Saturday, May 28, 2016

Easy Living

Among the generation of alto saxophonists who came of age during the 1950s none was smoother, and few were more consistently inventive, than Paul Desmond. His feathery tone no doubt seemed bland to fans of Jackie McLean or Charlie “Bird” Parker (who died in 1955) but  to a neophyte like me, who came to jazz in the late-1960s, the cuts on Parker’s albums were invariably short, and many of them sounded like they’d been bootlegged off of radio broadcasts.

I’d gotten to know Desmond by way of Dave Brubeck records, though Brubeck struck me as a pounder, and I found Desmond’s collaborations with guitarist Jim Hall more appealing. On the album Easy Living, this duo reached a pinnacle of sustained lyricism that strikes me as extraordinary even today.

Part of the strength of this collection lies in the playlist: “Polkadots and Moonbeans,” “Easy Living,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “Autumn in New York,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” among other standards. At the time, I’d never heard vocal versions of any of these tunes, and therefore didn’t know the words—or the titles. Even today I have a hard time identifying some of the pieces by name, but considered in the aggregate, the album contains a wealth of melodic material and harmonic “changes” on the basis of which Desmond and Hall exchanged some delightfully varied improvisations.

I also liked the album cover. I knew it was kitsch—really, I did!—but all the same, the glamorous woman (reclining) in green sequined dress, the bottle of wine, the grapes, and the leopard-skin rug fit the mood of the album: unabashedly mainstream, relaxed but inventive, inspired but never frenzied.

In promotional photos, Desmond, balding and heavily bespectacled, looked more like an accountant than a late-night improviser, but at the time this wasn’t uncommon, and it seemed to fit his groove. On the other hand, the few pages of his autobiography that have survived in manuscript are filled with wry humor and understated brilliance. For example, he was both a heavy drinker and a chain smoker, but when his doctor  informed Desmond that he had lung cancer, he replied drolly that he was glad to hear his liver was still in pretty good shape.

If any fault is to be found with Easy Living, and with Desmond’s aesthetic more generally speaking, it lies in the consistently even tempos, the seductively feathery tone, and the absence of dynamic range. The same thing might be said of the theme Easy Living ostensibly advances. We may relish the notion of a dreamy life of ease and pleasure, but it’s likely that if such a thing were to fall into our laps, we’d soon become bored and irascible. Life, like music, needs an edge.

Is that really true? And if so, how much of an edge is required? I guess it depends on your temperament. The novelist Valeria Luiselli spoke for many when she remarked, “I’ve never been among that class of people—whom I greatly envy—capable of losing themselves in pensive contemplation of a bird in flight [or] the industrious coming and going of ants.” She describes herself as “too impatient to find poetry in nature’s gentle rhythms.”

I'm of the opposite persuasion, as even occasional readers of this blog might have noticed. I can spend quite a bit of time examining the shape of various leaves in the nearby woods from a position on the deck twenty feet away, taking pleasure in the form and color of each species though I don’t know what many of them are. I find it remarkable that the same plants return again and again to the nearby garden, sprouting magically from the ground in more or less the same place they were a year ago. And watching one of our resident chipmunks nibble his way down the branch of the pagoda dogwood can take up half the morning.

But such enterprises have their limits. And of course there's usually work to do. This morning I found myself with one major book project awaiting final approval from the client, another on hold. I wasn’t inclined to get started on yet a third. (Too much detail for this weary brain.) I made a trip to the farmers’ market, returning home with some eggplants and yellow bell peppers. I cleaned up the kitchen, and by 9 a.m. I was sitting in the den, deep into the letters of Pliny the younger, wherein he describes (for example)  how he fills his leisure hours.
I have spent these several days past, in reading and writing, with the most pleasing tranquility imaginable. You will ask, “How that can possibly be in the midst of Rome?” It was the time of celebrating the Circensian games; an entertainment for which I have not the least taste. They have no novelty, no variety to recommend them, nothing, in short, one would wish to see twice. It does the more surprise me therefore that so many thousand people should be possessed with the childish passion of desiring so often to see a parcel of horses gallop, and men standing upright in their chariots. If, indeed, it were the swiftness of the horses, or the skill of the men that attracted them, there might be some pretense of reason for it. But it is the dress they like; it is the dress that takes their fancy.
But suddenly it all seems a little odd. And odder still to be describing now how I fill my leisure hours, for the pleasure and edification of some unknown reader with too much time on his or her hands.

Yes, the notion of easy living has a long, if spotty, history. From the beginning leisure and scholarship have been intimately intertwined, and in Roman times Stoics and Epicureans debated where the balance ought to lie between otium (peaceful leisure) and negotium (the combative world of politics and the market place). And the pastoral ideal—an individual or a young couple tending sheep on the bucolic mountain slopes—has been a favorite trope of poets, if not of working folk. Daphnis and Chloe epitomize the genre. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga once compared that clutch of images to a second template—chivalric deeds done in service of a high-born lady—and found it inferior. After all, he reasoned, the chivalric ideal inspired durable institutions such as the tournament and the Knights Templar, some of which are still in existence, while, in his view, the pastoral tradition was never much more than an idle fantasy.

But such a judgment rests on the dubious assumption that only events significant enough to appear in the historical record--events that move "civilization" ahead--have real value. It strikes me, on the contrary, that many of the institutions the development of which we celebrate at national holidays were designed to preserve and extend a range of values that are ahistorical in nature. Thomas Jefferson’s most famous phrase—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—has sent echoes throughout the developing world time and again since it was written and proclaimed 250 years ago, but it refers less to a civic ideal or specific bricks-and-mortar institutions than to a condition of peace, domestic tranquility, and recreation that’s largely personal and familial.

Yet how can we be the least bit interested in such things when images of urban devastation in Kabul or Aleppo flood the nightly news? It’s because this dimension of living is precisely what’s being trampled underfoot in those cities, and many others, in the name of a violent crusading ideal.

Art gives us a better view of that world—the world of easy living—than does historical analysis or the nightly news. Even the histories of daily life that have become popular in recent decades concern themselves largely with norms and habits, hardly touching upon the unique kernels of affection, joy, humor, and fellow-feeling that so often animate private life.

Though it ought not to be considered a retreat from or substitute for political engagement or social service, easy living remains, I think, an essential element of mature living, and one to which we too often give short shrift. We can talk about Bernie and Hillary, global warming and "too-big-to-fail" only so long before the air in the room gets stale. Desmond’s sinuous improvisational lines trace a multitude of paths through a more pleasant and no less authentic domain.

And as long as I've wandered this far down such these avenues of musical nostalgia and philosophical insignificance, I might as well continue on and mention that the words to the song "Easy Living," banal though they may be, expose what makes such a condition "easy."
 Living for you, is easy living.
It’s easy to live when you’re in love.
And, I’m so in love,
There’s nothing in life, but you.
I’ll never regret the years I’m giving.
They’re easy to give when you’re in love.
I’m happy to do whatever I do, for you.
For you...maybe I’m a fool, but it’s fun.
People say you rule me with one wave of your hand.
Darling, it’s grand.
They just don’t understand.
Being in love? That's a subject for an extended essay, not a paragraph. The array of people and things to which we can direct our affections is potentially vast, though such sparks of connection are often involuntary and not always easy. Whether it be spending time with our dearest loved ones, reading a new book about Goethe, sharing a celebratory dinner with friends, or examining a boulder covered with moss deep in the woods, an ineffable afflatus elevates us and moves us forward toward we know not what. Lucky us.

"... maybe I'm a fool, but it's fun!"

Billy Holiday recorded "Easy Living" in 1938, but her rendering, as usual, has a melancholy strain. Among the many other vocal versions available, which range in tone from a wistful Peggie Lee to an upbeat Bryan Ferry, let me recommend the boyish and exuberant one that the Coasters released in 1957. It's a lot of fun.

In the end, there is no “theme” underlying Paul Desmond’s now largely-forgotten album. It’s a collection of inspired improvisations on a few standards from an earlier era still, and it might just as well have been called “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” or “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

This is jazz, this is art, and it may be mellow, but wasn’t all that easy to produce. If it were, everyone would have been doing it.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Art-a-Whirl Advice

Billed as the largest neighborhood art crawl in the United States, Art-a-Whirl is a three-day event spread across several square miles of Northeast Minneapolis. It incorporates a number of converted industrial buildings and warehouses with names like Grain Belt, Pillsbury, and Northrup King as well as quite a few smaller studios, galleries, shops, micro-breweries, food trucks, and ad hoc performance spaces.

If you want to have fun at Art-a-Whirl, take my advice: start early and focus on the smaller buildings.

The advantage of starting early is that it's still light out and the outdoorsy, neighborhood feel of the event rings out. The advantage of smaller buildings is that they're not unpleasantly labyrinthine.

We started our tour at the Casket Arts complex. We parked in the parking lot right next to the building and wandered into an expansive ceramic tile studio by way of the back door. We spent an hour or more exploring the light-filled halls of the building, passing all sorts of machinery as well as galleries lined with wood-block prints and oil paintings.

The building has high ceilings and a spacious feel.

We passed jeweler's studios and lithography presses, spoke to wood-carvers about the local walnut and painters about the effects to be gotten from mixing oils with bee's wax.  Snacks and wine were widely available.

My favorite painting was by Linda Seebauer Hansen (see above) who told me she mostly does jewelry. I was also impressed by the work of Eyenga Bokamba (see top).

I took one look at the work of Emily Gray Koehler, and said, "We were in a gallery somewhere in the Upper Peninsula ..."

"Calumet?" she replied.

"That might have been it. And the manager there had some very nice woodblock prints done by his niece, who had recently moved to Minneapolis..."

"That would be me."

"I thought so." 

Hilary bought a few of Emily's note cards, and her husband handed her a sticker that said "I bought art." 

A band was playing in the studio next door. It was good.

And naturally enough, in a city of three million people, we ran into our next-door neighbor and his girlfriend in one of the third-floor studios.

There was more art on view in the carriage house behind the old casket warehouse, and in the broad gravel courtyard a woman was painting a large, dead, upended tree trunk green. It was a beautiful evening, and I felt like I was out in the country somewhere rather than in the heart of the city.

A taco stand had been set up on the far side of courtyard, but we bought a jerk pork sandwich from a food truck out closer to the street. As we stood eating this dinner supplement, I spotted artist-friends Meleah (writer) and Mike (web-designer-turned-metal-sculptor) heading off down the sidewalk with purposeful strides.

We drove a few blocks to the Jackson Flats building, a new, government-subsidized apartment building restricted to bona fide artists near Central Avenue. Our niece, Liza, lives there, and we wanted to say hello and also see some of her new work. She'll be heading to Illinois in a few weeks with partner Luis and son Ellis, where all three of them hope to further their budding careers.

While we were at Liza's studio we chatted with a woman who works at the Como Zoo and has developed an interesting relationship with the orangutans there.

We also swapped some opinions about local restaurants with a tattoo artist who does most of his economic transactions by barter. He was a nice fellow, but he seemed unusually excited about evading taxes, considering that he was living in a tax-subsidized apartment. (Well, that's an old fogy comment if ever there was one. I tend to forget that back when I was living la vie boheme, I once got $4,000 in relocation money from the government for moving out of a shared apartment with a $150 monthly rent. It financed our first trip to France!) 

"If I ever decide to get a tattoo, you're my guy," I said as we left.

By this time my knees were sore from standing around, and I'd had enough art for one evening, but as we were leaving the neighborhood—it was now dark—I spotted the Thorpe Building, or what I thought was the Thorpe Building.

"I think the studio of the guy who did that drawing--you know, the one I'm thinking of using on that book cover--is in that building," I said.

"Well, there's a parking spot right there on the street," Hilary observed. It was too good to pass up.

The doors on the building's loading dock were open, and as we approached I could hear someone inside pounding on a trap set, loudly. Just inside the main door we passed a TV studio where techies were throwing up video effects behind middle-aged people doing karaoke routines. Men and women were passing back and forth through the halls, perhaps a little wilder in appearance than the ones we'd seen at Casket Arts. Perhaps a little more drunk.

I located a directory and got a second-floor studio number which sent us down a very long hall where all the doors were shut and stairs were nowhere in sight. As we walked the drumming grew fainter, which was nice, but I wasn't sure we were getting anywhere until we met up with a man just closing his studio.

When I mentioned the name of the artist we were looking for--Scott Helmes--the man said, "I think he's over in the Thorpe Building. You can see it here out the window. There's a tunnel, but it might be easier to go out and around."

"But I thought this was Thorpe Building."

Another hundred yards of twisting hallway and we were once again out on the street. But which street? I had no idea. It was a major thoroughfare, much more open than Broadway. For an instant I felt like I'd passed through a space warp and emerged in Detroit. It was an oddly pleasant feeling.

The sound of drumming once again filled the air, but these were African drums. A small crowd of people was standing around in a parking lot across the busy street near a food truck with a white canvas awning.

I was still groping for my inner sense of north and south when I spotted Diamonds Coffee Shop. Of course. Central Avenue.

Taking a narrow stairway next to the coffee-shop entrance we reached the studio at long last. The sign on the door said "Hours: Saturday 3 to 5."

 *    *    *

We did venture out again on Saturday but we steered well clear of the Thorpe Building. We visited the Pillsbury A Mill (too swanky and corporate) and the California Building (nice studios and quite a bit of hard-core traditional oil painting on display.)

There was an art glass studio on the sixth floor and a woman making note cards on a Platten press on the first. Among my favorite artists was Donna Bruni, whose studio happened to be the last one we visited.

To judge from these brief remarks, it would seem that my tastes run from slightly stylized, boldly colored woodcuts of animals and natural phenomena to subtle abstractions. As for the middle ground, realistic landscapes, they also appeal to me, but they rarely satisfy for long.

Stepping out into the cool evening air of Northeast Minneapolis, I was once again struck by how easy it is to love the outdoors, but how hard to capture its evanescent moods on film or canvas.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Down South - Up North

"Why not think of something special we can do for your birthday?"

This is a tough question to answer when daily life so often seems a little supercharged. After all, we had just gotten back from a three-day improvisatory ramble through the valleys of southeastern Minnesota, though, to be perfectly accurate, we veered into Wisconsin on day one to have lunch at Gelly's in Stockholm.

We've driven through Stockholm countless times on our way to the Harbor View in nearby Pepin, but I'd never noticed this unprepossessing restaurant before, nor the towering but defunct Texaco sign out front. We might have passed it by once again but Hilary has recently gotten a smart-phone and she noticed it on a Trip Advisor listing. It ranked fourth of four...but no matter.

The food was pretty good. There were a few vintage aprons hanging in the window. "I don't want people to think this is a biker bar," Rebecca told us as she brought me my BLT.

Rebecca herself discovered the sleepy town on the back of her husband's Harley during one of the annual flood runs that have brought bikers to the area since in 1965. The couple bought a few acres outside of town, and when they split up, she got the real estate. She more recently bought the café we were sitting in, and also the dilapidated hotel down the street.

She's going to change the name of the café to Lena's Lucky Star, she told us. She thinks it's better suited to a café with a Texaco Star out front in a town named Stockholm. I have half a mind to send her an email recommending that to heighten the Nordic effect, she ought to offer a cold plate of Ingebretsen's leverpostej with herring and beets on toast.

In the subsequent hours we wandered the valleys and roamed the bluffs of the Mississippi Valley, eventually camping on the edge of the fields at Frontenac State Park where we sat in camp chairs watching the warblers drift through.

The Minnesota parks system has changed their protocols, and this led to the odd situation of me calling an 800 number to reserve a campsite while sitting in the park.

"We're set up at site 37," I told the young man who answered the phone. "Frontenac State Park."

"Frontenac? I'll check and see what's available," he said. "Do you want hook-ups or a primitive site?"

"Like I said, we're set up in site 37."

"OK. I'll see if that's available."

"The park is deserted!"

"It's coming up now. Let's see. Wow. Everything appears to be wide open."

"Like I said..."

There was something comical about the exchange, but when it was over, and I'd given the man my credit card number to secure the site, it occurred to me it had been easier and taken less time than driving back down to the ranger's office would have. It occurred to me only later that someone might have reserved site 37 in advance, sight unseen.

Bad news: the orchard oriole has not returned to the apple tree across the road from the campground host. Good news: we were wandering the fields at dusk when a black-billed cuckoo emerged from the heavy growth of a tree five feet above our heads. He sat there so long, oblivious to our presence, that we decided to leave him in peace and walked on.

The next morning at Whitewater State Park Hilary spotted a peregrine falcon high on the cliffs, and we chatted at length there with a ranger and her son about the fauna of the area.

The blue-winged warbler appeared once again at his favorite fork in the road at Forestville State Park. Plenty of yellow warblers, but precious few red starts. And the bluebells down in the bottomlands of the Root River were oddly sparse.

Well, every year is different. The weather had been mostly gray, mostly cool. Serious rain had been predicted for our second night out, so we rented one of the new camper cabins at Forestville. That was different, in a nice way.

We returned home with 82 birds on our list, an average year: orioles everywhere, soaring pelicans and squawking sandhill cranes, a dazzling red-headed woodpecker, a brash brown thrasher, and several plump white-crowned sparrows among the sightings.

Do something special? With memories of such verdure still vivid, the only thing I could think of by way of new adventures was this: let's go to Duluth!

Friday, May 6, 2016

Six Characters in Search of an Author - Park Square Theater

It's a play I have always wanted to see. It's a landmark of modernist literature, but I knew I'd never read it. The new Wonderlust production updates the premise by incorporating elements of reality TV to the narrative. Though I haven't seen the original version, I can say that this one works. It's firing on all cylinders, and I suspect the lines of interaction pulling the two dramas together heighten many of Pirandello's original effects.

Premise? Effects? The central conceit of the original play involves a theatrical rehearsal that's disrupted by the arrival of six characters who are not in the production. They announce that they're from a different play that's never been completed. They're searching for an author to bring their stories to completion.

In the current adaptation, a director is preparing for the final episode of a Reality TV show called "The Maze," which is to be filmed live in a few hours. The three remaining contestants, having avoided elimination in previous episodes, are characterized by their colleagues as the Dude, the Jerk, and the Flirt. They've gotten on one another's nerves in the course of their many weeks spent inside the Maze, and their repartee tends to be shallow and cutting, but they're all determined to bear one another's company long enough to win the million dollar prize money.

When these strangers from a distant era unexpectedly arrive, things begin to get interesting. Is this just another test to winnow out the remaining contestants? The director claims not. The stories this family of misfits tell about one another, and their bizarre need to reconnect with an author—any author—is one curve ball too many.

The director of "The Maze" insists he can't help them. He's not a writer. His show doesn't have a script. That's the whole point. It's "real." But the intruders show no signs of leaving the set, and as they argue with one another about who did what to whom, and when, he decides there might be some material there he can use.

The intruders are relieved to find someone finally taking an interest in their plight, but they're dismayed when they discover that although the director plans to use their stories, they won't be acting the parts themselves. At this point the challenge of reconciling divergent points of view and separating "reality" from commercialized cant grows greater still.

Considered on their own terms, the fragmentary details we learn about the family drama are melodramatic, while the characters holding "The Maze" together are basically clueless, but these two very imperfect worlds inexplicably seem to illuminate one another, and the addition of multiple TV screens and twitter feeds on the set further heighten the razzmatazz. 

The actors are uniformly competent. There are sometimes eight or ten people on stage at the same time, engaged in several conversations simultaneously, and it's clear that a good deal of effort was spent on perfecting the play's timing.

I left the theater pondering the issues Pirandello had in mind when he wrote it: What makes a character "real"? Is a life ultimately defined by its best or its worst moment? Are the impressions we form of others a part of their character, or of ours?

But for the most part, I was simply amused by the non-stop flood of ironies, intricacies, jokes and jibes, encased within a challenging but eventually coherent plot. In short, a modern classic, successfully post-modernized. 

*   *   *

We were invited to a pre-performance meet-and-greet sponsored by Rain Taxi Magazine, and we enjoyed chatting with Eric Lorberer, who introduced us to one of the play's managers. We also chatted with Paul Von Drasek, a retired sales rep from Penguin Books who shared some tales about the security issues the publisher faced during the Salman Rushdie era. An old friend from the Writers' Union, Alicia Conroy, was also in the crowd. She's teaching the play in her literature class at Normandale Community College, and she filled us in on how the new production compares with the original.

I think that may have helped.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Most Beautiful Day of the Year

In reflecting on  whether any given day is the most beautiful of the year, a number of factors need to be taken into consideration. One that's often overlooked is the present-ness of the day in question. 

Two days ago the leaves on the trees were a more tender yellow-green, perhaps, and the aroma of blossoming fruit trees a little stronger in the air, but today is hardly less outstanding, and it has the added virtue of being here, now, to be enjoyed.

The other day, Hilary and I were out in the front yard pulling dandelions, she on the ground using a little garden fork, and I standing as I plunged a metal tool with six nails at the end down around a clump of weeds, again and again.

A car pulled up alongside us and a young man got out. He had a scruffy beard and was wearing a faded blue T- shirt.   

"So, I might as well ask," he said. "How do you like the neighborhood?"

"Are you thinking of buying that house across the street?" I said. (It's been for sale for months.)

"No, I'm trying to sell it."

"Well, we've lived here for thirty years. I guess we must like the neighborhood."

"I believe you. I used to live nearby, at 27th and Xerxes."

"Yeah, it's nice over there," I replied, "but you don't have all the woods just down the street. We get turkeys, deer, fox, raccoons. But maybe you get those things, too."

We talked for a while, and then another car pulled up—a young couple, the woman holding a baby. We returned to the dandelions, they greeted the realtor and the three of them went inside.

Just then our neighbor from across the street came over holding a large tool—his new weed-puller.

"I had one like yours," he said, "but it broke. I couldn't find another one so I went on line and got this hunker from Amazon. Wanna try it?"

"Sure." It was effective, if slightly less delicate in its treatment of the grass and soil surrounding the weeds.

We talked about summer camping—they have a trailer, we have a tent—and I told him  about the battle that's been raging in our front yard between a rabbit and a crow. (I haven't seen the crow lately, though the rabbit is still a familiar presence, and not the least bit skittish.) At that moment I spotted a cooper's hawk, flying low to the ground, cross the street a few houses down.

Hilary was steadfast in her weeding duties, but I gave myself a break from time to time. The dialectical of doing and not-doing is one that I enjoy. I would mow the parcel of grass we'd just cleared, then cut off a branch of the nearby spruce tree, which has been laying on the ground for years. Having committed the branch to the trash bin, it occurred to me that the local rabbit might not approve of this new breezeway I'd created.

The grass looks delicate these days, like fine strands of beautiful green hair. Maybe due to youth and the recent rains.

At one point it rained for ninety seconds while we were working, but for the most part, the clouds were well spaced and bounteous. A gentle breeze was blowing, and I was wishing I had shorts on.

The prospective buyers soon emerged from the house. I said hi to the woman with the baby as she got into the car, and she relaxed a little and returned the greeting.

I doubt if we'll be seeing them again.

I got to thinking about the era when we moved in here, next door to Cliff and Jan. He worked for the phone company, she volunteered at the U of M Landscape Arboretum, a good thirty miles from here. She used to bring us plants, some of which are still thriving. They both died long ago.

Once she brought me a little forsythia, and when I thanked her, she said, "Don't thank me for the plant. Thank me for the work of digging it up." I never understood that.

They had no children. They went bowling every Tuesday during league season. Sometimes they went fishing on Lake Michigan. He used to play recordings of the Vienna Boys Choir out the window every night at Christmas time.

Due to her connections with the arboretum, Jan was given one of the earliest hardy redbuds in the region, before it was considered hardy enough to put on the market. Though it lost a major trunk a few years ago, it's still thriving on the corner of her house next to our driveway.

We ought to call this "redbud season."