Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Performance for the Ages—Redman and Mehldau

It was a performance for the ages. Or at the very least (considering I don't go to that many shows) it was the best jazz performance I've seen in a long time.

Two men on stage, piano and reeds, exchanging tunes, ideas, emotions.

At one point Mehldau said with a chuckle, "This duo format is great. I can just leave him hangin'."

But Brad and Joshua were together pretty much throughout the evening, weaving a symbiotic fabric. 

Mehldau never wandered for long into the realms of introspective noodling or flashy polyrhythmic showmanship that he often likes to visit. Nor did Redman indulge in the histrionic shrieking that's been the bane of saxophonists since the mid-sixties.

As I write these words I'm reminded of a show I saw at the old Dakota years ago. Tenor David Murray and his rhythm section blew the roof off the place, in a manner of speaking. But I got the impression that they had come to an aesthetic agreement before the show. "Let's make sure that we're NEVER together, never in the same rhythm or key, never even playing the same song."   

Brad and Josh were together in ways that were musically complex yet entirely accessible. They played a few originals from their new album, Nearness; they played classic tunes by Thelonious Monk ("Let's Call This") and Sonny Rollins ("Avenir"). The played several ballads ("The Nearness of You" and another that I recognized but couldn't pin down).

When the show got started the first thing I noticed was the rich, gorgeous sound coming out of the piano—a sound I've never heard on a stereo. The soprano sax was likewise sublime, reminding me once again of one of the many reasons a live show can be so enriching. Redman's soloing was thoughtful, evenly paced, unhurried, and perhaps even a little tame in the first two numbers. The duo began to swing on the Monk tune, and on the next number (a Mehldau original that Redman was reluctant to say the name of) they were entirely up to speed.

We stayed for the second set, though they moved us to a table under the staircase at the other end of the room. This turned out to be a blessing, as we could now see Mehldau's hands and body language, whereas for the first set we could only see the top of his distant head. As I listened to his complex solos, which grew more dramatic and engaging as the evening wore on, I was occasionally reminded of Stravinsky's fragmented contrapuntal intricacies and the pounding finale to a Prokofiev sonata the name of which I've forgotten.

Though I didn't think of it at the time, in retrospect it strikes me that there was something almost Asian about the evening. Two national treasures were plumbing the depths of the jazz tradition, selflessly keeping a world of melodic improvisation aloft over the course of four hours without fuss, nonsense, or bravado, by combining a limited selection of riffs in ways that were now playful, now tender, now fierce or melancholy .

I had downloaded a few songs from Nearness a few days before the show, and I watched a YouTube video the next morning, but none of that material quite approached the rich sound, intense presence, and  mutual concentration and inventiveness of the real thing.

Besides, when you're on the spot, you have no choice but to listen.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Art from Sweden

We attended a Harvest-fest in the town of Finland, Minnesota, the other day. I don't know what they harvest up there in the woods, and the local band didn't even include an accordion!

Returning home, I found myself briefly immersed in Swedish culture.  

A Man Called Ove, a new film by Hannes Holm based on the (Swedish) best-seller by Fredrik Backman,  tells the tale of an aged grouch at a residential development who is no longer the manager but can't resist criticizing everyone for slight infractions of the compound's rules. His demeanor is dour and his comments are abrasive. Nobody likes him and we don't either. The film is littered with minor domestic incidents, serious accidents, touching moments, a few attempted suicides, and a house fire or two, during which we get to know some of his neighbors at the housing development, and especially an Iranian woman named Parvaneh who blithely ignores his gruff exterior and soon has him babysitting her two young children. We also learn about his long-time friend Rune, with whom Ove had a dispute years earlier that turned into a serious rift. You see, Ove will only drive a Saab, while Rune prefers a Volvo. Interspersed with these episodic scenes are a series of lengthy flashbacks during which we learn something about Ove's early life, and especially how he met his remarkably charming wife Sonja (recently deceased).

It all adds up to an attractive, well-fashioned tale about a fairly unattractive man. He doesn't have a heart of gold, but as it turns out, he does, at least, have a heart.

Hannes Holm was in attendance at the screening, and he said a few words after the film. "I've been hearing about Minnesota since I was a boy," he said at one point, "and now I've finally got here."

He also mentioned that A Man Called Ove ranks as the third-highest grossing Swedish-language film in history.

After the screening I ran into Holm sitting with Susan Smoluchowski and a gentleman in a suit from the American Swedish Institute at a table in front of Pracna on Main and I couldn't help butting in to ask him what the two top-ranking films might be.

"Fanny and Alexander?" No.

"My Life as a Dog?" No.

"Sven Klang's Combo?" NO. But he couldn't remember. I later determined that The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out a Window is tops. But that's as far as I got.

In The Invoice, Swedish novelist Jonas Karlsson presents us with a fable along the lines of Patrick Suskind's The Pigeon and Julien Barnes's The Hedgehog, namely, a short book with a short title and a single guiding concept. Karlsson tries to imagine what it would be like if everyone were billed by an international organization on the basis of the quality of their experiences, rather than their income, with the revenue redistributed to victims of floods, earthquakes, civil disorder, disease, and so on.

The nameless protagonist, whom we'll call Ingvar, is a young single male who lives alone, works part-time in a video shop, and spends his evenings eating take-out food and watching films. His only friend, Roger, stops in at the video store from time to time to help him eat his lunch, but otherwise offers little in the way of conversation or companionship. When Ingvar receives his "bill," he tosses it into the trash. He hasn't paid much attention to the publicity surrounding the government initiative and the sum is absurdly high. After the third or fourth notice arrives, he comes to recognize that the bill is actually meant for him, but he's confident there's been some mistake, and he spends the rest of the book trying to find out what's really going on.

This quest soon leads to a contact in the bureau named Maud, with whom Ingvar spends lots of time on the phone—to his delight. He also makes several visits to bureau headquarters, where executives attempt to demonstrate, using psychological profiles and a bulging file of data regarding the details of his private life, that Ingvar's been a lot happier than he thinks over the years. The time has come to pay up.

Trouble is, Ingvar hasn't got any money. He makes an  effort to recall distressing and hitherto overlooked episodes in hopes of getting his bill renegotiated, but when the facts are fed into the relevant algorhythms, the invoice only climbs higher.

There is a certain mild interest to the concept undergirding this narrative. It raises interesting questions about the degree to which status, money, and social engagement relate to happiness. But Ingvar's telephone conversations with his caseworker, Maud, are what keep the story lively. Karlsson weaves in one or two details from Ingvar's film-watching life to add complexity to this budding relationship, and it saves the book in a way I wouldn't want to describe here.

In the end, many readers will remain unconvinced that Ingvar is really all that happy. If not, then somebody did make a mistake. And in any case, why should someone have to pay for having been born with a copacetic disposition? Wouldn't it be better to assign him some sort of community service, considering that money doesn't seem to buy happiness anyway?         

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

U.S. Open—Stan the Black Socks

Tennis is as much about personality as it is about performance. We like one player or another ... just because. Many fell in love with Roger Federer due to his suavity—not to mention his skills on the court. And many took to Nadal because of his boyish determination. Murray developed a small following due to his Scottish working-class grimacing and grit. And Djokovic ... I'm not sure the fans have ever really warmed to him much.

I had the pleasure of watching quite a few matches during the U.S. Open, due to the fact that I have some free time and the matches are broadcast for free online at  Even the top matches, normally reserved for paying subscribers to ESPN, could be viewed free if you were willing to hear the commentary in Spanish or turn off the sound.

Taking advantage of this avenue of ingress, I got to know an entirely new tier of athletes, including the Australian Kyrgios, whom I would call "the slouch." It's well-known that he doesn't really like to play tennis and would quit if he happened to win a three-million-dollar jackpot. 

The Canadian Roanic was forced to retire early in the tournament due to illness, but I had already pegged him as a rising force—a clean-cut, good-natured player with an odd, wavy head of thick black hair and a strangely robotic serve who was dedicated to improving from match to match. (He's currently ranked 6th or 7th in the world, so there is nothing astonishingly astute in my assessment.)

The match between Nadal and the unheralded Frenchman Pouille was a masterpiece, or an agonizing slog. Most of the crowd expected that the ever-tenacious but aging Nadal would somehow pull it out, and he was ahead 4-2 in the fifth set, but Pouille hung in there and won the final tie-breaker 7-5. He never faltered, never lost his nerve, and in the end, he played the better match.

Pouille lost in the next round to fellow-Frenchman Monfils, a goofball if ever there was one. I didn't see that match. But I did watch Monfils lose to Djokovic. Hot and humid, both players were exhausted by the third set. Monfils had decided to counter Djokovic's all-embracing skill-set with slice backhands and other disconcertingly tame responses, and he actually won a set by such means. 
But Djokovic adjusted his game and cleared the table in four.

Coming into the final, Stan Wawrinka had played roughly twice as much tennis as Novak Djokovic. Was that good or bad? Djokovic was the obvious favorite, but Warinka had one remarkable statistic in his favor: he rarely reached a final, but once he had done so, his record was 10-0.

Wawrinka is a sort of bizarro counterpart to his countryman Federer. He isn't suave—though both players use a one-handed backhand (like me). He sports a three-day beard. His nose is red, his shirt is a garish purple, and his shoes and his socks are black. Ugg! In short, he looks sort of like a flat-footed clod. But by all accounts, he's very modest—a true gentleman—and he displayed that noble character in his acceptance speech after winning the match.

So, Wawrinka ought to be the Everyman tennis hero. He's won three slams, the same as Murray—though also the same as Adrian Quist, James Anderson, Gerald Patterson, Norman Brookes, Gustavo Kuerten, Jan Kodes, Jaroslav Drobny, Arthur Gore, Wilfred Baddeley, Ellsworth Vines, Jack Kramer, Neale Fraser, William Johnston, Malcolm Whitman, and Oliver Campbell. (My first "good" racket was a Wilson 'Jack Kramer.')

Wouldn't it be nice if even more journeyman players broke into the ranks of the Grand Slam elite?

But watching the matches more closely on ESPN3 reminds me that nothing is given, nothing is assured, and the numbers you read in the morning paper—6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2—are far less than a skeleton of the energy expended on EVERY SINGLE POINT. 

The players on the court know this.

In the U.S. Open final, Wrawrinka won by three sets to one. But in the aggregate,  he won only one more point than Djokovic, 144 to 143. The clincher lay in break points—where you have the opportunity to win a game when your opponent is serving. Wawrinka won 6 of 10 (amazing). Djokovic won only 3 of 17 (very poor indeed).

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Our State Fair

Cool dry air and an early arrival made this the most colorful state fair in recent memory. Luminescent green, orange, yellow, blue, and  red summer outfits, not to mention the balloons and jew jaws for sale at the souvenir stands.

There was no line at the Larpenteur lot when we arrived at 8:30, and we got a huge entry discount just for showing a library card.  

From the northern entry you can start the day with a visit to the antique tractors followed by an order of walleye cakes at Giggle's Campfire Grill; walk through Ron Sharra's nearby north woods t-shirt shop for a bit more outdoor ambiance, and then head over to the Art Building, which has just opened and is not yet crammed with people.

Fantasy artworks in pastel colors are long out of fashion, and so, it seems, are enormous collages made of images cut from old glossy magazines. Images of old junk cars and grain elevators seem also to have lost their caché, though you're still going to see many carefully wrought images of mournful or frisky pets, photos of collapsing barns and farmhouses, and self-portraits of troubled individuals of every age and gender. No art show would be complete without a few complex watercolors of flowers, and also one or two with less conventional subjects, such as this year's "De-icing the Delta 747."

Perhaps the most effective of the "concept" pieces was a sculpture of a reclining woman crafted entirely from piano parts (see above). Two of the black-and-white photos that made the cut were interesting in part simply because they were so big. One, maybe 4 x 4 feet, was an image of a cliff and beach on the North Shore, sort of close up. The other, roughly the same size, was a photo taken at ground level of a little girl drawing something in chalk on the sidewalk in from of First Avenue in memory of Prince. Both photos had wonderful clarity, contrast, and balance.

There were also two large aerial color photos of winter scenes in which the snow formed a uniform white background against which very small figures were ice fishing or dragging inner tubes up a hill. The patterns were as interesting as the perspective. But would that interest last?

The things I liked most tended to be free and easy, unconcerned with perfection or scope or clever concept. Here are a few examples, marred by reflections from the glass.

The pastel "Evanescence" by John A. Finkler was a breath of fresh air after a long wall of serious and meticulous pieces.

The photo "Tape Traces" by Paul W. Stapp had "depth" -- that is, the depth between the window glass with tape and the curtain behind it, which was a lovely pale green that doesn't reproduce well here.

A crow by Stanley Leonard was one of several nice woodcuts in the show.

"Lap Swimmer" by Mary Scrimgeour was simple but not dull. The sky, the water, the building facade, the palms all have character and dimension. And it could be hanging in your sun room for $1800.

And this rich pastel by Lisa Staufer also caught my eye -- especially the pale green on the details just under the roof-line. (I'm sure there's an architectural term for that.)

I liked this photo of a tackle-box by Steve Lang, just because. And I don't even fish!

And this watercolor by Susan Rupp caught my eye, and held onto it.

There were 126,354 people at the fair the day we went, so I guess it's not surprising that we ran into a few that we knew. We chatted with Lucinda Anderson in the Education Building, where she was tending the Montessori booth. She filled us in on a few of her daughter's adventures as a fledgling music producer in New Orleans. And down at the MELSA booth in front of the grandstand we said hi to Barb Taylor and Loretta Garrity, old colleagues and friends of Hilary's. 

An hour later, we bumped into another buddy, Dave Stevens, in the Agriculture Building. He was escorting an old family friend from Switzerland out of the Minnesota brewery wing of the spoke-like building, I think. They were feeling jolly as we shared our latest Scandinavian literary enthusiasms, and I urged him to acquaint his Swiss friend with the local crop art on display down another wing nearby. They don't make things like that in Zurich, I think.

The music wasn't bad. We listened to a trio from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra play a sprightly piece by Haydn and an astringent but interesting arrangement of Hungarian folk tunes by Zoltan Kodály in from of the grandstand. The Villa-Lobos number didn't fare well in the gusty weather and we moved on to the chicken barn and the all-you-can-drink milk truck. It used to be a quarter; now it's $2! 

A few minutes later we found some shade on a covered swing where we were joined by a salesman from Paso Robles, California. He told us all about the fairs in Texas and California, and about how the company got started, before finally letting us know—well, that was his job—that the swing we were sitting on cost $2699. "At our first fair, in Reno, we sold seven in a week and thought we were riding high," he said. "Here it wouldn't be unusual for us to sell fifty in a day."

We ambled up the hill to the Leinenkugel Lodge Bandshell in time to hear some Texas Swing performed by the Quebe Sisters. We also caught a ballad or two by the Irish Brigade at nearby International Market Square. At the other end of the long covered bazaar a young man was playing Russian folk tunes on an accordion he could hardly lift.

And then we went home. With a brief stop in the Food Building for a tasty fish taco along the way.

I have condensed six hours of rambling here into a few rambling paragraphs, neglecting to mention the political booths, the handicraft building, the rock display at the geological society booth, the stuffed animals in the DNR building, or the wonderful Eco-building, where well-informed state employees and volunteers told us about air quality issues and the little bugs that thrive in clean water. One woman there recommended that we prune the dead branches out of our maple trees. Another recommended that we clean out our chimney, which hasn't received much attention in thirty years.

Good idea.