Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Robert Glasper at the Dakota

My two big gripes about jazz shows go together: the cover is too high and the set is too short. So when I heard that the brilliant young pianist Robert Glasper was going to do a single set at the Dakota with a $20 cover, I felt almost duty-bound to attend.

All the good seats were gone by the time I’d made up my mind, unfortunately, and I ended up on a stool against the back wall of the mezzanine. I could see the heads of the drummer and bassist, but Glasper himself was only visible when one of the men seated at the table by the rail overlooking the stage went to the bathroom. I could see the entire trio perfectly on the TV screen hanging at eye level on the wall behind the stage—but that’s not quite the same thing. I also wandered around a bit for a change of perspective.

By my reckoning, the show was 135 minutes long—a long set by anyone’s measure. And Glasper and his rhythm section sounded much like I expected them to sound. I like his style to the sound of leaves rustling. Listening to Glasper is the aural equivalent of watching the waves come in, mesmerized by the flow, the power, the uniformity, yet keenly intent on detecting the tidal shifts, the currents, the changes, within the shimmering, repetitive chords and arpeggios. All the while the bassist keeps the lower register churning and the drummer lays down a crisp, light ratta-tat-tat punctuated by a rim-shots now and again.

It’s a unique sound. A different conception of what music is supposed to do. Rather Asian, perhaps (though Glasper played the piano in three different churches as a youth in Houston, TX) and definitely far removed from the structural roots of jazz in the blues and the pop tunes of Hollywood musicals and Tin Pan Alley.

But there’s a fine line between “mesmerizing” and “monotonous.” Glasper’s trio crossed back and forth repeatedly. They also crossed occasionally into a domain of feverish improvisation that took me pleasantly by surprise.

At one point Glasper asked the audience if they wanted to hear “old” or “new.” Among the feeble call-outs “old” had the upper hand. “Oh, so you’re not interested in what I’m working on now?” Glasper remarked, as if his feelings had been hurt, and broke into “Take the ‘A’ Train.” It sounded good to me—that solid chord structure, that catchy tune. But it lasted only a few seconds. He followed it with a few bars of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Once again, tantalizingly brief. Then it was back to the signature ambient music—rustling chords, ethereal harmonies.

Glasper finished the set with a tune I recognized: it may have been “Of Dreams to Come” from the album In My Element. It was great. It’s the new music he’s devised. Subtle and remarkable. But perhaps better suited to a shorter set?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Quick Winter Getaway: Venice

Stepping into the exhibit of Venetian masters at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts I felt like I was back in Europe again, where the museums are chock-full of glowing canvases. And who better than the Venetian painters of the Renaissance to help us forget the extremities of the season for an hour or two.

There may be no more than two dozen paintings in the show, augmented by a few drawings, etchings, and period maps, but that’s just about right when nearly all of them are masterpieces of one kind or another. The “progress” of Venetian painting from the dignified if somewhat stiff works of the Bellini brothers to the fluid realism of Titian’s early maturity, and on to the robust group scenes of Veronese and the often shallow hyper-dynamic distortions of Tintoretto, may be taken as a model of how a school of art can “develop” while leaving some of its best qualities behind in the process.

I love the early stuff. In fact, I have a (smallish) reproduction of Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna with Trees” (1487) hanging on the wall right here in the house. Lorenzo Lottos’s “Madonna and Child with Saints,” (1505) which hangs in the current show (see above) is an outstanding example of the genre. The faces have both beauty and gravity, the colors glisten, and the two guys in the background chopping down trees are an added bonus.

Hanging kitty-corner to the left of the Lotto Madonna is Titian’s “The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and an Unidentified Saint,” c. 1515–20. It’s no less compelling, but much more active and also more realistically modeled. The Madonna’s sleeve is so elaborate it almost looks ridiculous. Though hardly 2 x 3 feet in size, it’s a visual feast, sending the eye back and forth across the canvas in an unceasing motion. Our attention is drawn this was and that by the pattern of limbs and glances, the arrangement of forms, the depth of field. The red and blue are drawn from that standard palette of the time that may strike us as a bit generic, but the individuals represented have moved beyond the vaguely hieratic sobriety of that earlier period, so that however standard the themes and poses may be, they appear to us as thinking, feeling people occupying a landscape.

Jacopo Bassano’s “Adoration of the Magi” (ca. 1540) dominates the second room of the show. It’s twelve feel tall and full of life and color. The draftsmanship is impeccable, as far as I can see, excepting the contorted rendering of the architectural ruins required to properly separate the Holy Family from the newly-arrived kings and the curiosity-seekers beyond. Across the way, Veronese’s “Mars, Venus and Cupid” (ca 1580) attracts us…but doesn’t really hold us.

Titian’s nearby “Venus Rising from the Sea,” (1520) which was used as the promo image for the Minneapolis show, once again mesmerizes us, though not at first glance. The “beauty” is a little homely and the flesh is over-ripe, but the figure has an inner glow that reminds us how much depth can be brought to a “simple” rendering by the use of delicate glazes and a perfect sense of proportion. Even the greens in the misty sea roundabout are magnificent.

The two “Diana” painting that have received the most press, and were considered among Titian’s supreme masterpieces in his own life, are well worth a look, but few will walk away from the show, I think, hold them as favorites. The balance and motion are complex, and no part of the canvas fails to interest us, but the flesh reminds me of spaghetti that’s been too long in the soup. And let’s face it, it’s almost impossible to render a moment of surprise in a static work of art.

On the other hand, although Titian is working here on the highest level of “official” government art, the work remains solidly rendered and humanly expressive. He has not succumbed to the garish lighting and slapdash techniques of his younger contemporary Tintoretto, who also painted his share of masterpieces along the way, I guess--though they fall into that dreadful "Mannerist" category and are not represented in this show.

We walked out into the bright light of a late-winter Minneapolis morning, almost shocked at being reminded how expressive painting can be. Titian's painting doesn't tell us about Titian, so much as it re-acquaints us with the human spirit, exploring sensuality and eroticism but moving beyond them to a more subtle realm...

Hardly knowing what to do with ourselves, we had lunch at the sunny restaurant Blackbird at 38th and Nicollet(recommended). Then we rode the elevator to the top of the Foshay Tower downtown for a look out over the city. It ain’t Venice, and it ain’t New York. Breezy. No peregrines in sight. But it’s beautiful, and it’s fun.

Gee, you can see all the way to St. Paul!

Friday, March 25, 2011

We’re All Rich Now?

Reading the daily newspapers can be a source of great entertainment—though not always in ways the authors intended. I was struck the other day by an article in the Los Angeles Times reporting that the wealth of the average American household had dropped by more than $100,000 between 2007 and 2009, from $598,000 to $481,000. The figures, derived from a recent Federal reserve survey, seemed a little high to me. (Or else this household is way below average). So I went on-line to discover, in a article in CNN Money based on the same Fed survey, that median net worth in the US fell from $125,000 to $96,000 during that two-year interval. These numbers are only a fifth of the ones reported by the LA Times. I guess the differences between average and median might account for some of the discrepancy. But if a few extremely wealthy households can account for four fifths of all wealth, that’s a real story. And if they lost their shirts in the downturn, who cares?

Buried in the CNN report, and also in an article by Mark Ryabstav at the website Obama.net, was the fact that “families below the median national income in 2007 actually saw their earnings increase by 2009.” Across the board, average family income dropped by $300 a year. In other words, the average family has to get by on 82 cents less per day today than they did two years ago. The average household size is somewhat more than three, which means that on average, we’ve all been out 25 cents every day since the crash! Bummer.

Averages are worth little, I know, and anyone who’s unemployed or carrying a big mortgage is in a terrible jam. But the article in question was dealing with averages. It was using such figures to justify the use of lines like: “The numbers paint a stark picture.” and “Now, a new report has come out about just how bad Americans are hurting because of the economic crisis.” How bad? Take a close look and the answer would be: On average, not too bad.

Meanwhile, I’m having a hard time figuring out why, if those below the median increased their earnings while the earnings of those above the median declined, we keep hearing reports of a widening income gap between rich and poor.

Seriously. Any ideas?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Craving for Kale

It came over me all of a sudden, one sunny March afternoon. I really wanted to have some kale. I found a recipe on the Epicurious website for Kale and White Bean Soup. A few minutes later I was at the local grocery store loading my cart.

When I tried to weigh my bag of kale at the self-serve checkout I attracted the attention of the supervisor, a tall, middle-aged black woman with a long pony tail. She came over to investigate.

“How many bunches you got in there?” she asked, looking at me askance.

“Two,” I replied. “Two and a half, in fact. I thought they sold it by weight.”

She pushed a few buttons, clearing the screen, then pushed a few more, then entered the code for kale, which she knew by heart. When the quantity field came up she pushed “3.”

“Wait a second,” I said. “Let’s take a look.” She pulled out one, then two. There were some loose fronds in there, too. That was the “half” I was talking about. But I had to admit, when you grouped them together, they also made up a pretty robust bunch.

“You’re getting a lot of kale for 95 cents,” she said. “What are you going to do with it?”

“Eat it. I’m making a soup.” That sounded a little lame, so I added, “They say it’s good for you.”

“Tell me about it,” she replied, cracking a smile for the first time “We’ve been eating it for centuries.”

Back home I got the onions sautĂ©ing and put on a rarely-played Johnny Cash CD. As usual, I didn’t make it past the second number. Better suited to the occasion was “Jazz Jumps In: Swing This,” an anthology of classics from the early Big Band era like “East St. Louis Troodle-oo” and “Doggin’ Around,” performed by the likes of Jimmie Lunceford, Lionel Hampton, and the famous Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy (never heard of him).

I dropped in the beans and browned the slices of kielbasa in a cast iron pan. As I chopped up the kale, so crinkling and firm, I said to myself, “I could see a brontosaurus eating this.”

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday Meditation

Lent isn’t a holiday. I mean, no presents, no big meals, it isn’t much fun, giving up things and moaning and groaning about what miserable souls we’ve been. It’s more like kicking a guy when he’s down, I think, which is not a nice thing to do.

Lent caters to the masochistic turn in all of us—or is it the sadistic turn? (I can’t remember which is which.) It gets harder and harder, as the dismal season drags on, to get excited about things, and at a certain point we throw up our hands and say, “Screw this! Let’s admit it. Life stinks and I do to.” Groveling in the ashes. Shutting down.

My parents coaxed my brother and me to church week after week for years, but never on a Wednesday. And they pooh-poohed the idea of the ash mark on the forehead, probably because my mom had been raised Catholic. When she gently suggested that during Lent I might want to try giving up something, I said, “O.K. I’ll give up chewing gum.”

“But you don’t chew gum,” she said.

“Well, that will make it a lot easier.”

I think I’ve matured a bit since then. But I’m still not inclined to inflict pain on myself or anyone else for no good reason.

“But,” you may reply, “there is a good reason. Deprivation heighten sensitivity. Remove us from our toys, and we’ll start living again.” There’s a kernel of truth to that.

The thing I remember best about the Lenten season, from my “observant” years as a young Christian, is the palm cross. That was a nifty little thing they gave you, a single palm frond all twisted and wrapped into an elegant knot of shape. I would always say to myself, “This year I’m finally going to learn how they make these,” as I slowly took the cross apart. But I could never get the thing back together again.

Maybe that’s the Lenten message in a nutshell. You can never put things back together again. The Humpty-Dumpty theme. But you can try. And meanwhile, you’ve got to keep moving ahead.

P.S. While I was a hunting up the image of the palm cross, I happened upon a website that gives clear simple instructions about how to put one together. You can find them here.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cheap Winter Getaway

We got a splash of spring color at the Minneapolis Home and Garden Show the other day, arriving at the Convention Center from a distant ramp via a stretch of skyways we’d never traversed before, looking down at the cold gray streets and buildings all around. After securing our complimentary tickets at Will Call, we sauntered inside the cavernous exhibition hall, wandering past wooden gazebos, wrought-iron fences and huge walls of patio stone before we finally located the expansive booth (pictured above) of our friend Jeff Mittelmark, who’d set the tickets aside for us. Jeff designs and builds backyard water gardens, though the easiest way to see his work (aside from the website) is to visit the parking lot of the Target store at the intersection of Highways 101 and 7 in Minnetonka.

Jeff spent the winter in his basement warehouse space like a mad scientist, experimenting with various improvements to his most popular product, Rock-on-a-Roll, a sophisticated sheet of tar-paper that bends easily and looks like some sort of slate or gneiss. You spread it on the bottom of your pond or water track, add a few pebbles, boulders, and plants, and voilĂ , you’ve got a water-garden. We examined Jeff’s huge and elaborate display, sniffing the hyacinths, and discussed nurseries and water-pumps. He told us how the show was going—Thursday horrible, Friday not so bad. Evidently people come to the show from all over the Midwest, some of them staying for a few nights at a downtown hotel. “I have out-of-town customers who’ve been to the booth fifteen years in a row!” he exclaimed."They're like old friends."

“They must really like the show,” I replied. “But does anything really change from year to year?”

“Nothing! It’s exactly the same!”

“Well, I guess they must like what they see.”

“I think that’s pathetic,” Jeff replied.

From that point we headed off toward the far corners of the hall, passing a variety of flaming firepits which, for the most part, looked sadly ersatz, though I’ll bet none of them cost less than a year at an Ivy League school. It was fun to view the flowers at the Linders Nursery exhibit and wander through the Room & Board Idea House.

We passed slip-cover makers, more than a few ultra-sound sauna manufacturers, with their cute cedar-plank saunas lined up side by side along the aisle, tree-trimming companies, and Jacuzzi-makers by the dozen. The food exhibits, grouped together in the southeast corner of the hall, were offering samples of beef jerky about the size of a grain of salt and tiny pretzels that you could dip into their eighty-eight types of spicy dipping sauce. The best thing I sampled was a frozen raspberry slush laced with cayenne pepper.

Hilary bought a book about troublesome garden spots at the Minnesota Horticultural Society’s booth, and at Pella Windows we learned that the sliding door to our deck, which has fogged up a little this year for the first time, will cost maybe $5,000 to replace. (It was one of those moments when the salesman says “five to five-fifty” and for a brief instant you think $500?)

I tried out a canvas device designed to keep your back straight as you sit at a computer—it felt good but cost too much. We bypassed the free massages but I chatted with resort-owners on Wabagoon Lake in North Ontario. I mostly wanted to tell them that I’d canoed the Wabagoon River 35 years ago. They listened politely; it had probably been a slow day for them, too. I also chatted with a log-home company, asking them where they got their logs (Wisconsin Rapids) and grilling them about their home region of Park Rapids.

We stopped back to say goodbye to Jeff before we left, and on the way out, we shaved $46 off our annual newspaper subscription by signing a few forms at the Star-Tribune booth.