Thursday, August 21, 2014

Three Days in a Leaky Canoe

I had always attributed the water than collects in the bottom of the canoe to my wet shoes. But on our recent trip to the BWCAW, it seemed to be accumulating more rapidly than any pair of shoes could account for…and because we’d loaded off the dock at the landing, my shoes happened to be dry. Strange.

By the time we reached the north end of Sawbill Lake, after an hour and more of paddling into a stiff wind, it was an inch and a half deep under my seat, though the water hadn’t made its way to the front half of the canoe. 

After an additional half hour of searching for a campsite, we secured the only one left within reach, on a back bay on the lake’s northwest corner.

When we set out for an evening paddle an hour later, I noticed a more severe leak near the center of the canoe—a slit in the aluminum through which water was gurgling at an alarming rate. That leak had just “sprung.” We returned to camp immediately and applied duct tape both inside and out. After standing around for ten minutes wondering what to do, we set out again, just to see what would happen.

The tape held. Nevertheless, the hairline crack was at precisely the spot in the hull that buckles every time I hoist the 80-pound vessel onto my knee, before heaving it up onto my shoulders with a trick of leverage I mastered 45 years ago and still (just barely) command. I was well aware that if that two-inch crack became a six-inch crack, four or five portages further into the bush, we’d be in big trouble.

So it happened that we spent three nights camping on the same spot on Sawbill Lake.

As Hilary’s brother Paul matter-of-factly put it when I described the situation to him later, “So, you had a good excuse not to do so much work.”

Right On, Brother. 

 But it was a good spot. Out of the way. Only two parties came near in two days, one of which was looking for the portage in a different bay a mile away. (Lord, have mercy.)

Though somewhat enclosed, several miles of lake were spread out to the south. And a creek feeds into the bay from the north. The last time we camped here, I walked down to the creek to see if a moose was anywhere nearby—only to see a moose climb down the opposite bank that very instant to feed in the stream for twenty minutes!

We saw no moose during out recent visit, but we did make a different discovery. If you follow a little trail to the south along the shore, climb over a few fallen trees, and shimmy up a rock face, you come to a little island easily reached by a short hop over the gap in the rocks.  

This island has several rock shelves that look west, and are thus shady and cool during those morning hours when the campsite itself in scorched by the sun.

Thus we found ourselves occupying a multi-room suite.

In the morning, we sat on the rock shelves, reading or sketching.

We spent the afternoons back at camp, doing the same.

Each day we went out on two or three paddles around various nearby islands and up the creeks on the north end of the lake. (The tape was leaking more than at first—but not as much as the leaky keel.)

The woods behind the campsite was open, and if I happened to hear an interesting bird call, I might spend half an hour finding out what it was. Waves of warblers would sometimes pass through, already on their way to Central America. We saw myrtle warblers, Nashville warblers, black-and-white warblers, and quite a few pine warblers, too.

Our first evening a beaver swam past the campsite on his way up the creek. The next evening, he reappeared from the opposite direction as we were eating dinner, swimming directly over to where we sat to see who the intruders were.

Waking up before dawn and emerging from a tent is always glorious. I made it through the night, you say to yourself. Yes, I slept well (though you’ll be wondering in a few hours why you’re dog tired.) You look around, happy to be alive, happy for the clear skies, though the temperature is 42 degrees, and fog is racing down the creek and out into the bay in the morning shadows, obscuring the opposite bank to a height of thirty feet. No, happy isn’t the word for it. Indescribably joyous.

Three loons are cavorting in the bay fifty yards away. “I wish Hilary was up,” you say, though you know sleep is more important than loons.

You start a fire. Bang a few pots making the coffee on the butane stove. The sleeper wakes.

Two of the loons come back, fishing not more than ten feet off shore. They linger for fifteen minutes, appearing and disappearing, following the west shore of the bay out into the larger lake. Sublime.

After a cold breakfast—granola, instant milk, figs, banana chips, turkey  jerky—it’s time to head out to the “island.”

Though you’re several miles from a road, you’re hardly alone. Two teenage boys camping with their parents a half-mile up the lake are fishing in your private bay.

“Our canoe sprung a leak,” you shout.

“We have some resin and fabric patches,” they offer.

“It’s an aluminum canoe,” you counter. “But thanks.”

“Do you want us to go fish someplace else?” one of them asks.

“Um, that would be nice.”

And so they do.

I don’t like to get immersed in a novel when I’m already immersed I the landscape all around me, so I often end up at the two extremes—German philosophy or Japanese poetry. (Shades of WWII?)

Thus, Ernst Cassirer: “Universality is not a term which designates a certain field of thought; it is an expression of the very character, of the function of thought.”

Or Basho:

Birth of art -
Song of rice planters,
Chorus from nowhere. 

Time passes. The deer flies grow tired of buzzing around my head. The sun drops and the shadows swing across the campsite. Yet here I sit, caught in the sun’s rays again. Should I move? Or should I wait for the shadows to return? Already, it’s getting cooler again. And if I moved, those Chinese wasabi snack crackers sitting in the grass in a zip-lock bag would be farther away than ever.

An afternoon swim is refreshing.

Cassirer cogently dismisses the aesthetic positions  of Bergson, Nietzsche, Santayana, and even Croce in a few choice paragraphs, insisting on a theory that acknowledges the inseparability of beauty and form.
Meanwhile, I turn to poetry, not bothering to count the syllables:

The haze departs,
Sunlight bathes the far shore.
Relax, it’s summer.
Hunting the pack for banana chips,
I find smoked almonds!
Unexpected delight.
Cool evening breeze
assuages the sunburn –
How long before I dash for another shirt?
Carpenter ant in the tree all day,
Gnawing, gnawing—
“I want to get out!”
The super-moon rises
Later each evening—
Water waits to shine.
Waterbugs dart across trees and clouds,
Unsure what line to take:
When they meet, they hop!
Iridescent loons
drift by the canoe—
regal, they think only of fish.
The eagle’s high-pitched cry
Disturbs my sleep—
Brother, I was up there with you!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Jazz: Overrated?

It’s been widely noted by now that the recent Washington Post editorial declaiming the death of jazz was written by someone (Justin Moyers) who knows very little about jazz. In any case, any “think piece” that purports to tell us in what direction “jazz” as a whole is going is obviously painting with a very broad brush.

Moyers' first specific point, that “Jazz takes great songs — and abandons the lyrics that help make them great,” draws our attention to one of the many veins of musical interpretation that call themselves “jazz.” I number myself among those listeners who would argue that most “vocal jazz” isn’t really jazz at all, though it’s a near relation, and often pleasant to listen to. The problem is…the words. Even the most inspired lyrics grow tiresome with repetition. The singers know this, of course, and do all they can to keep the phrasing interesting, then step back and let the band strut its stuff.

Though Moyers likes lyrics, he doesn’t think much of improvisation. No wonder he doesn’t “get” jazz. That’s what it’s largely about. He shares that handicap with most listeners, to judge from the fact that jazz hasn’t been widely appreciated or “popular” since the early 1950s, when it ceased to be “dance” music.

Moyer argues that jazz has stopped “evolving,” but the point is immaterial. Evolution is overrated. In any case, the concept is misleading when applied to jazz idioms. Big Band music didn’t “evolve” into bebop, though bebop's creators cut their teeth in the big bands. The two genres are distinct, offering different thrills, and they’re both being performed today. 

By the same token, modal jazz didn’t evolve out of the small combos of the 50s, nor did fusion evolve from modal jazz, though we’ve been brought up to think that way. The music has gone in many directions, without rendering its predecessors uninteresting or “extinct.” What has remained throughout is a distinctive lilt or pulse and an exuberant urge to extemporize. Once those elements are gone, we’ve entered a new domain.

A few nights ago Hilary and I went to St. Paul to pick up a family friend who was arriving from Chicago on the train. The train was due to arrive at 10:03 p.m. We showed up a half hour early and parked at the first open meter we could find. It happened to be directly in front of the Black Dog Coffee House. 

We wandered in to find that a very young trio was playing some darned good jazz. They looked like high school kids, but they were probably college juniors. The drummer looked like my nephew, Paul—scruffy beard along the jaw line, a little overweight, a little shy, but also funny and exuberant. He did the talking.

The bassist was a wiry dude who crawled happily all over his instrument during his solo. The pianist was a clean-cut kid who probably had a closet full of Bill Evans’ records back at the dorm—his harmonic sense was already remarkably advanced.

They were working hard, and were great fun to listen to. There might have been five people sitting at tables nearby. Some were fiddling with their phones. The ones who were listening might have been the musicians' parents.

I never caught their names, but at the end of the set, the drummer urged us to return the following night to hear the trumpeter Steve Kenney. And so we did.

Kenny is a seasoned trumpeter, and he brought some other veterans with him: Brian Courage (bass), Babatunde Lea (drums), and Christopher Thomson (tenor sax). They played a set of standards ranging from “Summertime” and "Bye Bye Blackbird” to “Maiden Voyage” and “Caravan.” 

The intros were often slow, dissonant, and only vaguely rhythmic. The tune would emerge by fits and starts, then the band would step up the beat on cue and head into the arrangement, exchange solos, and then return to familiar ground.

It’s a standard formula, and it’s a kind of music I love. There is seldom a dull moment, and there is very little distance between performer and audience—maybe twenty feet. Kenny’s solos were often fierce, though I sometimes found Thomson’s saxophone riffs more musical.

Kenney took the time to point out that "Maiden Voyage" is a modal piece but very "chordal," which presents a challenge to a group without a piano. They pulled it off nicely.

That Herbie Hancock tune holds a special place in my heart: the version I listened to when I was about the age of those kids up on stage was on an album called Happenings by the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, with Hancock on the piano.

The odd thing is, Hancock's slow and meticulously developed solo on that track is associated in my mind with the slow movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, with which I was equally infatuated in those years. Whither jazz? Hancock's recent album The River, devoted largely to Joni Mitchell tunes, has all the harmonic ambiguities of impressionist French piano music... but also the probing and inventive forward thrust of genuine jazz.

I've heard other, and sometimes more exciting, versions of "Maiden Voyage" since, including one at breakneck speed by alto sax Justin Robinson on The Challenge, a bouncy and irreverent one by an ensemble led by Fred Hersch, and a largely unrecognizable one by the pianist Robert Glasper.

The Kenney-Thompson version was also very good.

These talented men were twice the age of the youngsters we'd heard the previous evening, and they drew twice the crowd--maybe twelve avid listeners. We stayed for the entire set, grooving the whole time while nibbling on a well-designed hummus plate.A glass of wine from Catalonia was also involved somewhere. At one point I dropped a ten into the donation jar (cheap skate!).

No, jazz is not dead! Nor is it over-rated. It's the best. And it lives. It's just that most people don't "get" it, and it bothers them.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Cool August Morning

These cool summer mornings must be considered great. Or better yet, heavenly.

There’s a cardinal on the feeder, I can only see the bottom of his reddish tail, bobbing up and down as he eats.

House wrens chatter in the distance. And the blue jay delivers his submarine chortle from off in the woods.

The goldfinch is fearless, but prudent. He doesn’t waste time, just nibbles and leaves, close enough that I can see his dainty orange beak.

Raccoon tracks on the deck. He’s been in the ashes of the grill, looking for grease.

Suddenly a plan for the day takes shape:
—fill the birdbath;
—water the compost pile with the same hose;
—admire the cup flower that’s finally blooming after months of clumsy growth.

 Then, another cup of coffee.

Down in the yard, I come upon the remains of a robin. Hawks tend to swoop in from the south, nab their prey, and enjoy a meal in privacy on this very spot.

Now it’s the sharp “tisk, tisk” of the red squirrel, and a single nuthatch with his nasal “beep-beep.”

Four chickadees chuckle on the same branch. It’s a family! But I don’t think they’re getting along.

Finally chipmunk arrives. He slept late.

And now all the birds are singing at once! I've never heard anything quite like it...unless it was that morning we were camping in a county park near Northfield. I never found that park again.

You can’t really capture the joy of such a morning.

Just keep the windows open, stay away from the computer.

Keep the breeze moving through.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Bright Summer Morning in Grand Rapids

On the way into town on Highway 2 we pass a small, cheery, farmer’s market in a parking lot, across the street from the looming Blandin paper mill, with its sprawling, four-story, windowless walls and seemingly endless stacks of uniform logs.

Vegetables are less well represented here than cut flowers or baked goods, though one young woman has three varieties of organic kale for sale. “I’d buy some,” I tell her, after admiring the arrangement, “but we’re camping out tonight.”

Across the way, I come upon a display of jams and jellies, and ask the woman behind the table where the fruit came from. She’s flustered. She doesn’t know the answer. “Well, my mom and her sister do all the canning. I know they pick the fruit themselves, but I’m not sure where….”

“Well, I don’t need to know the exact plot of woods. But at least it didn’t come from Washington State or Chile,” I hastily reply, trying to reassure her. “That’s all I was wondering about. My aunt used to make chokecherry jelly on Lake Vermilion, back when I was a kid.” And I purchase a jar of pin-cherry jelly out of sheer nostalgia.

At the coffee shop a few blocks down the street we order a latte and inquire into the whereabouts of the local art gallery. “It’s a block down, tucked into the mall. It’s not in the mall, but on that same block. You’ll see it…”

And we did.

The MacCrostie Art Center is a fine art gallery, on the order of the Lanesboro Art Center or the Kaddatz Gallery in Fergus Falls, rather than a North Woods gallery like the Sivertson galleries in Duluth and Grand Marais, which specialize in artwork suitable for a hunting lodge or a North Shore estate—often beautiful, but invariably woodsy in flavor. The MacCrostie mounts one-person shows of aspiring and established artists, while also offering a handsome selection of photographs, pottery, hand-woven fabrics, note cards, and other more affordable stuff.

The show we saw was a hum-dinger called Elements Unheard. It consisted of a series of paintings and drawing of various sizes by a young artist named Liza Sylvestre that superficially resemble big, colorful balls of twine, or arteries, or aquatic tentacles, or coronal ejections, or hair—often several such substances intermingling and wrapping around one another.

The balance of colors and forms is sophisticated. But if you’re thinking “action painting,” think again. A close look reveals an astonishing line control and premeditation, as strands cross over and under one another, bulge out like a hernia (well, I’ve never actually seen one), or bundle surrounding elements up within a protective scarf.

The images are attractive but also unsettling, because they have no place to rest.

The same could be said of a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, I guess. But his creations are present in front of us as objects to be admired. Liza’s works are representations…of deafness. More accurately, they are representations of what sound looks like, how it moves through the body, and “how the various senses attach themselves to each other and mix up.”

If you didn’t read the accompanying artist statement, you wouldn’t know that. I didn’t read very far.  In the first place, it seems to me that a work of art must present itself to us without commentary. But the little I did read confirmed the notion established by the images themselves, that Liza is engaged in musical creation of a visual nature.

Was it Walter Pater who said that all art aspires to the condition of music?

And novelist Jim Harrison remarked recently: “I probably wouldn't have been a poet if I hadn't lost my left eye when I was a boy. A neighbor girl shoved a broken bottle in my face during a quarrel. Afterward, I retreated to the natural world and never really came back, you know.”

My favorite image was the first one. I also liked others. The airier the better. In fact, Hilary and I have one of Liza’s early works. You see, she’s our niece.

We spoke with Summer, the woman behind the counter near the front door. She happens to be from St. Paul. Her husband is a sales manager for Pepsi. He was offered a position in Grand Rapids, and he asked his wife if she’d consider moving to a small town.

“I told him, ‘If it has a coffee shop and an art gallery, I’ll go.’ ”

To which I replied, “If you’ve just come from Bachus or Boy River, Grand Rapids is not a small town.”

I mentioned that we were planning to bike the Mesabi Trail, and she told us where the trailhead is located.

“But you might have some difficulty getting to it this morning. The trail starts at the fairgrounds, and they’re having a big swap meet and a vintage car show up there today.”

“Gee, there’s a lot going on around here,” I said. “And then the rodeo up in Effie.”

“Yes, and tonight they’re going to shoot off the fireworks down at the dam that were flooded out on the Fourth.”

Cars were backed up for blocks heading into the fairgrounds. After consulting two sets of locals, both of whom recommended that we turn around and head for Coleraine, seven miles down the highway, to pick up the trail there—it runs all the way to Ely—Hilary had the brilliant idea of simply parking on a side street nearby and cycling down to the events. 

Inside the fairgrounds there were people and hot-rods everywhere, and merchants selling decals, caps, used furniture and fishing equipment, food, and a wide assortment of rusty metal junk. The smell of fry bread and sugar filled the air.

As we were walking our bikes toward the distant arches, I heard one young man say to his sister, “You would never have bought that coil. You don’t even know what a coil does.”

To which his sister replied, “I do too. You just told me.”

Though I’m not much for vintage cars, the ones on display were spectacular.

The entry to the trail, we soon learned, was through a thin golden arch on the far side of the fairgrounds, at the edge of the woods. When we reached it, we diligently put our fee in a yellow envelope—though without filling in any of the blanks on the form—dropped it into the slot in the metal pipe by the path, and headed off.
Or I should say, headed up.

The trail climbs for a few hundred yards before reaching the level of the open-pit mines the railroad used to service. Cars were parked under the trees on both sides of the asphalt path but eventually they gave way to open woods.

Then we came to the pits, surrounded by high banks of orange slag and filled with water. Clear, clean water. Two loons were swimming in the pit fifty yards below us—not an unusual sight in northern Minnesota. But when they dove, we could continue to see them easily under the water as they darted after passing fish. Three more loons joined them, seemingly from out of nowhere. Babies? It soon became obvious they were otters.

We passed several mine pits on our way to Coleraine, and also crossed the lovely Prairie River, where the first iron ore on the western Mesabi Range was discovered almost exactly 150 years ago.

The cherry trees along the way were bursting with fruit. It was a spectacular, though unusually hilly, two-hour ride to Coleraine and back. Along the way we met up with two pedestrians and were passed by three cyclists.

Where is everybody? They were down at the fairgrounds, I guess. Though when I asked the very knowledgeable man at the Visitors’ Center in Marcel, 20 miles north of Grand Rapids, why the Forest Service campground on nearby North Star Lake was largely empty on a Saturday afternoon, he replied, as if it were common knowledge: “Everybody’s up at the rodeo in Effie.”

We didn’t get that far. We’d made a reservation at Schoolcraft State Park, twenty miles west of Grand Rapids. One our way out of town we picked up some pasties for friends, and also for ourselves, at Pasties Plus. (They’re pretty good. Ours are better.)  

The pastoral countryside we drove through to get to the park, freshened by a late afternoon cloudburst, was stunning. Our campsite, on the banks of the still-diminutive Mississippi River, is the best in the park: ample, open, and grassy enough for a major bocce ball tournament.

Some people were fishing by canoe out on the river. Our woman caught a walleye—probably her first, to judge from how excitedly she was shouting to an elderly couple in a big kayak nearby; then came the bad news.

“We got it into the canoe…then we lost it.”

At which point a male voice chimed in: “We didn’t lose it. YOU lost it.”

But things soon quieted down, and by nightfall we were being serenaded by the guttural groans of a vast assortment of leopard frogs luxuriating in the reedy muck along the riverbank.    

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Up North, without a Cabin

My family had a cabin when I was growing up. Hilary’s family had a cabin in Wisconsin until relatively recently. I know what it’s like to “go to the cabin.”

It’s nice.

Then there are those with a trailer parked near a lake somewhere all summer. The view ain’t great, but it’s easy to leave town in a hurry and get the boat into the water before dark.

Others visit a favorite resort with the kids, year in and year out.

All well and good.

Every time we go up north, it’s something different.

Take last weekend. I had plotted out a vacation with two fixed points: the Rodeway Inn in Pine River and Schoolcraft State Park, twenty miles east of Grand Rapids.

Why? Because that motel was the only one on Highway 371 with an online reservation system and an  available room on Friday night; and the campsites at the park were similarly available at short notice.

 We strapped our bikes to the back of the car, intending to do a few new segments of the several trails that crisscross the north woods during our weekend getaway. And we also planned to stop in at the McRostie Gallery in Grand Rapids, where our niece Liza’s artwork was on exhibit. We’d agreed to pick up some pasties for friends at Pasties Plus while we were in Grand Rapids.  The rest would be ad lib (as the Romans used to say).

Surprise number one: we stopped in at Crow Wing State Park on our way north to stretch our legs and discovered they’d just completed a bike path extending from the park eight miles into Brainerd, where it connects with the Paul Bunyan Trail. The grand opening was set for Sunday.

Naturally we took it.

It’s a beautiful trail, weaving up and down modest hills high above the banks of the Mississippi, sometimes running through copses of oak trees with agricultural fields opening to the east, at other times meandering through stands of jack pine and aspen. The river itself comes into view intermittently, close at hand but far below to the west. There is almost no development until you reach the Highway 371 bridge over the Mississippi. We heard an occasional boom or rumble from Camp Ripley, the National Guard training center just across the river, but otherwise the chickadee, the flicker, and the red-eyed vireo were our only companions.

The trail passes under the highway bridge, and then crosses over it before continuing through the suburbs of Baxter and Brainerd, but you might as well turn back at that point unless you’ve got a very ambitious itinerary. 

Following a fine lunch at the Taco Bell drive-thru, still crowded at 2:30 p.m., we continued north along the Baxter Strip, which runs for miles along Highway 371. You can order every kind of hamburger and pizza known to man along the way, and buy recreational devices ranging from snowmobiles, ATVs, and jet-skis, to glamorous runabouts and ingenious docks and hoists, not to mention cars and trucks, “rustic” home furnishings, deer rifles, lakefront property—and live bait. 

Beyond Nisswa the countryside imposes itself once again, though most of the surrounding lakes—Gull Lake, Cross Lake, the Whitefish Chain, and many more—are largely out of sight down country roads. The towns you pass all have touches of character, whether it’s a fishing-bobber water tower, an attractive town square, or an oversized wooden carving of some hokey mythological figure.

The Paul Bunyan Bike Trail parallels the highway all the way to Walker. We were headed for a gravel parking lot north of Ten Mile Lake, where the trail leaves both the highway and the railroad bed behind, cutting a hilly course through the deep woods of the Shingobee River Valley toward the Heartland Trail coming in from the west.

It was a nice ride, during which we passed flowering fireweed and hemlock everywhere; a family of loons in a pond; large numbers of mosquitoes and triangular yellow deer flies; and perhaps the most impressive display of roving dragonflies I’d ever seen. Many of them were dark blue!

Along this trail we encountered our second big surprise—an isolated feller-buncher cutting down trees in the heart of the forest.

A conventional orange highway sign had given us some warning: CAUTION, LOGGING AHEAD. Coming around a bend we met up with a heavy-duty wooden pathway that had been laid across the asphalt bike trail like a xylophone made of railroad ties. 

We could see the feller-buncher off in the woods, a hundred yards away, grabbing large aspen trees with its mighty talons, then lifting and shaking them until they came crashing to earth, one after another. The process seemed more like the irrational thrashing of an angry child with a big toy than an extraordinary feat of technological prowess. A patch of woods maybe fifty yards across had been destroyed already, and the path taken by the machine to get there was no less severely beaten down.

We all need wood, of course. And most forest animals like clearings. So do I.

On our way back to the car we passed the operation again, by which time the machine had made its way much closer to the trail. It was easier to see the studded grippers on the arm, though I never did see a saw blade or the operator inside the cab. I was hoping to get a good photo of a towering aspen in freefall, halfway to the ground, but things happen too fast. And I was also uncomfortably aware of how hard it is to gauge exactly where a tree will land if it’s coming right at you.

I had done some research on the local restaurants but we ended up having a picnic supper at the city park in Bachus—another pleasant surprise—a few feet from the shores of Pine Mountain Lake. 

Fifty yards to the north of where we sat, fishing boats passed in and out occasionally through a narrow channel connecting the tiny municipal landing with the big lake. 

The lake itself was quiet. The sky was gray but not really threatening. Someone had piled a bunch of snail shells onto the picnic table. A young, shirtless man walked past us carrying a fishing rod on his way out in the reedy point beyond. Later he walked back to his car and had a long discussion with his girlfriend before they both came out to fish.

We wandered Bachus’s main street—not a soul in sight—observing the well-carved corn-man statue and reading the signs about the upcoming rodeo in Effie. Biggest in Minnesota. It’s been held annually for sixty-odd years. The sun had dropped below the clouds and everything carried a golden glow of childhood summer nights.

We got an additional flash of nostalgia back in Pine River, as we drove past the volleyball courts next to the Dairy Queen, both of which were full of people: an adult game and a kids game, or so it appeared. Turning east down Main Street, we came to the dam and the beautiful swimming beach on the reservoir just upstream, with its tall white pines and rustic CCC-era buildings.

Our motel was just south of town, but it didn’t have much atmosphere. In fact, the proprietress was the opposite of welcoming as she checked us in, as if she were doing us a favor after a long, hard, thankless day of changing sheets. She had a stud in her tongue, which made it a little hard to understand what she was saying.

The lone window in our room looked out on a shadowy hallway. (Well, I had asked for an upstairs room at the back.) The people next door talked all night, but the conversation was fairly subdued, and with the air-conditioning fan turned on, it sounded like a murmuring brook--sort of.

The breakfast was minimal. Hot coffee, but no tops for the cups! (Heaven forbid that anyone would take a cup of coffee back to the room!) Yogurt? No. Fruit? No. Hard boiled eggs? No. Pastries dripping with sugar, of the kind you buy in a six-pack from Hostess, if you’re twelve years old and really desperate. (I only ate two.) Two kinds of breakfast cereal—Fruit Loops and Cap’n Crunch—as if the motel patrons were all under five years old. Yet the parking lot was full of expensive vehicles, boats, and trailers loaded with ATVs.
Real orange juice? Dream on.

Yet the sky was cloudless and the air was cool. After greeting one fisherman in the parking lot, I looked up at the sky and said exuberantly: “I feel like I’m in Colorado!” There was no response.

The drive north through the shadowy woods and open fields along Highway 84 was simply spectacular. And the breakfast burrito we bought in Longevlle was far better than average.

We were on our way to Grand Rapids to bike the Mesabi Trail and see some art…

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Remembering Charlie Haden

I never met Charlie Haden. I never heard him play live, for that matter. Old and New Dreams, Haden’s Ornette Coleman-inspired quartet, came to the Children’s Theater in 1979. But I’m not much of a fan of that strand of Haden’s diverse oeuvre.

Remembering Haden (he died a few days ago following a long illness), would consist, then, of a trip down the discography, spotting an LP or a CD here and there that’s familiar to me. As a bassist, he was a bit of a “thumper.” But to my eyes, seeing his name on a performance was a seal of quality. He had very good musical taste.

Haden was a Iowa native, and he started his musical career early singing folk songs with the Haden family band on the radio. When singing was no longer an option due to a bout with polio, Haden started to fiddle around with his older brother’s double bass. By his early twenties, Haden was in Los Angeles playing with Paul Bley, Art Pepper, and Hampton Hawes.

Haden joined Ornette Coleman’s group in 1959, and appears on Coleman’s seminal The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959). It’s a bouncy production, as I recall, full of child-like tunes with microtones here and there but no real chord changes. I haven’t listened to it since the turntable went down decades ago. Likewise with Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (Atlantic, 1961), a larger ensemble that sounds like a haunting multi-car freeway pile-up.

But Haden was also deep into mainstream jazz, as is evidenced on one of my favorite albums of the era, pianist Denny Zeitlin’s Carnival (Columbia, 1964). I did love Archie Shepp’s  Mama Too Tight (Impulse!, 1967) during my high school years, though less for the free jazz screaming than for the rich brass sound on “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Basheer.”

When fusion arrived on the jazz scene, I left. My next encounter with a Haden recording was Gitane with French guitarist Christian Escoudé (All Life, 1978). Not bad, though only the first track really swings. Ten years later Haden reappears (in my collection) on a stimulating trio date, Etudes, with Geri Allen and Paul Motian (Soul Note, 1987); and a meditative but somehow classic quartet recording, Silence, with Chet Baker, Enrico Pieranunzi, and Billy Higgins (Soul Note, 1987).

One of Charlie’s misfires was a duet album,  Dialogues, with Carlos Paredes, a master of the Portuguese guitar (Antilles, 1990). That instrument resembles a mandolin and is typically played in the semi-halting mournful style of fado. You can hear it to good affect on Paredes’s solo album, Guitarra portuguesa (1967). The bass accompaniment on Dialogues doesn’t add much to the sound. Haden seems always to be a half-step behind.

At about the same time. Haden got into a fertile groove with his Quartet West ensemble, spinning sophisticated solos off lush arrangements of movie tunes from the forties and fifties. I still listen to Haunted Heart (Verve, 1991) and Always Say Goodbye (Verve, 1993) quite a bit. Then there’s a sprightly trio date, Wanton Spirit, with master pianist Kenny Barron and ageless drummer Roy Haynes (Gitane, 1994) followed two years later by a superb album, Night and the City, recorded live in a nightclub setting with Barron alone (Verve, 1996).

Other recordings of that year suggest how broad Haden’s musical interested still ranged: Falling Off the Roof (Atlantic) with rock drummer Ginger Baker, guitarist Bill Frisell, and banjo player Bella Fleck; Alone Together (Blue Note, 1996) with bebop elder Lee Konitz and the then-young Turk pianist Brad Meldhau; and Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories) with guitarist Pat Metheny (Verve).

When the Metheny album came out, I recall saying to myself, “Charlie Haden will make a duet album with anybody!” failing to consider how deeply indebted both he and Metheny were to Ornette Coleman. Reading the liner notes, I discovered their ties ran deeper still. The two, Midwesterners both, had known each other for decades, and Haden had been best man at Metheny’s wedding.

Haden’s American Dreams (Verve, 2002) with Michael Brecker on tenor, Brad Mehldau on piano, and Brian Blade on drums, is largely ruined by the string orchestra. Translinear Light (Impulse!, 2004) with Alice Coltrane and her son Ravi, is enlivened by the Wurlitzer organ and the Eastern sensibility of the melodic lines. And Jasmine, yet another duet album recorded in pianist Keith Jarrett’s home studio, (ECM, 2010) is a master class in thoughtful collaboration.(They're pictured together at the top of the page.)

Pondering this vastly incomplete personal cross-section of Haden’s long career here in front of the computer, I listened to a few iTunes excerpts from his Old and New Dreams phase, but in the end, I downloaded  Special Encounter (Cam Jazz, 2005) a straightforward trio date with Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi.

It’s not an earth-shattering date, but it’s a consistently musical one, as usual, with quite a bit of open space and a lyrical bass solo on the opening track, “My Old Flame.”


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Centennial Showboat - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Minnesota Centennial Showboat crew typically mines two thin but highly entertaining veins of art down on Harriet Island in St. Paul—the vintage popular song and the vintage melodrama. If you’d happened upon such stuff unexpectedly in Vicksburg or Davenport in the course of a family vacation, it would become material for a lifetime of fond reminiscences. But the Showboat has been putting on such entertainments for more than half a century—with a few well-deserved breaks for floods and fires—and we tend to take it for granted.

Their latest production, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, lacks existential ennui, is devoid of gender-bending twists, and explores no new ground theatrically. No one imagined that it would. Yet the place begins to exert its charm the moment you get out of the car and stroll down to the banks of the Mississippi in the evening light, with the Jonathan Paddleford steamboat bobbing in the foreground and the lights of St. Paul glittering from the far side of the river.

At what other venue can you spend the intermission sipping a beer as you watch giant logs float toward you down the river from Fountain Cave, Hidden Falls, Fort Snelling, and other places upstream, speculating on how big a “boom” they’ll make when then disappear beneath your feet and then crash into the Showboat’s metal hull?

But “the play’s the thing.” Right? Well, not exactly. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of those parlor dramas, with lots of entrances and exits and a paper-thin plot. If you’re expecting something on the order of Benedict Cumberpatch as Sherlock Holmes, you’ll be disappointed. But the Showboat players do a very good job of carrying through with the tale, hamming things up only slightly, exhibiting a degree of finesse in their comic timing, and letting the audience do the rest with its cheering and hissing at all the right places. 

Within the  constraints of the idiom, Christian Boomgaarden succeeds in evoking an element of fiendish insanity in his portrayal of Mr. Hyde, and Nike Kadri might also be singled out for her comic turn as a maid being interrogated by the police.

Then there are the vocal interludes, which make up at least half of the production’s running time. The songs are from the mid-to-late nineteenth century, I would guess. The painted backdrops are impressive, the harmonies are rich, and the solo voices aren’t half bad. The tunes have nothing to do with one another, and absolutely nothing to do with the plot. Some are hilarious, others are infused with an almost childlike glee. I especially enjoyed "The Art Olio," a number set in old Persia during the course of which Bear Brummel attempts to rhapsodize while being caressed far too many of Katherine Fried's hands.

Other songs carry titles such as “The Naughty Little Clock,” “Eve Wasn’t Modest,” and “The Saga of the Two Little Sausages.” 

As I listened to the one that raises the question “who ate Napoleons with Josephine when Bonaparte was away?”, I was reminded of a scratchy 78-rpm record about a half-inch thick we used to listen to. It was the width of a dinner plate, but there was only one song on it: “Who Played Poker with Pocahontas When John Smith Went Away?” Someone ought to research the connections between the two songs. (I’m sure there’s a Ph.D. thesis in there somewhere.)

Among many other details let me mention just one or two: The costumes on display during “The Calendar Parade” number are a sight to behold; and the color of the potion Dr. Jekyll drinks from a glass beaker at a crucial moment in the drama is the perfect mad-scientist green, midway between chartreuse and pea soup. A variety of little comic touches--for example, the changing mirror in the upstairs laboratory--ensure that though the story line is often predictable, it is never dull. 

We emerged into the night, carrying the energy and enthusiasm of the production like a warm glow. We'd been exposed to a large vial of infectious fun....