Mesa, William Porter, Max Pinson, Hannah Schmidt, Tru Stites, and Dean Yurecka splash a new coat of paint on these time-worn chestnuts. I apologize I didn’t capture who sings what – my press data just says there are no named characters. If someone wants to fill me in with the comments or in an email, I’d appreciate it.
Under the expert hands of director Thom Christopher Warren and musical director Lori Kay Harvey, Into a Lamplit Room balances the rat-a-tat-tat percussiveness and wordplay of these songs with a necessary acid irony befitting the times they were written and just as useful a tonic today.
The former glows like a knife on finger-snapping romps through “Schicklgruber” (with expert use of split-screen), “Economics,” and a riotous “The Trouble With Women” sung by the women in the cast.
Not every experiment works. There’s an off-kilter “Mack The Knife” that tries too hard to put the sociopathic narrator in a social context and falls flat – though the gorgeous black and white footage of the cast at Westerville hotspot Asterix made me miss that bar with a visceral pang.
At its best, Into a Lamplit Room summed up what I love about these songs and gave me fresh ears. The cast’s women harmonizing and trading off on a brittle, wrenching “The Soldier’s Wife” stunned me. A breathtaking “Pirate Jenny” made the line “And you yell, ‘Why the hell do they spare that one?’” hit like an acid-tipped dagger. A duet on “Moon Faced, Starry Eyed” was ribald perfection and a crackling showcase for Stella Hiatt Kane’s always dazzling choreography. A bravura “Cry. The Beloved Country” excellently used footage around the Short North without detracting from the jaw-dropping singing.
I want to take a moment to highlight the stellar production values. Otterbein takes deserved pride in the technical side of their theatrical education department and Warren, Harvey, Kane, scenic designer Rob Johnson, and costume designer Rebecca White, with special attention to Avery Barrett’s stage managing, T. J. Gerckens’ lighting and the sound design team of Doc Davis and Kailey Miller, made something that sounds and looks every bit as good as it does in their big concert hall. It’s a tremendous achievement and a hell of a lot of fun.
I raved about Ethan Iverson’s vibrant new record Bud Powell in the 21st Century in last month’s playlist. In place of a record release, Iverson convened a top-tier rhythm section to play one of the temples of classic bop, Smalls, in a set of almost entirely Powell and Thelonious Monk compositions.
Andrew Cyrille on drums, 81, is an inspiration. I’ve been a fan for almost as long as I’ve cared about jazz – my gateway came from his work with Cecil Taylor, especially buying Unit Structures at 18 and hearing him power the rhythm of the massive, undulating machine – and he’s blown me away with reeds players like John Carter and Bill McHenry. Still, there’s a particular delight watching him lock in with a piano player. Thomas Morgan on bass brought vital color and dancing propulsion to recent Bill Frisell and Henry Threadgill records.
The two sets here are a clinic in how much life there is in these songs. It’s no exaggeration to say I probably own 30 versions of the opening tune here – Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” – and I’ve heard it at least 200 times over 20+ years of assiduous show-going. Those first notes brushed any preconception away, and I listened with grinning, childlike glee like the first time.
At once point, Iverson says, “It feels great to play,” and that joy suffuses everything in these sets: the interlocking handoffs on “Bouncing With Bud;” the long solo piano intro building to a luxurious simmer of “I’ll Keep Loving You;” the explosive, contained cacophony on “52nd Street Theme” with Iverson’s gleaming, sharpened attack rubbing up against Morgan’s thick, declarative notes and Cyrille’s hooky patterns.
Smalls has reopened to limited capacity audiences, and as great as the no-audience streams are, as lucky as I feel to have them, there’s a distinct difference in the vibration of these shows, even having ten people in the audience creates the feedback loop I’m missing and, as I see it close on the horizon, makes me miss being in the room with the music very much.
More thinking about absent friends and the circles they ran in, especially as this weekend brought news a missing friend’s body was found. RIP Lane Campbell. And this weekend was the anniversary of another friend’s death, Melissa Bontempo. Two of the biggest music fans I was ever lucky enough to know among many, many other fine qualities.
Carpe Diem String Quartet – Ancestors on 03/07/2021
Carpe Diem String Quartet have been one of the Columbus music scene’s gems for 15 years, straddling the line between the classic quartet repertoire and brand new work from living composers. Their stream this week was a brilliant example of how well they work both sides of that line.
The quartet kicked off their program with the founding father of the modern string quartet. Their jubilant thrill-ride take on Haydn’s “Opus 76, No. 1,” amplified and underlined the sense of invention and play and the different forms rubbing against and sparking with one another, sacrificing none of the piece’s intense emotional impact.
They closed with Erberk Eryılmaz’s dazzling fireworks display and deep dive into the folk music of Thrace, “Tracian Airs of Besime Sultan.” Bold spinning dances and sudden fires as the quartet zoomed in and out of the most microscopic details, shining a light on them like an Elizabeth Bishop villanelle then pulling back to show us the whole undulating landscape.
As great as those pieces were, I came for the world premiere in the middle and it more than lived up to my high expectations. Mark Lomax II has been at the highest tier of Columbus’s best composers for a long time. The world got to experience that brilliance with wider recognition of his epic 400: An Afrikan Suite in 2019.
When interviewing him about that masterpiece for a preview, it surprised me that Lomax had less luck breaking into the classical/chamber music worlds, with quartets and even a ballet that weren’t produced. With recent connections to the Wexner Center and the Johnstone Fund, that’s happily started to change in recent years. This world premiere of the entirety of “String Quartet No. 1” continues that much-needed corrective arc.
Partly inspired by his Grandfather and two other elders who were important to him, Lomax also made connections to the more than 500,000 people we lost this year in a soaring four-movement work of tribute and memory that never succumbs to despair. The opening movement uses long tones and swirling harmonies to evoke a home-going ceremony, rapturous cries bubble up and recede.
The second movement, “Reflection,” ripples with bouncing pizzicato and dialogue between the strings. Some of the most joyous writing and playing in the entire piece shows up here and the kind of uncanny tightness you only see in this sort of ensemble from players who know one another this intimately; this was the section of the piece that reminded me most of Lomax’s jazz writing, the catchy but always surprising rhythms and the sense of trust in the players.
“Acceptance,” the third movement, orbits around a haunting, evolving viola melody from Korine Fujiwara as the rest of the quartet creates a world for that line to inhabit. “Soul in Flight” ends the piece with high, sliding, and soaring lines swirling around a singing cello from Ariana Nelson.
It’s remarkable work from one of my favorite composers and, looking at death again both near and far as I said in the preface, it was exactly the balm I needed on a down Sunday evening. A brilliantly arranged and ordered program that makes me want to get out and see something as soon as I responsibly can.