Thursday, April 29, 2010

Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau

Tuesday, April 28 on the MainStage
reviewed by David Beckett

Pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman are both first class listeners, which was clear from the first note of last night’s well received concert, as they began with The Falcon Will Fly Again, a duet from Highway Rider, Brad Mehldau’s new recording.

For jazz musicians—even players as skilled as Mehldau and Redman—playing duets can be a bit unnerving. Without a bassist and drummer, a hundred years of precedent falls away along with the matrix of conventions about form and some of the swing that can make, say, a piano/bass/drums trio cohere and seem to move of its own accord. There’s no “walking” bass line for propulsion, and no drummer delineating the sections and bar lines, adding a sense of texture and color. Two musicians simply rely on their experience playing together, rely on the compositions . . . or listen like mad and trust each other.

And listen they surely did. Both men can create a narrative arc while improvising; no mean feat. Good improvisers are content to insert familiar riffs into a form, which can be very exciting, but superior players like Redman and Mehldau think like composers, seem to hear the whole song, and have more to offer than riffs.

Rather than accompany other players in the way jazz pianists typically do, Mehldau uses both hands, showing his love of romantic composers but sounding like nobody else. This is his way, and it’s surely helped him find a place in the jazz world in recent years. Redman played the theme of this first piece as Mehldau limned the changes this way. Then, rather than play a melodic solo with the right hand while dropping chords in with the left, Mehldau played his solo as he might have playing a piano concerto with an orchestra. Finally, they restated the theme to finish the piece.

They played one of Redman’s next, called Note To Self, and followed it with a Jeff Buckley song called Dream Brother. At this point Redman made remarks from the stage, thanking the audience and joking about the April snow storm. Charlie Parker’s Cheryl, a blues, followed: a return to a particular jazz vernacular, a fascinating contrast with the first three numbers.

Brad Mehldau’s first five recordings as a leader featured a trio of bass, drums and piano—making the case for his place in jazz history. Redman’s recordings as a leader have been varied, featuring different sorts of ensembles and a lot of marquee players from the jazz, rock, and classical worlds. They’ve played and recorded together often before, but playing duets live seems a particularly brave choice, particularly as the evening continued.

One of Joshua Redman’s followed—Disco Ears—a three pager, sounding more like these two men in particular, rather than any other school or sound. Mehldau took a moment to speak, and mentioned that both he and Redman often listened to music their jazz musician colleagues found puzzling. A gorgeous example followed: Interstate Love Song, by Stone Temple Pilots, played so neatly I might have guessed it to be some lovely little-known mid-century popular song.

Then, one more jazz standard, and finally an encore: My Old Flame, with Mehldau playing very quiet “stride” style piano and Redman whispering the melody. Even when playing something everybody’s heard before, Mehldau and Redman sounded like nobody else, alone together, as it were.

David Beckett is a realtor and a jazz director at WWPV FM. He’s been involved with the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival since 1983.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Rokia Traoré

with Mamah Diabate, Naba Traore, Christophe Minck, Laurent Robin, and Eric Lohrer
April 18, 2010, MainStage
Reviewed by Mary S. Landon

Sunday night’s concert featuring Rokia and her band almost defies description. Or rather, it involves multiple adjectives.

With her African roots and cultured European upbringing, Rokia’s style has a refined edge that brings it quite far into the modern and pop modes, while respecting her heritage as a griot, a storyteller.

Rokia is a slight African woman with short-cropped hair and a lovely, grainy voice. The audience is able to hear the nuances in her voice because she takes brief opportunities to sing some lines a capella. At times her voice is piercingly clear, at times more muted and soft. Rokia’s first few songs were quiet, mellow ballads featuring her expressive voice and her electric guitar and not much else. Gradually, through the evening, she and the band heated things up for a spirited two-hour show.

Initially, I was put off by the fog machine and the choreographed light show. I thought the special effects detracted from the essence of the music and Rokia’s message. But I did get used to these stage effects and began to see them as part of the mood and energy that Rokia wanted to convey.

Her songs can be described as a multicultural mélange, a seamless blending of pop, blues, rock, and Malian rhythms with a touch of a meditative quality in the slower songs. However she does it, it works. As she has said herself, “I think I am modern and traditional at the same time. I’m not pop, not jazz, not classical but something contemporary with traditional instruments.”

Rokia was joined onstage by two guitar players, a ngoni player, a drummer, and a back-up singer (who turned out to be a lovely dancer, as well, showcasing her flexibility toward the end of the show). Rokia was able to laugh, smile, sing, dance, and deliver her energy during some surprisingly long songs. All the while, she was, we assume, telling a story in her native language or in French.

Between the band members, the dancing lights, the rich colors, and the eerie fog, there was much to look at while taking in the sounds and beats of the ensemble. I realized how, when I don’t know the words being sung, I focus more on the environment I’m looking at.

Rokia Traoré and her band were greatly enjoyed by the audience, who clapped along in time with the long repetitive pieces. It was hard not to get caught up in the frenzy of the faster pieces, as they built to their crescendo. The later it got in the evening, the longer the songs became; some even took on the feel of a long jam by a rock group. Rokia eventually invited the audience to dance in the aisles, which was met with great enthusiasm by a large crowd.

Mary S. Landon is a native Vermonter and UVM grad who has moved back to the Burlington community after many years in southern Vermont. She works as a freelance writer, fine artist, graphic designer, and landscape gardener. Her two daughters live in Portland, Oregon. Mary is also an avid cyclist and cook.

Friday, April 09, 2010

"Malian Magic"

A review of Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba
by Mary S. Landon

Imagine: a darkened room, an intimate stage waiting in anticipation; then, clear, bluesy notes piercing the air, African clothing in hues of purple and gold, and expressive musicians with an infectious passion for their craft.

This is Bassekou Kouyate and his band, Ngoni Ba. This group of six men and one woman had the entire FlynnSpace moving on Wednesday evening, March 31. An enthusiastic full house appreciated the music, the humor, and the showmanship of this fun group.

This group plays a unique blend of musical styles that contains elements of folk, rock, jazz, and roots music, but is overwhelmingly based in blues traditions. Bassekou comes from a long history of griots, or traditional historians and praise musicians. Four of the men, including Bassekou, play the ngoni, a “spike lute” and an ancestor of the banjo. It has a taut-skinned drum body, with a neck that is round and fretless. Strings are stroked, plucked, and picked in similar fashion to a guitar or banjo. The finger work was truly amazing. These four instruments, of varying sizes, were amplified and most of them seemed to have some duct tape helping to hold wires in place. Joining the four ngoni players were two percussionists. I’ve always felt that drummers are the unsung heroes of a band, until they have their chance to solo. These two were no exception, as they kept up an incredibly fast beat to back up the forceful vocals of Amy, Bassekou’s wife, and the jamming of the four ngonis. Likewise, they could deliver a mere suggestion of beat and rhythm during a quieter blues ballad.

Bassekou, who speaks his native Malian language as well as French, communicated fairly well in English, enough to express his joy of music and his appreciation for the audience support. Occasionally, he and Amy fell into French conversation, which was understood by some of the audience. He and the other musicians took turns swaying in rhythmic steps and circles on stage. It seemed challenging enough to simply play the ngonis, and play them fast. Then they added body movement and soulful singing! At times, Bassekou’s eyes rolled back in his head as he entered the completely focused state of an artist. Such energy! One of the percussionists had the incredibly challenging, hot, focused job of shaking, in repetitive rhythms, a round object (gourd?) covered with beads or shells. This instrument made a shuffling, rapping noise and he kept it going in what seemed to be perfect time. And he kept smiling! During long songs!

Amy Sacko’s deep, smoky voice flowed in and out of the voices of the instruments. She hit the sensual lows and she hit the brilliant highs with clarity, telling a story with each song. One song in particular was a back-and-forth conversation between an impassioned Amy and a more subdued Bassekou.

This was a show not to be missed. I was in awe of this group, not just for their technical abilities, but for their sheer happiness at doing what they obviously love to do. Their energy absolutely spread throughout the crowd, creating many wide smiles.

Mary S. Landon is a native Vermonter and UVM grad who has moved back to the Burlington community after many years in southern Vermont. She works as a freelance writer, fine artist, graphic designer, and landscape gardener. Her two daughters live in Portland, Oregon. Mary is also an avid cyclist and cook.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Flynn N.A.S.A. Grant Recipient Ellen Smith Ahern - Blog #2

Tuesday, April 6 - "We’ve spent the last few rehearsals working with the relationship of text to movement. For one, it’s fascinating to explore the range of possibilities that arise when you simply layer text over movement you’ve already built. Play-boxing and salsa steps become lonely when layered with text about middle school recess. Pacing the room while reading an ad for yourself as if you are a used car feels sweet, funny and earnest. Twisting on the ground like a pretzel for minutes at a time takes on new poignancy when accompanied by a monologue about fear and paranoia."

"Sometimes the text boxes you in. Putting a verbal story to movement inevitably limits (or at least challenges) what is being communicated non-verbally. It has been fun and thought-provoking to explore these lines with the guys. As they are new to generating dance, the words seem to give them an access point to the abstract movement, making it all a little more comfortable and familiar—the trick is to not rely too much on this, which is also, to be fair, a huge challenge for me."

"We’re also playing with the text and movement from the another angle, isolating movement cues and/or movement-evocative language from writings, taking them right out of their contexts, and stringing them together with other cues to form sequences of choreography. It’s great to give four people the same list of cues (jump, wait, back-of-the-hand, circle, etc.) and see what contrasts arise. Thus far, this has been a good way to cultivate a creative atmosphere in the group, in which everyone feels comfortable sharing their own work and commenting on others’ work."

"We’ve got a work-in-progress showing of our material this weekend, and it will be exciting to see what new life the guys and their work take on with a live audience and two other dances as bookends. Come check it out at Designhaus Art Gallery, 22 Church Street, 2nd floor. April 9 at 8 pm, April 10 at 4 pm and 8 pm. Reserve tickets at 207.240.7288 ($12/10 students)."