in performance: kronos quartet

Kronos Quartet. From left: Sunny Yang, Hank Dutt, David Harrington and John Sherba. Photo by Jay Blakesberg

The full intent behind Tuesday evening’s Kronos Quartet performance at Transylvania University’s Haggin Auditorium was best expressed onstage by words as opposed to music.

Near the conclusion of Zachary James Watkins’ “Peace Be Till,” the recorded voice of Clarence Jones, speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr., divulged the cue given for the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. “These people don’t know it,” Jones recalled being told by King, “but they’re about to go to church.”

That was, in essence, what Kronos did at Transy. Of the numerous Kentucky concerts presented by the Grammy-winning, San Francisco-based quartet over the past three decades, this was among their most spiritually rich and approachable. In fact, outside of a few blinks of dissonance during “Peace Be Till,” the performance steered away from the greater abstractions that often pepper a Kronos outing. In its place was a meditative accessibility drawn from a repertoire heavy on socially conscious works from, or inspired by, the Civil Rights Era South. But the program by no means remained anchored there.

With Paul Wiancko subbing for regular Kronos cellist (and new mom) Sunny Yang, the ensemble opened the evening with a trip to Egypt by way of Islam Chipsy’s “Zaghlala.” Starting as something of an Eastern hoedown, the piece placed violist Hank Dutt on dumbek, a Middle Eastern hand drum, although the full group echoed the tune’s densely percussive feel.

Similarly, the performance concluded with Wu Man’s adaptation of “Silk and Bamboo,” a traditional Asian melody where Dutt again sat out on strings by adding to the work’s lightly exotic feel on woodblock and Chinese gong.

What came between all this, outside of striking performances of new works by Bryce Dessner of The National (“Le Bois,” which Kronos premiered three nights earlier at Carnegie Hall) and Philip Glass (the gentle, arpeggio-rich “Quartet Satz”), the program set up shop within social divides of the ‘60s era South.

For the Abel Meeropol-penned, Billie Holiday-popularized “Strange Fruit,” David Harrington’s violin lines transformed the tune’s plaintive, primary melody into an elongated cry. The resulting ensemble sound lifted itself into the air at the song’s conclusion with a slow fade worthy of a séance.

While not exactly Southern in design, the Gershwin standard “Summertime” retained a heavy dose of blues elegance by being modeled more after Janis Joplin’s 1968 psychedelic version with Big Brother and the Holding Company than the song’s “Porgy and Bess” beginnings. But the evening’s emotive highpoint came with two brief back-to-back compositions that served as the thrust of the concert’s second set.

On John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” the quartet played as an elegiac whole, producing a hymn-like feel that underscored the composition’s inescapable sadness (Coltrane wrote the piece in response to the 1963 church bombing that killed four African-American girls in Birmingham).

To counteract such tragedy, the focus then went to Dutt. He carried Antonio Haskell’s “God Shall Wipe Away All Tears” (a song cut by Mahalia Jackson at the onset of her recording career) with a viola lead of heartbreaking subtlety and grace. The capacity audience rightly awarded him an ovation.

How do you lighten the mood, especially considering the lengthy “Peace Be Till” followed this one-two punch? You serve up an encore of “Orange Blossom Special” with violinist John Sherba giving the tune enough of an exotic flair and drive to make it sound like a Romanian folk adventure.

That was the church service Kronos took Transy to on Tuesday – a program of humanity and grace that summoned the spirits of the South as readily as it criss-crossed the rest of the globe.

grammy post mortem 2020

Gary Clark Jr. performing at the 62nd Grammy Awards on Sunday. Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/ AP.

What’s the real worth of this year’s Grammy Awards when Central Kentucky’s lone hope for a win loses out before the evening ceremony even begins? That was the question facing local audiences Sunday when word arrived that Lawrence County native Tyler Childers lost out to country colossus Willie Nelson for Best Country Solo Performance.

Beyond that, the Grammys had to contend with the sudden, sobering reality that it was unfolding in “the house that Koby built” – specifically, the Staples Center, where Kobe Bryant established an NBA dynasty with the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant and his 13 year old daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash earlier in the day, a tragedy that rocked the Grammys far harder than most of the performances.

There was a glimmer of love for Kentucky rock ‘n’ roll, however. The Bowling Green-bred Cage the Elephant’s “Social Cues” took honors for Best Rock Album, a win also announced prior to the telecast.

Here’s our annual Grammy Post Mortem of all the televised grandstanding, self-promotion and occasional performance sparks that ruled CBS on Sunday night.

+ Lizzo: “Cuz I Love You,” “Truth Hurts.” “Tonight is for Koby,” the breakout artist of 2019 shouted before belting her songs out over a sea of strings. The medley boasted a ballet interlude that allowed for, what else, a costume change.

+ Alicia Keys: “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” “We never in a million years thought we would have to start the show like this,” said the ceremony’s host, a multi-Grammy winning artist, again referencing Bryant’s death. Her response was an understated a capella tune aided by the group that made the song a hit, Boyz II Men. Simple and emotively effective.

+ Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani: “Nobody But You.” Back to business as usual. Standard Grammy fare with the usual manufactured pathos.

+ The Jonas Brothers: “What a Man’s Gotta Do.” A featherweight tune dressed up and weighed down with dancers, horns and unremarkable harmonies.

+ Tyler the Creator with Charlie Wilson and Boyz II Men: “Earfquake” and “New Magic Wand.” Visually impressive meshing of ultra-modern beats and old school soul, complete a stage full of wigged-out Tyler clones.

+ Usher, Sheila E and FKA Twigs: “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss.” How very telling that one of the highlights in a ceremony honoring today’s pop music comes from a glance back at a previous generation. That aside, Usher nailed the vocal and physical stamina necessary to ignite a medley of Prince hits from the ‘80s.

+ Camila Cabello: “First Man.” Sentimental overdose as the Cuban-American singer serenaded her tearful father. Shameless but effective.

+ Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlile: “Bring My Flowers Now.” A no-frills performance of a song penned by the two cross-generational artists with Tucker’s weathered, world weary vocals front and center.

+ Arianna Grande: “Imagine,” “My Favorite Things,” “7 Rings,” “Thank U, Next.” A song of hope and a classic tale of innocence led to Grande singing in fluffy lingerie with a pack a similarly attired dancers on two stages – the second being a bedroom. A mash-up of tired dance-pop theatrics and the evening’s silliest choreography.

+ Billie Eilish: “When the Party’s Over.” Backed by brother Finneas, the 18-year old pop celeb offered a moody, surprisingly tender ballad before her clean sweep of the Grammys’ top trophies for Album, Record and Song of the Year and Best New Artist.

+ Aerosmith and RUN-DMC: “Living on the Edge,” “Walk This Way.”  An energetic rekindling of the genre busting alliance both groups assembled three decades ago. Watching Flavor Flav dancing in the audience, though, was the highlight.

+ Lil Nas X: “Old Town Road.” A country/hip-hop hybrid performed with an extensive guest list that included Kentucky’s own Billy Ray Cyrus. Impressive as a cultural mash-up. Pretty pedestrian, however, as a pop document.

+ Demi Lovato: “Anyone.” A stark, if somewhat overblown confessional, penned just before the former teen star’s hospitalization for what was widely reported as a drug overdose.

+ John Legend, Kirk Franklin, DJ Khaled, Roddy Rich, Meek Mill and YG: “Higher.” A massive tribute to West Coast rapper Nipsey Hussle who was fatally shot last year. Leave it to Legend, together with a recorded clip of Russell, on the Khaled song “Higher,” to make the medley his own.

+ Rosalia: “Juro Que,” “Malamente.” In a refreshing diversion from Latin music’s usual dissent into faceless dance-pop, Rosalia modernized tradition by setting her singing to flamenco rhythms.

+ Alicia Keys and Brittany Howard: “Underdog.” Staged initially as a simple acoustic affirmation, the performance faded into a generic, glossy pop-soul ritual.

+ H.E.R.: “Sometimes.” A good intentioned but ultimately unremarkable pop meditation that broke through its shopworn gloss only when H.E.R. briefly erupted on guitar.

+ Bonnie Raitt: “Angel from Montgomery.” A criminally abbreviated slice of solo acoustic grace and soul honoring Lifetime Achievement Award winner John Prine. At least the sagely Prine, seated in the crowd, was given a standing ovation.

+ Gary Clark Jr. and The Roots: “This Land.” Perhaps the most honestly urgent performance of the night. A slab of raucous psychedelia that slugged the specter of racism right in the kisser.

+ Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band: In a long overdue change of mood, the In Memoriam segment was sent off not with a musical dirge but with a blast of brassy carnival soul indicative of the New Orleans spirit.

+ Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, Joshua Bell, Ben Platt, The War and Treaty, Lee Curreri, Gary Clark Jr, Misty Copeland, Debbie Allen Dance Company, Common, Lang Lang: “I Sing the Body Electric.” A rare all-star collaboration that worked, blending music, dance and hip hop. The performance, dedicated to music education, honored retiring Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich

in performance: steep canyon rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left: Barrett Smith, Nicky Sanders, Mike Guggino, Woody Platt, Graham Sharp and Mike Ashworth. Photo by David Simchock.

Leave it to the Steep Canyon Rangers to actually apologize to a Saturday night club crowd because they asked for a bit of silence during one of the quieter segments of its program.
That happened at Manchester Music Hall when the Grammy-winning bluegrass-and-more troupe trimmed its ranks and instrumentation for a few subtle passages played and harmonized around a single microphone. Most of the crowd readily complied while those at the bar near the back end of the cavernous room were oblivious and kept chatting. Such is life when you march to your own tune in a performance combat zone.
This was an intriguing moment for other reasons, as well. Playing around a lone mic is standard practice for a traditional bluegrass troupe. The Rangers’ music, however, is not dictated by historical protocol. Then again, the North Carolina band’s collective method of modernization didn’t travel an expected path, either.
The practice adopted by many contemporary bluegrass outfits is to approach songs with the accessibility and, ultimately, predictability of pop-informed country. That results in a lighter shade of a genre that is pretty weightless to begin with. The two-hour show favored music, much of which was penned by banjoist Graham Sharp, that steered clear of modern bluegrass sheen and sunshine to focus on meatier melodies and often darker themes.
“Stand and Deliver,” with Sharp’s sobering vocal lead, boasted a lyricism that grew out of a dub-style reggae groove propelled by drummer Mike Ashworth and mandolinist Mike Guggino. For the title tune to the 2013 Rangers album “Tell the Ones I Love,” a banjo melody from Sharp repeated almost as if it was on a loop, triggering vocal blends with guitarist Woody Platt that led to a lengthy ensemble jam. Then there was “Monumental Fool,” a heartbreak tune turned inward with another instrumental excursion that ended with the entire band on the drum riser fueling a percussive groove.
Yes, that right – a drum riser. At a bluegrass performance. But this was bluegrass rewritten to the Rangers specifications and fortified by a setlist that included, along with the mentioned examples, loads of new tunes. Slap all of this together and you had an evening of dynamics and invention that none of the Rangers needed to apologize for.

in performance: fabio mittino and bert lams

Bert Lams (left) and Fabio Mittino,

It seemed fitting that Fabio Mittino and Bert Lams had driven 18 hours – from Hartford, Conn., to be exact – in order to play the Kentucky Coffee Tree Café in Frankfort on Wednesday evening. That’s because the program they designed for two acoustic guitars had done a bit of traveling of its own.

For roughly 75 minutes, the duo explored the music of G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann. The former was a philosopher and mystic of Greek and Armenian ancestry who gathered tunes during late 19th and early 20th century travels throughout the Far East. He then dictated them for transcription, often through oral recitation, to the latter, a Russian composer and one of Gurdjieff’s most trusted protégés.

So, in a nutshell, the evening was a bit of a travelogue. What Mittino and Lams translated that into was a series of brief instrumental pieces averaging about two minutes in length that possessed the exactness and elegance of classical music, the emotive accessibility of folk and liturgical works and a modest but pronounced exotic air that came from a variety of Eastern accents.

During the concert-opening “Movement 13,” a lead from Mittino danced about with the delicacy of a ballet, yet at its core sat a melody of simple, bittersweet beauty. Similarly, “Mamasha” revolved around a sense of classical grace Mittino rightly compared to Chopin.

While the entire program was focused on Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music, save for a lone Mittino original titled “Shining Road” that had the guitarist juggling dual melodies simultaneously, there was still considerable variety. For “Tibetan Masked Dance,” Lams let loose with a vigorous, repeated riff that could have passed for surf music while the entire piece possessed the spry animation (and propulsion) of a mazurka. “Round Dance in G” later slowed the pace of Mittino’s more rugged rhythmic phrasing while Lams’ lead summoned a buoyant dance melody that quickly said its peace before receding so that the composition could stop on a dime.

The most fascinating aspect to this seemingly forgotten music, though, were the roots it revealed to the works of a slightly more familiar culture. There was no mistaking the Eastern inspiration within “Armenian Song.” But as the tune’s relaxed but stately melody unfolded, one could detect how such an exotic sound was connected to classical and especially folk works from more Western regions of Europe. Who knows? Maybe Bach possessed a smidge of Armenian blood we didn’t know about.

Regardless, catching a ride with Mittino and Lams through the far off lands once travelled by Gurdjieff without leaving the ultra-intimate setting of the Coffee Tree Café made for an exquisite vacation from the dead-of-winter doldrums.

in performance: delvon lamarr organ trio

Delvon Lamarr. Photo by Jan Scheffner Photography.

You sensed early Sunday evening at The Burl that Delvon Lamarr and Jimmy James would have been more than content to spend their two-hour performance trading riffs and melodic fragments from whatever vintage tune popped into their brains and, eventually, fingertips.

That was how much of the show played out for the mainstay members of the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. The set was framed by their animated instrumentation and interaction – Lamarr on B3 organ and James on guitar with Steven Sandifer, the latest in a succession of drummers, rounding out the lineup. From there, the music revealed a devotion to a groove owing equally to late ‘60s/early ‘70s era jazz and soul. But the trio’s resulting music was perhaps better viewed as summit of expectation and surprise.

The expectation part was revealed during playful sparring between the two mainstay members that turned the show into something of a groove-centric jukebox. Before launching into the sunny expanse of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” (a soul staple the Lamarr Trio has essentially made own over the last two years), licks from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” and Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” were introduced as a sort of multi-genre, cross-generational warm up.

Later, during an update of the vastly more obscure “Top Going Down, Bottom Going Up” (a mid ‘70s single for Georgia R&B star Nathan Bartell), Lamarr and Jones spent a good 20 minutes letting the jukebox rock as the tune receded into the more layered, orchestrated colors of the B3. The two then traded licks from melodies by the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Gnarls Barkley, Survivor, The Temptations, The Beatles, Biz Markie, Bob Marley and, perhaps most improbably, Dolly Parton (by way of a snippet from the chorus to “Jolene,” which the crowd largely unrecognized).

Finally, with a show-closing take on Tyrone Davis’ unjustly unheralded 1968 hit “Can I Change My Mind,” the organ-guitar tradeoff squeezed in riffs from Nirvana, Led Zeppelin and Rush. Fittingly, James was wearing a Rush t-shirt for the show, a likely tribute to the Canadian band’s drummer Neal Peart, who died last week.

Needless to say, this wasn’t the kind of vocabulary one would expect from a band seemingly devoted to the soul-pop grooves generated decades ago by the likes of Lonnie Smith and Brother Jack McDuff. But such tinkering with tradition seemed to be at the heart of the fun, especially onstage, for the trio. Watching Lamarr and James break into smiles as the jams erupted, whether they were through the medley-laden tunes or stand-alone delights like the new Meters-meets-James Brown groove-a-thon “Chicken Leg” or the solid soul shuffle “Fo’ Sho’,” uncorked a level of performance immediacy that rivaled the most fervent of rock shows.

James, however, took all of that a step further. During the greasy-grooved “Buttered Popcorn” and the equally rambunctious “The Dirty,” the guitarist seemingly cut ties with the trio’s soul serenading by turning his amp up and letting a series of brash, electric solos turn the music into blasts of pure psychedelia. Jimi Hendrix was an obvious reference point for this kind of stylistic detour, but the soul foundation still at the heart of James’ playing better brought to mind the great Parliament/Funkadelic guitar giant Eddie Hazel.

“I could do this all night,” James remarked earlier in the concert as the swapping of riffs and melodies with Lamarr began. Given the sparks triggered between the two as the night progressed, few in the audience would have minded if he did.

in performance: the lexington philharmonic with byron stripling

Byron Stripling.

In offering a New Year’s Eve performance at the Opera House thematically more than stylistically centered on the music of New Orleans, the Lexington Philharmonic largely bequeathed the evening to Columbus jazz artist Byron Stripling. As such, the orchestra maintained a distant presence in a program centered almost exclusively on Stripling’s animated profile as vocalist, raconteur, trumpeter and occasional conductor. But by the evening’s end, it was his second-in-command – and by that we don’t mean the first violinist – that stole the show.

First things first. The Philharmonic knew what it was in for by enlisting Stripling as guest conductor (one of the few leading the orchestra’s concerts this season not vying for the job of its next music director). Having served in the role as recently as 2017 for another New Year’s Eve performance centered on Cotton Club-era jazz, he proved an engaging, audience-friendly entertainer and a fine fit for a pops concert.

Juggling multiple roles with conducting consuming the least of his stage time, Stripling revealed a sharp, vibrant tone on trumpet indicative of his idol Louis Armstrong but a vocal and emcee flair more in line with a reveler like Cab Calloway.

All of that suited the evening’s repertoire neatly, whether it was through tunes readily associated with Crescent City, as in a regal reading of “Basin Street Blues” and its subsequent call-and-response vocals with the audience, or works with a comparatively tenuous New Orleans link, as in a somewhat overly tidy version of the blues standard “I Got My Mojo Working.”

Throughout most of this, the Philharmonic’s presence was modest, a product largely of arrangements that called for little more than rudimentary string and brass accompaniment. A few intriguing exceptions were “St. James Infirmary” and “St. Louis Blues,” where the orchestra’s summery grace provided the music with a “Porgy and Bess” level of elegance.

The bulk of the program instead placed emphasis on leaner workouts with a jazz trio featuring two of Stripling’s Columbus co-horts, pianist/B3 organist Bobby Floyd and drummer Rich Thompson, along with Lexington bassist Eli Uttal-Veroff. There was much to enjoy in their work, especially in an inventive Afro-Cuban remake of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

Bobby Floyd.

While the trio’s work left the Philharmonic with little to do but sit and watch for a considerable portion of the concert, it gave voice to the evening’s ace-in-the-hole – keyboardist Floyd. Aside from the churchy soulfulness he provided the full company performances and frequent sparring bouts with Stripling, the evening’s highlights came when Floyd was left alone.

In the first set, that translated to a robust version of Scott Joplin’s “Maple City Rag” on solo piano that was as authentic in its grasp of New Orleans’ musical spirit as anything in the concert. The second set allowed him to transform something as unlikely as “Battle Hymn of the Republic” into a pastoral blend of gospel and ragtime on piano before the rest of the combo and, eventually, the orchestra joined in.

The most magical moment, though, was saved for show’s closing moments. Having offered a suitable level of sass on “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Stripling ushered the Philharmonic offstage and then left himself, leaving Floyd to wail away with a singular gospel-soul jam accompanied only by Thompson. As retiring a presence onstage as Stripling was extroverted, Floyd flashed a shy smile to the audience upon the jam’s completion and exited the stage as the house lights came up. The show, for all intents and purposes, was in his pocket as he departed.

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.

in performance: ben monder

Ben Monder. Photo by John Rogers

After an extended opening medley of “My One and Only Love” and “Dreamsville” that offered dual images of his guitar profile, Ben Monder mumbled a cordial greeting to the crowd gathered Friday evening at the Friends Meeting House on Price Ave. for the Origins Jazz Series. It was next to impossible to discern what was said, so the follow-up remark seemed a little curious.
“That was a joke.”
Mild laughter.
“I’ll be here all night.”
Slightly more pronounced laughter.
“Well, for about another 30 minutes.”
While the New York guitarist’s future as a comedian may be in doubt, his considerable ability to create a gallery full of sound portraits during the 70-minute solo electric performance was asserted. The opening medley, performed as separate interpretations on his fine 2019 album “Day After Day,” set the pace for a program whose melodic intensity continually mounted. “My One and Only Love,” however, came across like an intimate conversation with single, piano-like notes that established a chiming balance of atmospherics and melody.
For much of the evening, such duality would be called upon. Monder would regularly employ a modest array of pedal effects to establish his sound, although they were mostly used for tonal effect. There was no looping and noticeable delay gimmickry. The textured sound he would create for the program seemed quite organic.
Things intensified slightly as Monder took on Ralph Towner’s “Anthem.” While it was thrilling just to hear a work by the almost exclusively acoustic catalogue of the great Towner transferred to an electric setting, Monder struck a fascinating balance between his layered sound and the tune’s moody countenance. For instance, at the heart of the composition sat a brief, but ominous melody reminiscent of a chant. Monder used it as an anchor for an interpretation that employed more distorted guitar voices, courtesy of the pedals, to establish his own sense of ambience.
The warmer, cyclical set up of another standard, “Never Let Me Go,” reflected orchestration constructed around a series of agile, rolling chords repeated in almost mantra-like fashion. That helped set up an eventual finale where Monder gave in fully to his darker ambient impulses. The soundscape opened with a mounting electric edge, suggestive of the storm to come. When it arrived, Monder indulged in an exquisite torrent of sound – a massive electric wash that flooded the room in waves. The results mirrored remarkably the sonic imagery from the title tune to “Day After Day.”
Monder mentioned the segment was inspired by Zen poetry. The music’s initial darkness might have disputed that estimation, but the eventual electric envelopment of the finale did indeed suggest a choral spaciousness – an aural sky where shards of light continually found their way safely to those below.

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