Saturday, June 24, 2017

Musical Events

Every year the Center for Irish Music brings in luminaries from across the Pond to give workshops and deliver a final low-key evening at Celtic Junction. We attended the concert, where the camaraderie that  often develops in the course of such multi-day events was evident. There were lots of kids there. They're the ones taking lessons and participating in workshops. And there were lots of old timers in the crowd, too, many of whom obviously knew each other.

The performers appeared one after another on stage to do a few solo numbers, telling us before each tune what county it came from and where they picked it up. Modesty abounded, and I heard phrases "It goes something like this..." and "We'll give it a try..." more than once or twice. 

Each of these mini-sets was preceded by a good-natured but perhaps overlong introduction from the M.C.and a pitch for donations. After all, a number of the students present had their hearts set on participating in upcoming competitions in Ireland, and they needed the money.

John Carty, selected as  Traditional Musician of the Year by Irish radio's TG4 in 2003, delivered a succession of spritely fiddle tunes. Tall Colm O'Donnell—farmer, sheep-herder, bard—sang a few traditional numbers a capella, while swinging his lanky arms back and forth on stage. Then James Kelly arrived with his fiddle to do a few tunes. Following a beer break, Méabh Ní Bheaglaoich offered us some of her singing, story-telling, and accordion-playing, and Detroit native Sean Gavin squeezed some evocative sounds out of his uilleann pipes.

Then all five performers appeared on stage for a few ensemble numbers.

Those who know the music well were no doubt enthralled by subtle variations in the jigs and reels. For myself, I was carried along by the intricate energy of the fast ones and moved by the haunting sorrow of the slow ones, while remaining clueless about the formal or historical significance of any of it.

A few days later we wandered down with friends to a flamenco performance by Sachiko “La Chayí” at the Icehouse on Nicollet Avenue.  Long familiar to local aficionados due to her choreography commissions and her work with  Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre, Sachiko spent five years  in Spain studying with the masters and "soaking up" flamenco culture before returning to the States in 2015.

(Note: flamenco artists are sometimes given nicknames by their teachers, following a practice that might be similar to the Dakota practice of giving a young warrior a new name following an important battle. One of Sachito's teachers, the renowned  Pilar Montoya Manzano, gave her the nickname “La Chayí.” What does it mean? I have no idea.)

The great challenge of flamenco is to take the performance beyond mere proficiency and infuse it with expressive intensity—curt, vehement, plaintive, and defiant by turns.  Sachiko met this challenge repeatedly, aided by singer José Cortés Fernández and guitarist Andrés Vadin. The three of them together kept the pot boiling for the course of two varied sets during which all three had plenty of opportunities to shine. Vadin's guitar-work roiled during his solo number, a blulerias, and Fernandez's peppery voice was ever-present, providing expert palmas and  inspired  jaleos throughout.

My blood pressure had barely returned to normal when, a few days later, the annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival rolled into town. It gets bigger every year, but that hasn't undercut the mood of the casual, street-side performances.

It was raining when we drove down with friends on Thursday night, but the rain let up just as we arrived at Mears Park. We could hear Swedish trumpeter (he was actually playing the mellower flugelhorn) Oscar Stenmark ripping through a solo as we approached the stage. The chairs in front of the main stage were wet, but also mostly empty, and we sat down front and center, three rows back from the barriers dividing the VIP section from the audience at large.

Soft-spoken, blue-eyed, and boyishly handsome, Stenmark looked like a Swede, and the fact that he was wearing a traditional wool vest from his home region added to the effect. His patter was laced with remarks like, "I don't want to talk too much..." but he did talk quite a bit, trying to explain how Swedish themes that are typically played on a fiddle serve as a basis for his compositions and improvisations.

Stenmark knows his instument backward and forward, and tended to seek out the notes below its natural range rather than reach for the squealing high ones, perhaps because they better evoked the pastoral landscapes of the Swedish backcountry. But the irregularity and complexity of his chosen themes seemed to inhibit the flow of his soloing occasionally. In contrast, pianist Alex Pryrodny roared vigorously through the ”changes," relishing the harmonic complexities that are largely beyond the reach of a brass instrument.

Heading for the food trucks after the set, I noticed Pryrodny standing alongside the merchandise table and went over to chat.

"Where are you from," I ask. Answer: Ukraine.

"A friend of mine told me your name means "forest."

"That's not quite correct. It actually means "nature."

"How did you get interested in jazz?"

Alex told me he's always played the piano. (I read later online that he started playing at age 3.) Though classically trained, improvisation interested him from early on, so jazz was a natural fit."So, to learn the ropes, I moved to New York."

We got to talking about some of his heroes, Brad Mehldau and Robert Glasper prominent among them. When I mentioned Fred Hersch he said, "I studied with Fred Hersch." That's impressive! We agreed that Brad is courageous, but can get a little weird with the polyrhythms.

"I once saw Brad at Carnegie Hall. His program was devoted to improvising on classical themes, Brahms intermezzi, and so on. I remember that some of my classically-oriented friends I brought along were not too happy with what they heard! But I think he did something quite courageous and I have a lot of respect for that, for the whole idea of drawing inspiration from classical music for improvisation."

"Fred Hersch is a deft harmonizer," I said, "but I sometimes feel that he becomes too delicate and too fascinated by the inner lines, and he forgets to swing."

“Yeah, I know Fred has been studying Bach chorales a lot” said Alex. “It shows in his voicings and voice-leading. He swings for sure, but it’s a pretty particular type of feel that doesn’t always work with every collaborator. For instance when Fred and Brad Mehldau, who is of course his former student, played a duo concert together, I thought their time feel was quite different and it was clashing at times. I am a big fan of both of them, actually, and try not to miss their solo programs.”

When I mentioned Kenny Barron, a pianist from an older and earthier school, I drew a blank. I asked him if he was familiar with the Swiss pianist Colin Vallon.

"He plays around town, but I haven't heard him. But there's a Swedish pianist who really got me interested in the jazz of that country."

"You mean Bo Bo Stensen?"

"No. Esbjörn Svensson. He was the leader of E.S.T., a group that means a lot to me. You should check it out."

So many pianists. There's a world of listening out there!

Alex later sent me a link to some of his own current work. He's improvising to a Chopin waltz. You can listen to it here.

The second group on the docket showcased the brilliant and sometimes humorous piano style of charismatic Emmet Cohen. He often sat sidewise to the piano looking out at the audience with a impish grin on his face, plunking out notes in a style I associate with Chico Marx. At other times he would rise from the bench while he played in imitation of Jerry Lee Lewis. And he sometimes reached inside the piano to strike or dampen the strings--something Jerry Lee Lewis never would have done. His bass player was wearing a headband, dark glasses, and psychedelic pajamas, and his drummer wore a hat with a broad, floppy brim. They were having a lot of fun on stage, but it was musical fun, and by the time Cohen brought his set to a close with a Fats Waller medley, it was obvious he knew every inch of the keyboard and was never at a lost for ideas.

Following these two jazzy acoustic performances, Terrance Blanchard's heavily electrified grand finale was a sonic disaster. In contrast to Cohen's exuberance, everyone in Blanchard's band looked tired, bored, and self-important, and when Blanchard himself finally arrived, he looked confused and disgruntled, like he'd only recently awoken from a long unsatisfying nap on a park bench.

The pulsing sound was set to levels that I could feel on my chest. The bass part was so simple a machine could have generated it. Blanchard's trumpet carried a device that fuzzed out while also doubling the notes on a time delay. Why, I don't know. The pianist was a virtuoso of sorts, fiddling with his laptop for effects as dexterously as he roamed the keyboard.

But the huge crowd seemed to be enjoying the show. (To tell you the truth, I have noticed over the years that the people in the back are mostly standing around talking.) We were among the few to cut out after the second number.

A few minutes later we were sitting in a pleasant breeze on the terrace in front of the Black Dog Cafe, listening to a local group called the Scruffians, who were playing inside, and discussing the merits of fusion as opposed to that more traditional kind of jazz that relies on working through the chordal structure of a tune. Was Blanchard moving ahead, or backwards to the days of Bitches Brew? I recently purchased a 2-CD set of Miles Davis's Pangaea at a garage sale, and I threatened to invite everyone over for a listen.

Our strategy the next day was to skip the main stage at Mears Park for a while, where drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt might well be serving up another dish of guitar-heavy electronic fusion, and visit a few of the outlying venues instead. At the Black Dog Cafe we listened to a very pleasant set by reedman Paul Harper fronting a quartet called the Bardo Band. Harper did some nice work on a Sonny Rollins tune that I recognized but didn't catch the name of and on Thelonious Monk's lovely "Ask Me Now." Nice stuff!

At the TPT Stage Jennifer Grimm was singing "Summertime," and Lila Ammons later emoted on Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" to good effect. At the nearby Marker's Mark Stage the Mississippi Hot Club roared through a few samples of "gypsy" jazz. The lead guitarist was great, but should have given way to the fiddler more often, for the sake of both variety and authenticity.

By the time we returned to Mears Park the place was packed, and the best seats we could find were on a piece of Dresser traprock extending out into the stream. Israeli Clarinetist Anat Cohen had brought a Brazilian band with her—seven-string acoustic guitar, accordion, and pandiero—and they soon filled the dusk with classic choro music.

We ended the evening with friends at a sidewalk table across the street from the park, discussing The Jazz of Physics and The United States of Arugula while the post-game fireworks from the nearby St. Paul Saints stadium exploded above our heads. Brazil, Sweden, the Ukraine, Israel, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Japan--the entire world had arrived at our little metropolis to keep the party going, to help us keep the spirit alive.   

Friday, June 16, 2017

Twenty-eight Ticks

Scientists love numbers. They often have what can only be called a sentimental preference for cleanliness over truth.

I like numbers, too. It's an easy means of gauging the relative success of an enterprise. For example, last year we saw 115 bird species on our spring birding trip, while this year we saw 128.

Does that make it a better trip? Not really. But it's a useful shorthand. Only a few sightings stand out from any venture: the scarlet tanager in the trees at the top of the bluff south of Winona; the immature red-tailed hawk fiercely consuming a songbird before our eyes, bones and all;  the flock of sharp-tailed grouse we flushed inadvertently at Namekagon Barrens

Hilary and I were hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail in Gooseberry State Park the other day, a mile upstream from the Fifth Falls. We came across an elegant Canada warbler up there (see above) which is a rare treat. (It put my annual warbler count at 19—a good year for me.)  I also saw a merlin.

The trail follows the river, and from time to time we'd stop, sit down on a rocky shelf at the riverbank, take off our boots, cool our feet in the water rushing by, and look for ticks.

On our way back down the hill, we took a two-mile detour across an upland circle loop. I saw my first black-throated blue warbler along that trail many years ago. I have only seen two or three since.

Our best sighting on this visit was a flock of grouse. The babies flew up from the tall grass one after another and hurried across the broad trail to position themselves in the shadowy branches of the pines growing on the other side of the path. They looked to me like supermarket capons, not only due to their small size but also because they didn't have many feathers.   

The father started making a commotion in the woods nearby, fanning his tail and ruffing out the black collar that gives him his name: ruffed grouse. It was an explosive event, and it lasted quite a while, because the babies didn't flush all at once, but individually and unexpectedly, like a sputtering, misdirected roman candle. I think there may have been eight chicks in all.

That trail eventually took us back to the river, and we were eager to sit on the bank again and inventory the harvest of ticks we'd collected as we plodded through the tall grass. By the time I was through examining my socks, legs, and pants, my count had risen to 21.

We mentioned to the ranger at the visitor's center that we'd flushed a family of grouse. She smiled and nodded but I could tell she wasn't impressed, or even much interested. She probably hears such stories every day.

Returning to camp, we ate some smoked fish sandwiches we'd bought in Duluth and then took an evening walk across the huge rocky slab that extends out into Lake Superior—one of my favorite places. The frogs were chorusing from the pools that collect on the rocks, and the stiff grass that fringes the pools caught the low rays of evening light, creating a sublime effect. Two loons were drifting aimlessly out on the lake.

Far more strange was the yellow-headed blackbird poking around in the pools on the rock shelf. This is a bird I associate with cattails and marshes in southern Minnesota, though I seldom see one. But with nature, you never know. Perhaps it had developed a taste for frogs?

Back at our campsite, I made a fire and we listened to fifteen minutes of rock-and-roll hits from the 70s that were booming from a site at least 200 yards away, in a different loop. Then quiet returned, or at any rate the pleasant sounds of children shrieking, laughing, and shouting as they chased their siblings and cousins around, blithely unaware that the mysteries of twilight were entering deep into their souls. I came across two more ticks during that time, plodding up my leg. Ticks often appear out of nowhere, but they're never in a hurry.

We hit the hay before the first stars came out. Slept well. No owls, whippoorwills,  or coyotes.

I got up once to answer the call of nature. I wouldn't have mentioned it, except that it serves to explain how, when I got out of my sleeping bag the next morning, I had five more ticks on my legs.

Grand total—28.

Let's hope it wasn't 29.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The New Walker Sculpture Garden

The Sculpture Garden has always been my favorite part of the Walker Art Center.

It's free, it's open, you can bike to it, the walls aren't white, and even if the art is bad, there's plenty of green space, trees, and urban vistas to make the visit worthwhile.

I'm not saying all the art in the Walker's permanent collection is bad. But it might be that the frame of mind you have to jack yourself into to appreciate it  isn't all that healthy, and the lengthy essays full of gassy vagaries that hang beside each piece might just be an unexplored cause of dementia.

They opened the new sculpture garden today, with the help of an 8-million-dollar grant from the State of Minnesota and plenty of private donations, too. We arrived on bicycles, braving the 90-degree heat and the fierce winds gusting down from Kenwood and across Cedar Lake.

The first thing you notice is that the gardens are far more open than they used to be. Lots of trees have been removed, making the Minneapolis skyline just across the highway far more visible. On the other hand, the arbor walk on the south end of the park, where most of the interesting plantings used to be, seems to have been obliterated.

There are quite a few new pieces of art. A giant blue chicken, for example, and a brick tower with a statue of St. Lawrence, patron saint of librarians and archivists, inside. (It happened to be closed.) Frank Gehry's glass fish is gone. The spoon bridge is still there, needless to say, though they moved it to a more central location. Other pieces have also been repositioned. About half of the space has been given over to prairie grasses that haven't sprouted yet, and several killdeer are nesting on the hard-baked soil.

My overall feeling was that the new garden is larger, more open, yet still "nice." It's hard to say whether the relative lack of shade will become a drawback with the passage of time.

We listened to Senator Amy Klobuchar deliver a speech during which she quoted Picasso—The purpose of Art is to shake the dust off of daily life. She also reminded us that T.B. Walker, a lumber baron from the 1870s, established the original Walker museum in his home, and opened it to the public! Both she and Olga Viso, the Walker head, made sincere and thoughtful references to the Native Americans who succeeded in having a sculpture of a gallows removed and ceremonially buried. The spirit of community pride and involvement was in the air.

I didn't see any Native Americans in the crowd, but it was otherwise robustly multi-ethnic. Asian, Indian, Somali, Black, white, Latin American. One young couple I passed was conversing in Italian. Many children attended with their families, and I even saw one man wearing overalls smeared with oil paints! (What? No brushes in the side pocket?)

We went inside past the attractive restaurant/bar, which I'd never seen before, and wandered up to the rooftop terrace to look out over the garden and the city. There were only eight or ten people up there, some of them sitting in the shade around a single table while others were stretched out flat on what appeared to be brightly colored beanbag beds.

On our way back down through the galleries we paused briefly at the Merce Cunningham show, though I wasn't paying much attention. The scene outside, fun of laughter, movement, food trucks and sunglasses, had been colorful enough.