in performance: noam pikelny and stuart duncan

noam pikelny (left) and stuart duncan.

“We walked all the way from Nashville,” remarked Noam Pikelny as he and Stuart Duncan entered The Burl last night with their instruments – at least, the ones not already awaiting them onstage – still packed in cases as if they were carting around luggage. But the two quickly made themselves at home with their first banjo/fiddle duet concert in Lexington and their first collaborative show of any kind in two years.

The resulting display of sterling acoustic music prided itself in genre juggling. Bluegrass may have sat the heart of their playing, especially in the instrumental runs that distinguished the show-opening medley of “Brushy Fork of John’s Creek” and “Mason’s Apron.” But even there, the two peeled any grassy intent back to a sense of traditional Celtic fancy.

Another medley paired the Shetland fiddle inspirations of “Laird O’Drumblair” with the more New Grass flavored Pikelny original “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer.” The merger was so playfully but deftly executed that the two tunes sounded like they grew up around the block from each other.

From there, the banjo/fiddle combination appropriated music previously excavated by John Hartford, Merle Haggard, Tommy Jarrell and, perhaps expectedly, Bill Monroe. But for all of the sense of tradition that surrounded the music of the latter, Pikelny and Duncan chose a decidedly unobvious route to travel – namely one that took them to works interpreted four decades ago by the maverick Monroe fiddler Kenny Baker. But the arrangements, by Pikelny, of “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” and “Wheel Hoss” transposed much of the fiddle charm of Baker’s versions to banjo. Still, the resulting dialogue with fiddler Duncan gave both players ample room to survey the compositional depth of Monroe’s music as well as the invention within Baker’s playing.

Mostly, though, the performance was a relaxed acoustic evening with a pair of unassuming virtuosos. Banjoist Pikelny makes his way to the region every few years, either with his day-job band Punch Brothers or his solo work. Duncan, however, almost never performs in Central Kentucky in such an intimate setting. Worth the walk from Nashville? Absolutely. What’s a bit of lost shoe leather when the music was this fine?

 

in performance: brandon seabrook trio/quin kirchner quartet

Quin Kirchner.

Just a few songs into his set last night at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery, Brandon Seabrook shared a story of a chance encounter at a gas station with saxophonist and vanguard free jazz ambassador Anthony Braxton.

“It was like meeting the Pope,” the guitarist said.

Given their respective performance fields, that’s understandable. The level of immediacy and abstraction favored by guitarist Seabrook, cellist Daniel Levin and bassist Henry Fraser would have probably pleased Braxton, an artist a generation removed from Seabrook, to no end. Stylistically, though the rhythmic shards and brittle electric riffs better resembled the more experimental music of Marc Ribot. In other words, the Brooklyn-based Seabrook employed pace, rhythmic displacement, pedal-induced echo effects and ensemble phrases that often became stuttering arpeggios to fuel the tunes from his new “Convulsionaries” albums. The album’s six compositions constituted the entirety of the Seabrook Trio’s set.

The selling point to such purposeful disharmony, though, was watching how visibly involved Seabrook was as he tore through the jagged edges of “Crux Accumulator” and the set-opening “Bovicidal.” These were not easy avenues to navigate for timid ears. But if the resulting music wasn’t immediately accessible, it became, thanks to Seabook’s very outward performance demeanor, quite inviting.

This Outside the Spotlight performance was a double-bill closed by out by the Quin Kirchner Quintet, which was reduced to a four-piece unit following the single-evening recruitment of trombonist Nick Broste by pop maverick Bonnie Prince Billy.

That hardly cut into the orchestrated colors Chicago drummer Kirchner created. Operating with the novel front line instrumentation of tenor saxophonist Nate Lepine and bass clarinetist Jason Stein, the group often recalled the late ‘60s recordings of Pharoah Sanders in the way percussion and winds created dense and almost danceable grooves.

The nods to the past weren’t coincidental. The bulk of the set was devoted to works by such cross generational stylists as Kelan Phil Cohran (a sleek reading of “Sahara” assuredly piloted by bassist Matt Ulery but initiated by Kirchner on what seemed to be an amplified kalimba), Andrew Hill and Charles Mingus (a regally rhythmic mash-up of “Limbo” and “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive Ass Slippers”) and Paul Motian (whose “Mumbo Jumbo” became a showcase for Lepine and Stein but ultimately a set-up piece for the only drum solo of the evening).

The curiosity in Kirchner’s set was the occasional use of sampled effects and electronics, most notably on the piano mimicry that introduced the original “Together We Can Explore the Furthest Beyond” (which screamed Sanders just in its title). But such augmentation was modestly utilized to enhance rather than puncture the group’s rich and retro feel.

in performance: thomas rhett/brett young/midland

Thomas Rhett. Photo by John Shearer.

Within the space of about 15 minutes last night at Rupp Arena, Thomas Rhett offered up two songs, both metaphorical nods to fashionable attire that, whether intentional or not, spoke to the stylistic preferences of his modern minded, but quite appealing performance.

The first was “T-Shirt,” a blast of hook-heavy pop largely devoid of country sentiment save for its almost requisite thematic promiscuity. The garment in question, of course, is admired most when it’s being worn by someone other than its owner.

The other was a pert cover of “Suit and Tie,” a tune that was also paraded at Rupp two weeks earlier by its originator, Justin Timberlake. Last night, though, it possessed a pop formality that served as a coda to the 2013 Rhett party piece “Make Me Wanna.”

It was an intriguing dichotomy. Rhett, donning a t-shirt onstage like the one detailed in the former tune while embracing a country-less pop exuberance the Timberlake song strived for.

A suit-and-tie guy in a t-shirt world – that was essentially the profile Rhett adopted for his Rupp debut.

One could dismiss such an identity crisis as the by-product of just another country crossover wannabe were it not for the fact that Rhett navigated the pop highways and boulevards of his music with such assuredness that it was hard not getting swept up in the fun, whether it was through the broad dance-pop assertions within “Gimme Some of That,” the summery bounce bolstering the title tune to his 2017 album “Life Changes” or the lighter and abundantly radio-savvy feel of “Star of the Show.”

Add to that an audience-friendly demeanor that seemed quite genuine and generous and you had a rather winning pop presentation, even if its design seemed more indicative of, say, Los Angeles, than Nashville.

Speaking of Southern California, that was the pre-Nashville homeland of Brett Young, who preceded Rhett at Rupp last night. He operated from the same stylistic plateau as the headliner, but appeared nowhere near as comfortable onstage. In fact, it’s a safe bet, judging by his often stiff and choreographed movements, Young is likely very new to this kind of performance setting.

That was underscored by the fact that the singer seemed most relaxed when he sat down to sing the hit ballads “Mercy” and “In Case You Didn’t Know.” The very youngish Rupp crowd of 11,000 (an impressive turnout for a “country” show on a Thursday night) didn’t mind, though, as they awarded Young with a kind of American Idol-level zeal.

In all honesty, the hit of the evening was opening act Midland, an Austin, Tx. trio (augmented by a guitarist and drummer) whose members dressed like they stepped out of 1971 and sounded like they stepped out of 1981.

A little bit retro, a little Lone Star honky tonk and largely unassuming in their presentation of tunes like “Check Cashin’ Country” (song title of the year there, folks) and “Burn Out,” Midland mainstays Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson and Cameron Duddy made the most daring statement of the evening – that it was cool to actually sound like a country band.

marty balin, 1942-2018

Jefferson Airplane in 1967 on the cover of “Surrealistic Pillow.” Back row: Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Marty Balin. Front row: Jorma Kaukonoen, Paul Kantner, Spencer Dryden.

Any contemporary band is defined by its lead singer. That role might not always dictate the musical vision of the ensemble at hand, but the vocalist is the individual whose presence is most unavoidably visible. If a band happens to have more than one featured singer, the group personality either becomes more diverse or fractures entirely.

During it psychedelic heyday, between 1966 and 1970, the Jefferson Airplane utilized four lead singers – two were exclusively vocalists (Marty Balin and Grace Slick), two others, featured less frequently, doubled as guitarists (Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner). For many, it was Slick – a fashionable and authoritative presence on and off stage – that dominated the Airplane’s vocal crew. But Balin, who died Thursday at the age of 76, largely set the standard for the band’s flight pattern and offered, nearly a decade latter, an out-of-nowhere hit.

Balin was a singer versed in pop and poetry, a blend that propelled the Airplane’s 1966 debut album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” a record cut prior to Slick’s involvement and the full emergence of Kaukonen and Kantner as singing alternatives. But it was with the vanguard 1967 recording “Surrealistic Pillow” that Balin’s broader pop profile revealed itself, whether it was through the uneasy calm of “Today” and “Comin’ Back to Me” or the unrelenting bravado of “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” and, especially, “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” a parable about television that bordered on funk. But the album also included two monster hits sung by the newly recruited Slick (“Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”) as well as a critically lauded guitar instrumental by Kaukonen (“Embryonic Journey”). That meant having to share the spotlight.

The Airplane’s front line would stay intact though the recording of its leanest, most immediate album (1969’s “Volunteers”) as well as the euphoric highs and disastrous lows of two noted music festivals (Woodstock and Altamont) that reflected the extremes of late ‘60s pop counterculture. He left the band in 1970. The Airplane itself folded in 1973

There is a bizarre footnote to the band’s saga. Reborn in 1974 as Jefferson Starship (without Kaukonen or founding Airplane bassist Jack Casady), the band earned a huge No. 1 hit with 1975’s Balin written and sung “Miracles,”  an ultra smooth pop-soul crooner that placed Jefferson Starship at the very heart of the pop mainstream the Jefferson Airplane spurned a decade earlier.

Balin played Lexington only once that I know off – a May 1978 concert at Rupp Arena with Jefferson Starship, but the wings were clearly coming off at that point. It played like more a pack of disparate, discontented artists than as a actual band. A year later, Balin and Slick were gone, Southern singer Mickey Thomas was picked up and a move deep into ‘80s pop began. This was the band that became simply Starship, which still tours today.

All this makes Balin sound like a mere board member of rock ‘n’ roll conglomerate, which is perhaps what he really was. But listen to his best recorded performances, from “Comin’ Back to Me” to “Miracles,” and you hear a singer taking on the world. It’s just that there were a lot of other equally eager hands in his ranks also reaching for it.

in performance: justin timberlake

Justin Timberlake.

A certain irony revealed itself last night at Rupp Arena, triggered by the fact Justin Timberlake named his current tour after his recent “Man of the Woods” album. After all, the title conjures all sorts of naturalistic images, many of which became artfully visible through the use of multiple see-through video screens that rolled up and down during the two-hour concert, making these living postcards seem more like dancing holograms.

But that came later in the set. When Timberlake and his 20-plus member posse of singers, dancers and band members entered amid a light show that would have made Pink Floyd envious, the feel was almost space age. Then when the pop celebrity took to dancing amid showers of lasers for the show-opening “Filthy,” the concept of a man of the woods didn’t just seem foreign. It seemed non-existent.

Timberlake would, in time, slow the show down to a modestly more relaxed pace that played more to his tour and album’s stated theme – as in an acoustic sit down set around a makeshift campfire that meshed amiable hits like “Until the End of Time” with covers of tunes by Fleetwood Mac, Lauryn Hill and even John Denver that were assigned to his backup singers.

All of this woodsy congeniality was essentially a diversion from a program that began like shot from a cannon with a dance-pop party drive that didn’t even remotely dissipate until Timberlake formally greeted the crowd of 18,000 nearly an hour into the show.

From a visual standpoint, the concert was a stunner that played out on a series of three stages utilizing the entire arena floor to create an in-the-round feel. But audiences members were also planted in and around the ‘S’ formation of the stages, including one near the middle of the floor that included, no joke, its own bar.

Through that, Timberlake and his entourage moved and grooved through the beat-heavy bravado of “SexyBack,” the Marvin Gaye-ish pop-soul of “Suit and Tie” and the blasting synth-savvy orchestration of “Cry Me a River.” What unraveled was a masterful pop display with a visual aptitude that proved fashionable and functional for Timberlake’s tireless workouts.

Go beyond that, however, and things were a little problematic. For all of his physicality and good-natured exuberance, Timberlake never really caught fire as a vocalist last night. His appealing high tenor vocals were noticeably thin and, ultimately, little match for the musical weight of such a massive band. There were a few intriguing moments, like the acoustic revelry summoned during “Drink You Away” and the very focused and organically anthemic delivery of “Say Something” (far and away the best of the “Man of the Woods” tunes). But for a sizable portion of the show, Timberlake relegated himself to chief cheerleader and dance captain by letting his backup singers – and, at times, even the audience – tackle much of the heavy vocal lifting.

The other difficulty was the sound. The was one of the weakest, muddiest sound mixes for a major Rupp concert in recent memory with bass drowning out much the brass and percussive finesse of Timberlake’s band – a surprise indeed given how sharp the visual presentation of the performance was.

Such was life last night for pop music’s man of the woods – a performance star with energy to burn and audience-friendly charm by the truckload, but also with a surprising hesitancy of letting loose on the dance floor, or the pseudo-great outdoors, with a commanding howl.

in performance: cortex

Cortex. From left: Kristoffer Berre Alberts, Gard Nilssen, Ola Hoyer and Thomas Johansson. Photo by Peter Gannushkin

The Norwegian quartet Cortex set a quiet precedent when it first played the Outside the Spotlight series three years ago this week. It displayed the kind of improvisatory prowess favored by many of the more abstract minded free jazz units that have been guests of the series over the years. But what distinguished Cortex in 2015 was its sense of balance, its ability to embrace composition and groove as complimentary vehicles for the wilder improvs.

That kind of cunning was placed on abundant and appealing display again earlier tonight for an OTS return at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery. Here, Cortex used foundations of blues, bop and coarse swing as enticements for more corrosive mischief.

The show opening “Standby” placed the band’s stylistic extremes in motion, locking in a unison melody line established by trumpeter Thomas Johansson and tenor saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts. Once the very Mingus-like cool of bassist Ola Hoyer was added in, the tune embraced an almost deceptive sense of swing. But the momentum remained spacious enough for drummer Gard Nilssen to guide the sound through rougher melodic waters and back to safe harbor again.

On “Chaos,” one of two tunes played from Cortex’s recent “Avant Garde Party Music” album, the sound turned more turbulent with a cyclical horn phrase by Johansson and Albert that summoned the band’s disparate melodic strategies like a reveille before dispersing them again.

There were appealing variations of these excursions, as well. “Lament” simmered the music to a slow blues boil while the set closing “Legal Tender” let the rhythm section loose with a fun, rubbery groove that Albert took several deconstructed swipes at on alto sax.

Topping it all was the new “I 797 B,” a tune named after the visa forms the band members had to contend with for its current United States tour (a trek that has already had two canceled dates due to Hurricane Florence). Like all of Cortex’s music, there was brightness to the melodic construction but also enough trap doors for various solos to break with the sense of musical order and, for a few bars, bust the room up.

in performance: ross hammond

Ross Hammond.

So what does an industrious solo guitarist with jazz, folk-blues and world music leanings do when a week’s worth of gigs get scrubbed? He heads homeward and plays for the faithful there.

That’s what Lexington-born, Sacramento, Calif.-bred Ross Hammond did this week. After a string of concert dates in Carolinas were cancelled due to the uninvited presence of Hurricane Florence, the guitarist landed some last minute pick-gigs in Central Kentucky. This afternoon’s set at CD Central was the only appearance out of Hammond’s last five scheduled shows that didn’t fall to Florence.

With the remains of the storm not due to reach Kentucky until late tonight, the guitarist created an attractive living room ambience for the South Limestone music store during a set of instrumental tunes played on steel and 6 string acoustic guitar.

The jazz accents within this performance were present in Hammond’s almost conversational sense of improvisation. But, as a whole, the set operated from a more roots-conscious, folk-blues base. The opening “Codes,” for instance, used the resonator guitar – in this case, an instrument built in Sacramento out of a vintage turkey roasting pan (seriously; check out www.turkeytone.com for details) – as a slide savvy vehicle for a wiry, but relaxed blues melody that gradually opened itself up to a bit of Eastern intrigue.

This was a game plan that played out more boldly as the set progressed. While a steel guitar reading of the blues chestnut “Sitting on Top of the World” steered to appealing back porch gospel and the nimble “McDowelling” (on the 6 string) relished in more ruggedly textured folk-blues, the title tune to Hammond’s 2017 album “Follow Your Heart” (also on the 6 string) let in another pronounced breeze from the East.

That set the stage for “May You Be Happy,” a work recorded with Indian singer and vocal improviser Jay Nair but presented here as a solo mash-up of Hindustani spiritualism and antique Western blues. The feel was very raga-esque in its contemplative stance but also folk-rooted given the steel’s expressive range and vibrancy.

All in all, an immensely inviting homecoming from a Kentucky guitar pro seeking shelter from the storm.

in performance: xiomara and axel laugart

Xiomara Laugart.

Near the end of “Añorado Encuentro,” a 10-minute summit of elegiac strings and vocal finesse, Xiomara Laugart let loose with a smile. A huge one, in fact – the kind that registers the joy and victory that only comes from a level of mischievous adventure.

For the vocalist and her pianist/son Axel Laugart, that meant not only taking her singing outside of her native Cuba but also out of the New York clubs that have long become her adopted performance home and setting up shop in the unlikely but very complimentary Lexington environment of Tee Dee’s Bluegrass Progressive Club

At the first of two sold-out performances there last night, which served as the second season opener of the Origins Jazz Series as well as the latest cultural sponsorship of the Green Room Exchange, the concert also strayed from the usual musical tapestry Laugart performs in. Distinguishing these shows were the string arrangements of Jonathan Ragonese. That meant deemphasizing the strong percussive undercurrent of Laugart’s music in favor of tasteful orchestration that highlighted the hushed luster of her singing.

Laugart and Ragonese have worked with these arrangements before in New York, but they are hardly common components of her repertoire, which might explain the obvious joy Laugart registered from the stage, whether it was from the way the strings blossomed half-way through “Por Ti” or how they accented Laughart’s vocal sway during “No Tengo Nada.”

Ultimately, though, the real magic was a result of how the strings mingled with everything – and, more importantly, everyone – else onstage. Aside from mother and son Laugart and Ragonese (who served as onstage conductor and, briefly, saxophonist), the string sextet and jazz combo at work last night were made up of Lexington artists, all of which played with a level of taste and buoyancy that matched the drive established by the out-of-towners.

Of particular note were alto saxophonist Jonathan Barrett, drummer/percussionist Tripp Bratton and bassist Danny Cecil, all of whom bolstered the show’s unimposing rhythms while doubling as creative soloists that balanced the orchestration. All of their work converged beautifully during “No Creo,” the evening’s most radiant blend of vocal grace and instrumental ingenuity.

A footnote: in a pre-show speech, the Origins Jazz Series dropped a huge addition to its already massive season. The Bad Plus has been confirmed for a Dec. 8 concert at the Lexington Children’s Theatre on Short St.

in performance: leo kottke

Leo Kottke.

“Remember, Leo. Your future is in the trombone.”

That was the advice Leo Kottke recalled last night at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort given to him by his Mahler-obsessed band director as a seventh grader in Oklahoma. But in true Kottke fashion, such advice, off the mark as it proved to be, was merely a warm-up for a parable of how the refuge of his earliest musical education formed the basis of disco.

Think that was rich? Try the tale of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Gene Pitney, who supposedly had a one-handed bassist who played with a wooden prosthetic that unexpectedly detached and rolled across the stage during a performance.

Such was the territory Kottke visited last night through yarns full of curious but conversational charm. But such obviously unrehearsed dialogue has long been the bonus prize of a Kottke concert, an inviting if not slightly obtuse way of welcoming audiences to his typically stunning musicianship on 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars.

At 72, Kottke remained as stylistically indefinable as an instrumentalist and he was unassuming and, frankly, outrageous as a raconteur. His playing remained a mash-up of folk and folk-blues references bolstered by vintage pop interference and a decided preference for composition over improvisation.

How else do you explain a deconstruction of the 1961 Bert Kaempfert orchestral hit “Wonderland by Night” into a gentle, respectful lullaby for 6 string guitar or how the folk themes within Kottke’s own 1969 work “Ojo” were repeated with steadily darker variations that brought out the orchestral depth and beauty of the 12 string?

Kottke has never had hits, per se, but he dispensed with two cover tunes that helped define his music during the early 1970s – Paul Siebel’s “Louise” and Tom T. Hall’s “Pamela Brown” – in side-by-side fashion early in the 90 minute program. Both revealed sagely, if not occasionally mumbling, creases in Kottke’s baritone vocals.

But if the program focused primarily on the rear view mirror of Kottke’s 50 year career, it ended with a brave look over the dashboard with a new work titled “Wet Floor.” Tagged by the guitarist as an encore tune (“so we can all leave the theatre at the same time”), the piece played out like a suite that shifted from passages of subtle lyricism to beefier, rhythmic interludes that again illuminated the 12 string’s robust sound.

Kottke may be most at home onstage poking away at unlikely corners of his past through story and song. But a tune like “Wet Floor” reminded us the guitarist still has invention and cunning to spare for the road ahead.

in performance: howard levy and chris siebold/osland-dailey jazztet

Howard Levy (left) and Chris Siebold.

The first sounds Howard Levy greeted tonight’s crowd at the Singletary Center for Arts Recital Hall with was a series of low, bullfrog-like grunts – vocal exercises, one supposes, for an artist who wouldn’t sing at any point during the evening.

“It gets better,” promised guitarist Chris Siebold, Levy’s performance partner of some 15 years.

Indeed it did. For the following 90 minutes, harmonica stylist and pianist Levy (best known for his ongoing work with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones) used Siebold’s guitar colors as foils for duo selections largely pulled from a just-released album, “Art + Adrenaline.” To most years, what resulted could probably have been filed under the blanket term of jazz simply because the music was predominantly instrumental and heavily reliant on improvisation. But a closer listen revealed strong accents of blues, urbanized folk, Eastern-flavored rhythms, tango, swing and probably a dozen other styles. The thrill, however, came largely from the duo’s very natural chemistry.

That awarded some of the tunes a certain amount of technical indulgence, mostly in the form of warp speed runs from both players. But it also set up a conversational design for the evening that allowed the myriad styles at work during the set to bloom.

Such was the case with the show opening “The Tristate Boogie,” which allowed a steely, Slim Harpo-like guitar dash by Siebold on resonator guitar (which he played exclusively, without a slide, for the entire program) to form a foundation for Levy’s country-esque outbursts on harmonica. That set up one of the evening’s greatest curiosities, a Levy tune called “Evanston Tango” that held tight to a new generation dance sound very much in the vein of tango colossus Astor Piazzolla, complete with a jazz-like tumble into swing that distinguished the latter’s compositions.

Stretching the stylistic and geographical boundaries of the repertoire further was a lovely reading of Bach’s “Siciliano in G Minor,” where Levy’s harmonica serenade emphasized dramatically slower, quieter and more graceful strides within Siebold’s playing. More visibly audacious was Levy’s simultaneous juggling of harmonica duties (with his right hand) and piano (with his left) during “Riding the Urban Range” and a full surrender to steel guitar and blues harp phrasing on a Siebold-led cover of “Key to the Highway.”

The five members of Osland-Dailey Jazztet – which also opened the evening with a brief, three-song set – joined the duo for a two-tune finale highlighted pianist Raleigh Dailey’s “Jules Verne” The composition used a mischievous, light tempered intro as tease for a boisterous, boppish joyride that highlighted the novel design – harmonica, soprano saxophone, steel guitar and trombone – of the combined bands’ front line. What emerged was a display of honestly joyous jazz pollination that bolstered a sense of playfulness and invention that fueled the entire show.

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