Archive for September, 2019

celebrating the sound of linda’s voice

Linda Ronstadt.

There is a moment near the end of the fine new documentary “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” that triggers an unexpected rush of poignancy. It comes as a sobering tribute from Emmylou Harris pans to an outdoor image of the present-day Ronstadt, her singing voice silenced by Parkinson’s Disease, glancing calmly with an obvious radiance still in her eyes.

After that is a performance of such subtle, heartwarming grace that it is best to omit the details for those who haven’t seen the film. It’s a fitting epilogue to a chronicle of an artistic career largely uncompromised by commercial intrusion and undeterred by the usual rock star tailspins. It is a musical life honorably celebrated.

Directed by the Academy Award-winning duo of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “The Sound of My Voice” serves as a scrapbook of the Ronstadt saga, from her days singing with her siblings as a teenager in Arizona to a California move that eventually made her one the most popular female pop artists of her generation. Of course, she was also restless enough with her sense of celebrity to forsake rock ‘n’ roll to sing opera, songbook-era standards, country music, pop duets with Aaron Neville and, most unexpectedly, traditional Mexican folk songs (mining a tradition inherited from her father).

Ronstadt’s career had no great scandals, no crippling addictions to battle and, generally, none of the self-inflicted excesses that stars of her level contend with. Even a suggested skirmish with drugs was halted before her career suffered. Her obstacles instead came from holding fast to a hearty level of genre-hopping she was continually warned would torpedo her career and being in the novel position of a female rock star in a ‘70s music industry run by men.

A generous and well-placed lineup of friends, family and accomplices offer commentary as the story unfolds with Ronstadt herself serving as occasional narrator. Especially insightful are comments from John David Souther, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, Dolly Parton and Don Henley. There is also a wealth of vintage clips, only a portion of which are devoted to performances. A highlight includes Ronstadt nudging a tongue-tied Neville during a Grammy acceptance speech to thank his wife.

One of the more moving remembrances comes from Kevin Kline, who confesses to having had only a cursory knowledge of Ronstadt’s music prior to working with her on Broadway in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” He recalls being stunned by what he heard in early rehearsals. “When I heard her voice, it was just … gorgeous, musical, celestial yet earthy. Something so pure, it just made me cry.”

We don’t learn anything alarmingly new about Ronstadt in “The Sound of My Voice,” especially since she views her life and career, right up through her current existence with Parkinson’s, in remarkably unsentimental terms. But having all the elements of her career reassembled cleanly in one program with a cast of famous friends serving as tour guides makes the film immensely watchable. It is the story of a voice that, despite all of the commercial zeniths and its current state of Parkinson’s-induced silence, lived to sing. Ronstadt explains the sense of purpose and passion for why all singing voices feel that need at the film’s onset, before the party at hand even begins.

“They sing so that coming generations won’t forget what the current generation endured or dreamed or delighted in.”

“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is currently playing at the Kentucky Theatre.

 

in performance: orrin evans trio

Orrin Evans. Photo by John Abbott.

It was understandable that the Orrin Evans Trio’s brief but exuberant performance at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center on Friday evening arrived with a set of comparison standards.

Pianist Evans played here as recently as December as the newest member of The Bad Plus, the Minneapolis collective with a genre and generation busting blueprint for what a piano trio should sound like. His return visit this weekend, which kicked off the third season of the Origins Jazz Series (the Bad Plus date was also an Origins booking) had Evans fronting his own trio, one rounded out by fellow Philadelphians Alex Claffy on bass and the very inventive Chris Beck on drums. So anyone who caught The Bad Plus over the winter might have been looking for stylistic or compositional similarities with Evans’ group. After all, piano trios all sound alike, right?

Not even remotely. While both groups operated within an exclusively acoustic framework, The Bad Plus utilized a more modernistic approach of slicing its sense of swing into ribbons that, once reassembled, often possessed a pacing more akin to hip hop and even techno than jazz. On Friday, however, Evans grabbed trio basics by the throat and took giddy delight in pumping them full of modal mischief and pure physicality.

Throughout a surprisingly short program that barely clocked in at over an hour, Evans was something of a prizefighter taking on long bouts of rhythmic drive built around a thick, percussive sound that fell somewhere between fun and furious. Heavy, punching runs by the left hand were embellished by Beck, whose sense of performance stamina was every bit as animated as the spirit fueling Evans’ playing. Bassist Claffy served as mediator, offering discreet, durable rhythmic support. His solos, on the other hand, were wildly imaginative, operating as lyrically vibrant and balanced compositions all on their own.

The inspiration that popped to mind regularly during the concert was McCoy Tyner, a pianist whose rich tone, modal daring and physical deftness collectively served as a template for Evans’ joyrides on piano.

There were plenty of dynamics, as well. The band shifted into ballad mode halfway through the set, allowing Evans and Beck to open their playing up with a greater sense of delicacy and reflection. Such an instance, however, underscored the program’s only real flaw – a sound mix that placed Evans underneath Beck’s propulsive drive, robbing the audience of some of the program’s more subtle piano detail.

Still, this was a fine outing, a whirlwind of jazz might and joy that burned bright and fast.

orrin evans takes the trio spotlight.

Orrin Evans.

A lot was at stake when The Bad Plus took to the stage of Lexington Children’s Theatre in December.

For the locally organized Origins Jazz Series, it was the marquee booking of its second season and one of its highest profile concert presentations to date.

For the band, it was a new beginning – the debut Kentucky performance with the first ever personnel change in its 18-year history. Out, as of the beginning of 2018, was pianist and co-founder Ethan Iverson. In was a longtime friend of the band, Orrin Evans.

For Evans, it was something of a crossroads situation. To national audiences, he was a “new” artist, despite a recording and touring career than was already two decades old. While he was the new recruit in The Bad Plus, he had no plans to leave behind his own ensembles – a variety of duo, trio and big band configurations.

The story ended well. The Lexington concert was a sellout and Evans was a hit, even ending the performance by embracing the childlike interpretation of Aphex Twin’s “Flim,” which had long been a signature tune of The Bad Plus before he joined.

A question lingered, however. How does a veteran pianist accustomed to calling the creative shots in his own career adjust to a democratic role in a band with such an established history and fanbase that was changing its lineup for the first time?

The answer will come, in part, this weekend, when Evans returns to Lexington to kick off the third season of the Origin Jazz Series with a performance under his own name.

“I’m figuring all this out everyday,” Evans said by phone last weekend from New York prior to a performance at the Jazz Standard that teamed his trio with guitarist and former Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks. “Playing with The Bad Plus is definitely something I enjoy doing, but just like anything else, it’s a matter of finding a way to make it feed your soul continually.

“I’ve been blessed to do whatever I’ve wanted to do the past 20 years of my career, which has not always been financially easy. I’ve been able to play with the people I’ve wanted to play with. When you add working in an established band, it does change things. You have to be respectful. There is a lot to get used to. But when we’re out there, it’s a beautiful thing.

“I have to be honest, though, if somebody had told me three years ago that I was going to be in The Bad Plus, I would have laughed straight up in their face. I would have laughed because I never thought it would be something that I would do, and not for a reason that I would dislike it. There was none of that. It’s just that this was an established band with an established lineup, so I think the lineup change was as shocking to me as it was to everybody else.”

Growing up in a fertile musical environment in Philadelphia, Evans confessed that the piano trio format – one that both The Bad Plus and the band he is bringing to Lexington this weekend adhere to – was never a favored musical setting as he established his own musical voice.

“I just needed to find what that sound was for me. It was the sound of freedom – freedom from the stereotypes of what is supposed to happen in the trio, in what the bass player’s role is supposed to be and the what the drummer’s role is supposed to be. Once you let that go, you do what you do and play music. The possibilities are then infinite.”

While working with his own groups, as well as The Bad Plus, has provided Evans the opportunity to perform in major metropolitan locales throughout the country and in Europe, he cherishes the opportunity to perform in cities like Lexington that aren’t exclusively known for their jazz preferences.

“To go to Lexington or any other smaller town to share this music is always great because it presents a new audience. When we pulled into the airport in Lexington in December, I remember thinking, ‘It is beautiful here.’

“There were also some other things to see there for the first time. I remember walking and seeing a sign telling about where slaves were once sold, so you’re dealing with that, too. That’s a part of the history. It’s true. It is what it is. But being able to go and spread my music in some of the places where I wasn’t even allowed at one time is a great feeling.”

Orrin Evans Trio performs at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 6 at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center,  141 E. Main, as part of the Origins Jazz Series. Tickets: $25. online: originsjazz.org.

in performance: steve earle and the dukes

Steve Earle. Photo by Tom Bejgrowicz.

“Pork.” That was Guy Clark’s last word before his passing in 2016 to longtime friend and protégé Steve Earle. The latter relayed the confession during a performance Saturday evening at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center that called heavily upon Clark’s masterful songs and spirit.

The farewell, as it turned out, referenced the prime ingredient of a catered barbeque feast delivered to Clark’s quarters following cancer treatments. A Texas native who migrated to Nashville, as Earle did, the thought of pork being favored over beef as a base for barbeque was apparently abhorrent. No doubt, Clark would have looked far more favorably on the heavily reverent tributes Earle gave to his music and memory.

The basis for Earle’s current tour, of which Renfro Valley was the final stop, was a 2019 album called simply “Guy” that offered takes on a series of thematically and stylistically varied songs from throughout Clark’s career. Earle and his long running Dukes band performed 11 of the album’s 16 tunes during the two hour show, from the familiar (“L.A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train”) to the comparatively overlooked (“The Ballad of Laverne and Captain Flint”), as well as from the whimsical (“Rita Ballou,” which was decked out with proper Texas dance hall charm) to the very stark and dark (a chilling solo acoustic reading of “The Last Gunfighter Ballad”).

Perhaps the most absorbing was a 1981 Clark delight titled “New Cut Road,” which dealt with a family of revelers bound for Texas from their native Kentucky because they felt the later was too populated. The delivery was a mash-up of bluegrass, Cajun and even Celtic accents led by the husband and wife team of fiddler Eleanor Whitmore and guitarist Chris Masterson. The two also opened the evening with a fine set of original material as The Mastersons highlighted by a striking call for social empathy titled “In the Name of God.”

Earle eased the performance away from Clark’s songs to his own work several times, but not from his mentor’s spirit. He offered the antique, war-worn snapshot “Mercenary Song” because it was a Clark favorite and “Fort Worth Blues,” a stoic tribute to mutual friend Townes Van Zandt, because Clark recorded it in 1999. Earle termed the occasion of Clark cutting one of his songs instead of the other way around as “the greatest accomplishment in this work I do.”

A brisk run through music from several recent Earle albums – the unexpectedly jazzy “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me” (from 2015’s “Terraplane”), the eerily topical “That All You Got?” (a tune from 2013’s “The Low Highway” penned for a post-Katrina New Orleans but stoked with new urgency given the impending arrival of Hurricane Dorian) and the metal-esque country requiem “Fixin’ to Die” (from 2017’s “So You Wannabe an Outlaw”) – brought the show down the home stretch. But it was back to Clarksville for the finale of “Old Friends,” a solemn affirmation of alliance that underscored the humanity of Clark’s writing and the devout fellowship of one of his most prized disciples.

The lone gripe about the performance: a sound mix that regularly buried Earle’s vocals. Admittedly, at age 64, some the firepower to his singing has decreased while the Dukes’ instrumental potency has remained constant. Regardless, a more capably balanced mix would have helped. Every word of these songs, whether they came from the pens of Clark or Earle, needs to ring loud and clear.


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