Archive for December, 2019

in performance: the blind boys of alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama. From left: Joey Williams, Ben Moore, Jimmy Carter, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie and Paul Beasley

Jimmy Carter is one cunning individual. No, we’re not referencing the former President, but rather the last surviving member of the original pack of gospel mavericks making up the Blind Boys of Alabama. But the singer and the President are only a few years apart in age, so that should suggest the level of mutual ingenuity and vigor at work.

At the Singletary Center on Wednesday evening, the singing Carter spent much of the evening seated, serving more as congenial host as the 80-minute concert unfolded than an active participant. There would be a few instances when he would erupt, as in the backbeat savvy “I Can See.” The tune, an original by two of the Blind Boys’ band members (guitarist Joey Williams and bassist Ray Ladson), was a purposeful contradiction, a testament of sight from one who can not physically see. It was also a worldly proclamation worthy of the Blind Boys’ roots renaissance of the past two decades that Carter dug into with glee.

But for the most part, he remained seated and silent, dispatching most of the vocal duties to co-singers Ben Moore and Ricky McKinnie, who sat to each side of Carter onstage. Not that this was shortchanging anyone. McKinnie grabbed hold of the 1970 Norman Greenbaum single “Spirit in the Sky” and injected it with more than enough gospel fervor to make it sound like the kind of Southern spiritual the Blind Boys surrounded themselves with when the group started in the late 1930s. Similarly, Moore offered a confident, calming tenor lead on “God Knows Everything,” a Marc Cohn/John Leventhal work included (as was “I Can See”) on the Blind Boys’ 2017 album, “Almost Home.”

But what of Carter? Content to serve as a congenial emcee with a few appealing quips to trigger audience involvement (“The Blind Boys don’t like to play to a conservative crowd. We want you to wake up.”), the singer almost presented himself as an artist seemingly content in maintaining a retiring stage profile.

Almost.

As the concert headed for home, the group launched into the gospel staple “Look Where He Brought Me From,” a work that was part of the Blind Boys repertoire long before the group’s critical and commercial resurgence began in 2001. At once, Carter came to his feet and sang – and sang and sang. As he was guided to the front of the stage and then out into the audience, the singer was in full testimony mode with a vocal roar that never downshifted in its sense of elation. It was a display of ageless spiritual might, a display one can’t help but think Carter was delighting in holding back on until the show began to wind down.

It should be noted that the performance was billed as a Christmas concert, which was sort of the case. Hearing the Blind Boys sing “Silent Night” and “White Christmas” possessed ample charm, but they were distant entries compared to the gospel fare. The show’s most outwardly seasonal feel emerged when the program turned to a pair of traditional spirituals “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and the show-closing encore of “Last Month of the Year.”

The tunes (both of which were featured on the Blind Boys’ 2003 Grammy winning album “Go Tell It on the Mountain”) encapsulated what the group does best – an emboldened gospel charge delivered with an unspoiled, sage-like conviction and an electric, roots-savvy groove.

“This song’s got a little beat to it,” Carter warned as “Last Month of the Year” commenced. Actually, the whole program did. The Blind Boys of Alabama may be elders of their genre, but at the Singletary, they mastered the art of reaching the soul and making it dance with a joy both earthy but righteous.

in performance: origin jazz series all-stars play duke ellington’s “the nutcracker suite”

One could go on for days citing the innovations Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn brought to all levels of jazz music, from their compositional ingenuity to the incredible instrumental dynamics that distinguished their works in performance. But it took their re-imagining of “The Nutcracker Suite,” performed by the Origin Jazz Series All-Stars on Saturday evening at Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, to place it all in rich, revealing and, yes, seasonal perspective.

The tune that best typified the fun was “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” a rewired version of “March of the Tin Soldiers.” The title (along with all the new names affixed to the Ellington/Strayhorn takes on Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic) was a hint at the level of animation this music aimed for. In place of the warm, peppered orchestration that served as a processional opening to the piece, what was unleashed at the Lyric was a blast of merry horns and winds that set the mood to swing. The subsequent gliding ensemble passages, executed by strings in the ballet version, became  a fluid run of saxophones that made the piece sound like it was an Ellington original all along.

That the 15 members of the Origin Jazz Series All-Stars executed the romp under the direction of Matthew Pivec with just a single afternoon rehearsal was rather remarkable. Several of the artists came from neighboring states. Many had never played together before. Still, there was a joyous cohesion to this performance that made the unit sound like a solid, well-traveled troupe.

So versed, in fact, was the All-Stars’ execution of this crafty revision that it became easy to approach the Ellington/Strayhorn music on its own terms. Nearly every piece bore enough of Tchaikovsky’s original melody to provide the audience with at least a signpost of familiarity. But how those melodies were warped and elongated in terms of temperament and tempo yielded the program’s biggest thrills.

“Dance of the Reed Pipes” (incredulously retitled “Toot Toot Tootie Toot”) and especially “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” (“Sugar Rum Cherry”) redrew the melodies with a sense of wobbly, woozy swing, as though Tchaikovsky’s characters had perhaps stayed a touch too late at the Cotton Club one evening.

But the most insightful reimagining was saved for last when the “Arabian Dance” (which boasted my favorite redubbed title, “Arabesque Cookie”) took on a dreamlike state that was initially Eastern in design, much as Tchaikovsky’s original work was, before bassist Eli Uttal-Veroff and drummer Paul Deatherage, set a slinky, rolling groove in motion that shifted the music’s dance strategies completely to American soil.

Numerous soloists provided consistently engaging colors to the music, including clarinetist Meghan Pund, baritone/bass saxophonist Cara Thomas and especially Knoxville tenor saxophonist Will Boyd. Team these strong talents with the sense of invention Ellington and Strayhorn surrounded this music with and the general community spirit that sat at the heart of the program and you had a holiday greeting of honest artistic cheer.

for frank

Frank Schaap, from a 2008 Facebook post by Clem Van Besouw.

Although there were many great moments of music and friendship, my favorite memory of Frank Schaap comes to mind in an instant.

It was the summer of 1992 and I was cast as Falstaff in a local outdoor production of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at Woodland Park. The show’s producer and director came up with the idea of enlisting Frank, Nick Stump and Rodney Hatfield, all still very visible in local clubs after a decade as frontmen for the Metropolitan Blues All-Stars, as Falstaff’s roguish cronies Bardolph, Pistol and Nym. They would play interlude blues music between scenes (this was a contemporary adaptation), which was second nature to them. The three also had the duties of conveying a few spoken lines of Shakespearean text, which wasn’t. At all. Every night, the response was different in our scenes. Sometimes they would ad-lib. Sometimes they would offer a deer-in-the-headlights gaze. And on one particular night, Frank deviated totally by proclaiming, “Let’s head over to Lynagh’s, boys. I hear there’s a cool band playing there tonight.” The band, of course, would be them.

Never at a loss for words or a chance to express the joy of his very own sense of live performance was what Frank was all about. He was a character so full of life and color that he would have been right at home in Shakespearean times. But his time – locally, at least – was the 1980s and ‘90s, when the Metropolitan Blues All-Stars were the uncontested Central Kentucky ambassadors of blues, country blues and all-around roots music cheer.

What I learned from the band was immeasurable. Its sound was a blend of Chicago and country blues with flourishes of swing that helped heighten my appreciation of artists I already knew (from Muddy Waters to Tom Waits) while steering me to many lesser visible pioneers that included the brilliant solo acoustic blues stylist John Hammond.

As the Metros’ local dates started to become less frequent as the ‘90s progressed, Frank became a local regular in an acoustic duo setting with Lexington bluesman Joey Broughman. I remember vividly when the two opened a Kentucky Theatre concert for Hammond. I recall easily how excited the two seemed by the opportunity and how thrilled those in attendance were in watching two local favorites sharing the bill with a blues legend. Hammond openly expressed his admiration for the duo from the stage, as well.

Frank’s contributions to the local music community extended to numerous other groups and performance settings. Above all that, though, he was a friend to so many, myself included. As the years passed and his local shows became more like brief layovers in a touring/busking life that had him leapfrogging between continents, I saw less and less of him. After Broughman’s passing in 2007, his Lexington performances became a true rarity.

Friendship, though, endures. I remember seeing Frank a few years ago at a local Starbuck’s. He was sitting outside alone, reading a newspaper and asked me to sit with him so we could briefly catch up. I was in a rush that day, but accepted the invitation. We wound up chatting about music and life for about 30 minutes. That was the last time I saw him. I question constantly, as many do, the reasoning behind most of my day-to-day actions. That day I saw Frank at Starbucks, I made the right call.

The song that came to mind upon hearing of Frank’s passing yesterday afternoon was an old Sonny Boy Williamson tune called “Fattening Frogs for Snakes.” It was a song I heard him sing with the Metros countless times. The tune was so much like Frank – keenly spirited, darkly playful and endlessly fun.

Thank for the music, Frank. Thank you for all the fun, spontaneity, wit and scholarly command you invested it with. You did the blues proud and made your friends prouder.


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