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.   

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