Archive for March, 2020

all she has to do is dream: a few minutes with kat edmonson

Kat Edmonson.

To paraphrase one of pop music’s beloved lyrics, all Kat Edmonson has to do is dream.

For this Texas-bred New Yorker, however, a dream isn’t always as quantifiable as most pop songsmiths would have you think. To that end, the vocalist took a few original compositions, a reexamined batch of standards from films (mostly Disney works) she absorbed as a child, added in some instrumental interludes and came up with “Dreamers Do.” The resulting album is a song-cycle that examines the creation of dreams, their place in a pragmatic adult world and how they unfold in a single, sleep-troubled night.

“I actually had the idea for the record before I had the songs,” said Edmonson, who performs Saturday at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.
“I had this narrative that I wanted to convey – a metaphor, I guess, about how it is to follow our dreams in life and then in the course of a sleepless night. At the time, I was asking all these questions about dreams and what it is to pursue them. I was having a great deal of anxiety myself, waking up in the middle of the night and having very restless dreams. So the record starts with an invitation to dream and then takes the listener all the way through the course of the night.”

A versed songwriter who came of artistic age within a fertile Austin, Tx. songwriting community, Edmonson used one of her own songs, the light but lusciously orchestrated “Too Late to Dream,” to help launch work on “Dreamers Do.” But Edmonson is also a keen interpreter who has kept impressive company when approaching the work of other composers. Two fine examples: A Western-flavored version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” for a 2015 Bob Wills tribute album, “Still the King,” by Texas swing specialists Asleep at the Wheel (the tune was cut as a duet between Edmonson and Wheel-master Ray Benson) and an elegantly nocturnal take on “You Can Never Hold Back Spring,” part of the 2019 Tom Waits tribute album “Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits.”

“I wrote ‘Too Late to Dream’ in 2016 by specifically asking if there was a point in our lives when it becomes too late to dream. So naturally, I began referring to music of my childhood, including these 20th century Disney songs. That’s when I started to get an idea of arranging the tunes and interpreting them.

“I heard messages of hope in these Disney songs, like ‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes’ (from ‘Cinderella’) and ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ (from ‘Pinocchio’) – ‘When you wish upon s star, your dreams come true.’ And I believed that, with no doubt, at a very young age. Then I discovered, in all of my adult circumstances, that this was still true. I learned a lot about myself through the process of making this record.”

That doesn’t mean no liberties were taken. ‘When You Wish You Star’ doesn’t play out as the sentimental lullaby audiences have known it as for generations. Edmonson employs a dark, percussive, minor key arrangement colored by kora and tabla.

“I always wanted to record with kora. I was first exposed to the instrument on a subway platform one day after I moved to New York City. I wanted to take the approach with this song to convey the simultaneous experience we have when we pursue our dreams. It’s both exhilarating and frightening because we essentially don’t know where we’re going. We know where we want to be, but we don’t know the way there. So to bring in tabla and kora, these very earthy instruments, to convey that felt perfect because the setting I was after was dark, exciting and also kind of creepy.”

While “Dreamers Do” and most of Edmonson’s recordings emphasize a level of subtle orchestration that compliments the atmospheric lilt of her singing, the Norton Center performance will work from an even sparser setting with keyboardist Matt Ray serving as her lone accompanist.

“We have this really unique chemistry that I just don’t seem to have with another musicians. We kind of read each other’s minds and are liable to do anything because we feel so comfortable together. With only two people, the music really opens up. Matt has all of the orchestrations at his fingertips. I’m very curious to see what we happens.”

Kat Edmonson with Matt Ray perform at 7:30 p.m. March 14 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $15-$39. Call 859-236-4692 or go to nortoncenter.com.

in performance: kuzu

Kuzu: Tyler Damon, Dave Rempis and Tashi Dorji. Photo by Julia Dratel.

There is symmetry and coincidence in how the moniker of the Chicago-rooted jazz trio Kuzu is pronounced so similarly to the name of a certain, portable instrument – namely, the kazoo. Sure, the latter is in large measure a toy, a hand-held device capable of creating considerable animation and noise. In its own way, Kuzu, which played a volcanically intense set of improvisational music Tuesday evening at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery for the Outside the Spotlight Series, reflects similar traits. Collectively, the group’s music isn’t as cartoonish as what you get out of a kazoo. But there is a complimentary sense of wonder at work in both camps, a level of playful abandon.

On a kazoo, that kind of bedevilment sounds innocently reckless. From Kuzu, the music sounds purposely combustible. It’s the same manner of thinking except that at the Niles Gallery concert, the trio tossed all that mischief out in the open and set it on fire.

Led by Chicago saxophonist and OTS frequent flyer Dave Rempis, Kuzu revealed itself as a trio with rockish tendencies in its sense of musical proportions. That didn’t mean guitarist Tashi Dorji resorted to conventional power chords or technically overcooked soloing. Instead, he produced a sound that worked as a rhythmic foundation for the band in his use of short, clipped shards of electric color as well as a bass device, playing under the ensemble sound, especially when Rempis manned the baritone saxophone.

From there, drummer Tyler Damon (a duo mate of Dorji prior to the formation of Kuzu) seemed to dictate the pulse of the program, which was divided into two extended, untitled improvisations. At times, Damon’s playing was a set up for Rempis, as during the opening moments of the performance when a chattering of cymbals seemed to count in the entrance of a tenor sax avalanche. In other instances, he was able to lead the full trio to rhythmic retreats and even a dash of swing. But these were very brief moments – cues, really – that allowed the trio to work its way back into a thundering lather.

Rempis, as always, was a wellspring of dynamics and stamina. His vocabulary of alto, tenor and baritone ingenuity remained vast, operating from elongated lines of the blues on alto one moment and rounds of circular tenor spitfire the next that seemed to circle for a landing after a musical dogfight with Damon.

The room acoustics played a role in this merry chaos, too. The natural echo of the Niles Gallery seemed to magnify the clarity and volume of sax and drums. Curiously, electric guitar, the only amplified instrument of the three, struggled to be heard above its acoustic counterparts. But the ensemble sensibility, full of vigor and invention, never waned.

in performance: marty stuart and his fabulous superlatives

Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. From left: Chris Scruggs, Kenny Vaughan, Marty Stuart and Harry Stinson. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

In prefacing a segment of songs from his 1999 album “The Pilgrim” that encompassed nearly half of an engagingly comprehensive Opera House performance on Saturday night, Marty Stuart recited a list laundry list of career accessories. All were items he knew, prior to the album’s release, would be lost should the record tank commercially.

They included his band, his record label, his management and so on. Shoot, if he threw in a truck and jilted girlfriend and made a song out of it, he might have had enough of a conventional radio hit to keep his star status intact.

Instead, the record fizzled on the charts and Stuart, one of the prime Nashville celebs of the 1990s, was sent packing from the airwaves. “How many of you remember the ’90s?” he asked the Opera House audience. “Well, congratulations. I don’t.”

But “The Pilgrim” signaled a turn away from corporate country maneuvers into music that was darker thematically, richer musically and more in line with the country traditions that first placed Stuart on the road with Lester Flatt as a teenager. Not coincidentally, the Fabulous Superlatives, the backing combo that ignited the Saturday performance with an acreage of rootsy fire, fun and attitude, was in place within three years following the commercial dismissal of “The Pilgrim.” The band members – guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and, most recently, bassist Chris Scruggs – have been Stuart’s indie-minded, country roots accomplices ever since.

The material from “The Pilgrim” has certainly weathered the years well, displaying a cumulative narrative of reckless love, reckless death and unexpected redemption. Sometimes the tunes encapsulated Stuart’s own weary world view, as in the cool agility of “The Observations of a Crow” which can best be categorized, thematically and musically, as country noir. In other instances, the “Pilgrim” music went straight to tradition – most notably in a duet version of the standard “Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man.” The tune was played with Stuart on mandolin and Earl Scruggs on banjo for the 1999 recorded version. On Saturday, grandson Chris Scruggs helped rewire the song as a mandolin/bass showdown full of rhythmic fortitude.

But the music from “The Pilgram” was merely a portion of a Stuart performance that surveyed much of his career, from the famed ‘90s hitmaking days (“Tempted,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’”) to tunes from 2017’s psychedelic inclined, Western-tinged “Way Out West” album (the Byrds-meets-Beatles twangfest “Time Don’t Wait” and the harmony rich “Old Mexico”) to works highlighting each of the Superlatives culminating in a transformation of “Orange Blossom Special” from a fiddle tune into a scorching showpiece for Stuart on solo mandolin.

There were fascinating curveballs, too, including the surf-inspired instrumental “Mojave” that highlighted feisty guitar play from Vaughan and the show closing premiere of a new work, “The Angels Came Down,” that pondered death and rebirth with the same narrative grace that marked the “Pilgrim” tunes.

Topping it all was a highly audience-friendly performance attitude that made the music sound effortlessly natural, from Stuart’s “bandstand request” for Scruggs to take a crack at “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to the gospel-esque fervor and alertness that drove “Tear the Woodpile Down.”

It all amounted to a country show for the ages presented by a pack of roots-savvy scholars who were all too eager to go reeling in the years.

mccoy tyner, 1938-2020

McCoy Tyner.

McCoy Tyner was a prizefighter. No, he wasn’t a boxer. For all I know, he wasn’t even an athlete. But when he sat down at the piano, the gloves came off. He was brutal with the keys, conjuring runs of intense speed and physicality fueled by a seemingly unending supply of performance stamina. But what he created wasn’t a mere display of strength. What drove his monstrous soloing and the layers of modal mischief he engaged in with his bandmates seemed to be spiritual in design and intent. Like former employer and mentor John Coltrane, Tyner played until what he had to say was concluded. And what he had to say required considerable human fire power to express.

I recall well the intermission point of a trio concert Tyner gave at the University of Louisville in 2001. Having hardly spoken to the audience, he went on a rampage at the piano with huge, muscular lines that engaged in a tug of war with the rhythm section. The intensity of his playing never waned with his hands going at the keys like a fighter to a punching bag. The sound that emerged was rich, joyous and exhausting. When intermission arrived, Tyner stood up, drenched in sweat, and immediately walked offstage as if he had not fully disconnected from whatever atomic séance had just occurred.

That’s how powerful his playing was.

For many, Tyner will be defined by his work with Coltrane during the first half of the 1960s, a period that saw the release of such vanguard recordings as “Crescent,” “Impressions,” “Ascension,” “Meditations” and, in 1964, the immortal “A Love Supreme.” That alliance alone would secure legendary status for any pianist, although the records’ blend of spiritual adventure and jazz tradition, along with their keen quartet interplay and soloing, asserted a level of dynamics few artists came close to attaining.

But it was with a near 50-year career of his own that Tyner’s playing grew bolder. The albums he recorded during the 1970s for the Milestone label were particularly striking, shifting from solo piano works (the 1972 Coltrane tribute “Echoes of a Friend”), ferocious concert statements (the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival postcard record “Enlightenment” and it’s career-defining performance of “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit”) and even string-enhanced music (1976’s “Fly with the Wind”). The recordings heightened Tyner’s profile as a composer to a stature that met his already proven reputation as an instrumentalist.

It was just after the release of another 1976 gem, “Focal Point,” that Tyner’s music hit me on a more personal level. As a college freshman writing for the University of Kentucky’s student newspaper The Kernel, I was assigned to interview Tyner in the midst of a week-long engagement at a Short Street jazz club called O’Keefe’s. As a disciple of the then-flourishing fusion movement, my fascination with jazz was mostly centered on the electric heroes of the day – Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Despite studying up on Tyner’s history, I was largely ignorant of the level of influence he held with legions of jazz contemporaries, including the electric artists I revered. That would take years for me to fully appreciate.

But on a rainy Saturday afternoon at a long-since-demolished Ramada Inn on Waller Avenue (a Subway restaurant now sits at that location), Tyner patiently fielded questions from an appreciative but woefully green journalism student. That was my first interview with a professional musician. Little did I comprehend the kind of opportunity I had been presented.

You don’t forget an encounter like that – a meeting with an artistic inspiration who was kind, patient and encouraging as you were finding your way. Many people have stories like that, of professionals who showed then support during their earliest days of pursuing a career. That was mine. It is one I will cherish to the end of my days.

After reading of Tyner’s death yesterday at the age of 81, the inspiration of that Saturday in early 1977 began to glow all over again. When I arrived home from work, I cued up a copy of “The Greeting,” another brilliant entry from Tyner’s Milestone catalog – a live album that leaps to life with the kind of brilliant acoustic vibrancy that makes the record sound like it was cut last week and not in 1978.

For his music, for his kindness and for his unwavering jazz spirit, a boundless thank you to the jazz titan who will forever be, as the title of his 1967 album proclaimed, The Real McCoy.


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