Archive for in performance

in performance: eric johnson/gonzalo bergara quartet/emma moseley

eric johnson. photo by max crace.

eric johnson. photo by max crace.

Probably the most dazzling aspect of Eric Johnson’s solo acoustic performance at last night’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center was its overall lack of flash. An Austin, Tx. guitar giant known largely for blissed out, psychedelic departures from conventional Lone Star blues rock, Johnson focused largely on the unplugged material from his new “EJ” album. That meant finding a more compositional center to his song structure and a more fluid, streamlined guitar sound.

It also involved more folkish construction. Early Simon & Garfunkel proved a heavy inspiration. The duo’s work was addressed directly during a set opening cover of “Mrs. Robinson” that deconstructed the tune’s melody to the point that only fragments of the chorus were recognizable through all the harmonic mischief. Less obvious was the unrecorded original “Divanae” which was bolstered by shades of ‘60s-era British folk along with the stateliness of Paul Simon’s phrasing from the same period. “Once Upon a Time in Texas,” however, was likely more in line with what guitar aficionados in the crowd were anticipating. Despite an overall summery stride, the tune explored deeper percussive flourishes and greater tension within the composition’s artful but lyrical turns.

But this was by no means Johnson’s show exclusively. Also on the bill was the Gonzalo Bergara Quartet, a string band boasting an appealing infatuation with the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt – especially his Quintette du Hot Club de France-era music with Stephane Grappelli. That group was largely the model for an ensemble giddiness piloted as much by Houston/Austin violinist Leah Zeger as by Buenos Aires-born guitarist Bergara. While much of the set also covered material by The New Hot Club of America, a larger ensemble that includes Bergara and Zeger, several quartet-recorded works yielded the group’s most dramatic moments. Among the highlights: the mash-up of styles, tempo and harmony within “Nightmare No. 2” and the joyous Django drive and pizzicato playfulness of “December.”

Finally, there was an interlude by 16 year old guitar Emma Moseley, another Austin-ite, who offered instrumental variations within a Stevie Wonder medley (“Isn’t She Lovely” and “Superstition”) that were full of astonishing (and simultaneous) displays of rhythm and lead melodies. Mosley also tackled Tommy Emmanuel’s “Antonella’s Birthday,” revealing a level of dynamics, inward confidence and overall artistic maturity that proved remarkable for an artist so young.

 

in performance: bob dylan

bob dylan. photo by william claxton.

bob dylan. photo by william claxton.

As Bob Dylan croaked and crooned through a bewildering performance last night at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, it was difficult not to feel a sense of displacement. At heart, this was a rock show that overshadowed much of his famed folk pedigree. The songs, however, often sounded like they were musically and thematically caught in a time warp.

A fascinating but askew case in point came late in the 100 minute show with the fittingly titled “Long and Wasted Years.” One of four works pulled from 2012’s “Tempest” album (Dylan’s most recent recording of original compositions), it detailed a protagonist forsaken by love and family and, as a result, left to feel suitably scattered in a desert-esque purgatory. “Whadaya doin’ out there in the sun anyway?” sang Dylan, 75, with bemused, fractured glee. “Don’t you know the sun can burn your brains right out?”

It was a bit removed from the socially penetrating narratives that likely won Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature this fall. Or was it? Earlier in the set, he ripped through the title song to 1965’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album, a work where everyone from Biblical sages to bluesmen to gamblers converged on a stretch of road running from Minnesota to Louisiana. A half-century on, even with the purposely scrambled version Dylan served up last night, the song constructs a Twilight Zone of sorts that assembles characters from varying times and circumstances.

In terms of repertoire, Dylan focused on either very early songs or very recent ones. That meant a three decade period (from roughly 1966 to 1996) was ignored, save for a coarse, melodically rewired reading of the “Blood on the Tracks” romantic meditation “Tangled Up in Blue.” None of that mattered, however, as pretty much everything sounded antique. The recent works from “Tempest,” together with the dark jubilee tune “High Water (for Charley Patton)” from 2001’s “Love and Theft,” harkened back to an almost minstrel minded era rooted in blues variations. Music from his newest recordings (2015’s “Shadows in the Night” and 2016’s “Fallen Angels”) were actually covers of Sinatra-era pop tunes. Finally, the early Dylan songs within the set, most of which were penned 50 or more years ago, were, by definition, of a different vintage.

The Sinatra-inspired material was the big curiosity as they reined in the corrosive wheeze that is Dylan’s usual weapon of vocal attack. No one is going to mistake him for ol’ Blue Eyes, mind you. But it was nonetheless intriguing to watch Dylan grab the microphone stand and lean to the side to play crooner on classics like “I Could Have Told You,” “All or Nothing at All” and, perhaps fittingly, “Autumn Leaves.” But in the hands of his band, particularly pedal steel guitarist and BR5-49 alumnus Donnie Herron, the tunes sounded less like pop relics and more like mystic prairie lullabies.

As for his own back catalog, Dylan has always considered it ripe for plundering. By playing piano for most of the performance with a suggestion of ragtime and barrelhouse color, Dylan awarded some of his more foreboding works – in particular, “Desolation Row” – a curiously hopeful glow.

But when the setlist turned to a “Tempest” tune like “Pay in Blood,” all bets were off. The sentiments went adrift again with a rhythmic drive as hardened and unforgiving as the lyrics. “I pay in blood,” Dylan sang, briefly breaking into a toothy grin. “But not my own.”

in performance: dierks bentley/randy houser/drake white and the big fire

dierks bentley.

dierks bentley.

“We’re a long way from The Dame,” remarked Dierks Bentley two songs in to his Rupp Arena return last night. From a literal standpoint, of course, the long demolished Main St. rock club located where the CentrePointe project now resides, was just a few blocks away from the cavernous Rupp. But The Dame was where Bentley essentially introduced himself to Lexington in 2004. So figuratively, the singer has indeed traveled far since then with a trio of possible wins at the annual Country Music Association Awards awaiting him next week.

The celebratory feel of last night’s Rupp outing – his fourth appearance at the venue, a stat he worked into a verse of the road anthem “Every Mile a Memory” late in the show – was mixed with a touch of honest gratitude for the venue, right down to a remark about the absence of Rupp’s famed “Big Bertha” speaker cluster. The good natured vibe carried over into the music, too, with a set launched by a pair organically designed, bluegrass-savvy works, “Up on the Ridge” and “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go).”

The set quickly morphed into the kind of rockish drive indicative of contemporary inclined country with barroom themed works like “Am I the Only One,” anthemic pieces such as “Hold On” and every curiosities that included the title track to the singer’s recent “Black” album that matched Americana sentiment with the U2-like guitar chatter of Brownsville native Ben Helson.

But it was Bentley’s attitude that essentially sold the performance. The usual bro country machismo and modern country pandering were absent from the show. Instead, it relied on honest physicality, drive and musical gusto.

A similar sense of earnest cheer also pervaded the show-opening set by Drake White and the Big Fire. While some of their tunes tended to possess a shopworn country-rock feel, “That Don’t Cost a Dime” proved a novel stylistic mash-up of rural boogie, country swing and even reggae (via a chorus snippet of “Stir It Up”). Throughout, though, White’s vocals reflected a vintage swagger reminiscent of bands like Old Crow Medicine Show.

The antithesis of both Bentley and White was the artist sandwiched between them on last night’s bill, Randy Houser. A singer boasting a booming voice tailor made for arenas but little understanding of dynamics or artistic humility, Houser mistook vocal potency for artistic ingenuity. What resulted were bludgeoning performances of “Boots On” and “My Kind of Country” full of puffed up self-importance. Even the solo acoustic “Like a Cowboy” was a one man vocal stampede packaged with its own dramatic pause so the audience could bask in the strenuous feat that had just been executed.

The crowning touch to what may have been one of the more preposterous country performances to hit Rupp Arena in recent years, even more so than the video and lighting blitzkrieg that suggested Houser might have been imagining himself as headliner, was a bizarre remark the singer made following “How Country Feels” – specifically toward the hearty crowd adulation awarded to it.

“Well, that doesn’t suck at all.”

Sure, this was probably just a backhanded way of sounding appreciative. But one couldn’t help but imaging a different audience response fashioned as a response to such a classless quip.

“Wanna bet?”

 

in performance: john mellencamp/carlene carter

carlene carter and john mellencamp performing last night at the EKU center for the arts in richmond. herald-leader staff photo by mark cornelison.

carlene carter and john mellencamp performing last night at the EKU center for the arts in richmond. herald-leader staff photo by mark cornelison.

“Watch out for the creepers,” sang John Mellencamp last night at the onset of an efficient and entertaining performance at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. The bemused warning, part of a hapless blast of modern day paranoia and mistrust called “Lawless Times,” signaled business as usual for the Indiana rocker. His singing voice may have changed a bit with a coarser delivery that was likely the by-product of age and tobacco. But the creakiness, along with the loose, roots-driven sound of an expert band, kept the hard times from hitting too close to home. In fact, Mellencamp made himself one of the tune’s unwitting victims. “If you want to steal this song,” he sang, “it can easily be loaded down.”

The program evolved into an appealing mix of songs new and old, familiar and obscure. “Lawless Times” was one of three tunes offered from Mellencamp’s 2014 album “Plain Spoken,” a record that colored the Americana-savvy narratives that have long been trademarks of his finer compositions with a leaner, blues-leaning sound. The highlight of the trio was “The Isolation of Mister,” a personal requiem where regret and loneliness out measured any pervasive sense of loss. “I thought happiness was a transgression,” Mellencamp sang with stoic solemnity. “I just took it as it came.”

There were also instances where the blues attitude won out, as in a version of the Robert Johnson classic “Stones in My Passway” (cut for Mellencamp’s 2003 covers album “Trouble No More”) that whittled singer and band down to a lean quartet. Curiously, as the economical roots music charge intensified, the vocals took on a near James Brown-level fervency.

The hit parade, of course, was what electrified the crowd. Patrons listened patiently as the more ragged extremes of Mellencamp’s singing triggered the very Tom Waits-like turns of “The Full Catastrophe” (a deep cut from 1996’s “Mr. Happy Go Lucky” album). But when a highly electric “Rain on the Scarecrow” revealed the full might of the band or when Mellencamp took on a solo acoustic reworking of “Jack and Diane,” the audience erupted.

The latter was performed with almost apologetic candor. “The only reason I still play this is because I know you guys want to hear it.” Playing is about all he did. Mellencamp sang a lead-in verse or two, but largely let the audience handle the vocal chores.

Some of the show’s older works have aged better than others. “Pop Singer” just needs to be jettisoned. It wasn’t that strong of a single when it hit radio in 1989. If there was any intended irony within the storyline (“Never wanted to be no pop singer”) it was lost years ago. If it was intended as something more matter-of-fact, then some explaining of the ticket prices – which topped out at over $200 – was in order. On the flip side, “Check It Out” remained every bit the effortless everyman anthem it was when the song was released in 1987, still bolstered by an Americana flair and a surprising lyrical hopefulness that have not dimmed.

The show-stealer, though, was another sleeper, “Longest Days.” The leadoff song from 2007’s T Bone Burnett-produced “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” album, it was introduced by a touching and quite humorous remembrance of Mellencamp’s late grandmother. The song itself was pure folk poetry written – and, curiously, sung – with the directness and simplicity of a John Prine chestnut.

As a bonus, the performance sported a 45 minute opening set by Carlene Carter. The singer’s career has shifted from post-punk pop (in the late ‘70s and ‘80s) to mainstream country (late ‘80s and ‘90s) to the roots-driven Americana of the Carter Family, of which she is a third generation member. While her stage persona was often the astonishing embodiment of her late mother, June Carter Cash, the unaccompanied set was an arresting blend of Carter Family faith (“The Storms are on the Ocean”), vintage originals reflecting a surprisingly deep vocal resonance (“Easy From Now On”) and learned folk expression (“Blackjack David”). She joined Mellencamp later it in the evening to preview tunes from a collaborative album due out next year. But it was on her own that Carter merged three distinct career chapters into a single, joyous set.

 

in performance: doyle bramhall II

doyle bramhall ii. photo by danny clinch.

doyle bramhall ii. photo by danny clinch.

“This is not the first barbeque joint I’ve played, coming from Texas,” said Doyle Bramhall II last night at Willie’s Locally Known. “But it is the best.”

Hopefully, someone at the Southland Drive music joint/barbeque hangout got a recording of that. It was the sort of soundbite that brings in customers. But for all the Lone Star heritage that ran through the guitarist’s veins – along with, in all likelihood, barbeque sauce – Bramhall’s tastefully scalding 95 minute performance steered clear of any expected exercises in Texas roots rock. It was instead a stripped down, internalized and heavily psychedelic variation of the music from his new “Rich Man” album.

So dedicated was Bramhall to the recording that he devoted all but three tunes last night to it, which meant the majority of the audience that packed Willie’s was likely experiencing music they didn’t know.

But from the show-opening strains of “My People,” such unfamiliarity proved a non-issue. Steeped in a Southern soul accent full of swampy solemnity, the tune, as was the case with much of the “Rich Man” material, simmered in a roots sound that took its time to grind out a groove before erupting with a guitar blast that was less in line with Texas blues-rock and more akin to the kind of dense, dark psychedelia fashioned by Traffic at the dawn of the 1970s.

Sure, the Southern slant of Bramhall’s soul sound possessed a warm cast at times, especially during “Keep You Dreamin,’” which became a funk treatise before Bramhall turned on the psychedelia via a solo that sounded like something his former employer, Eric Clapton, designed during his Cream years.

Similarly, covers of Johnny Guitar Watson’s “Lovin’ You” and Bill Withers’ “Better Off Dead” (the latter serving as an unassuming encore) detailed the brighter soul casts of Bramhall’s playing. But the mix of free jazz and Eastern fusion during “Saharan Crossing” and the suite-like construction of “The Samanas,” which began with sparse psychedelic ambience and concluded with pure rockish ensemble might, better reflected the palette of colors, moods and tempos that distinguished not only Bramhall’s remarkable musicianship but the rich, organic drive of music that prided itself on soaring outside of Texas tradition.

 

in performance: peter frampton

peter frampton.

peter frampton.

The idea of Peter Frampton performing a predominantly acoustic concert might not seem very novel at first. Lots of veteran rock artists whose careers capitalized on electric environments in arena settings opt for unplugged performances as their careers progress. They offer the chance to play more intimate venues, operate with smaller bands and (usually) smaller budgets and, if nothing else, engage new arrangements for hits played night after night, decade after decade.
Last night’s self-described “raw” performance by Frampton at the Opera House did all of that. The theatre confines and acoustic make-up let the longstanding British rocker design a program that allowed for considerable between-song discussions of the inspirations behind his compositions, like the family heirloom that triggered the idea for the title tune to his 2014 EP for the Cincinnati Ballet (“Hummingbird in a Box”) or an especially moving dedication to his patents that segued into a remembrance of longtime friend David Bowie – specifically, the latter’s invitation for Frampton to join his 1987 world tour, thus redefining him as a guitarist instead of a rock star (“Not Forgotten”). Similarly, there were moments when some of Frampton’s biggest hits were keenly reinvented, as in when he directed the Opera House audience to sing the famed talk-box medley to “Show Me the Way” and turned the set closing “Do You Feel Like We Do” into a sing-a-long that eventually erupted into an intriguing acoustic jam with guitarist/accompanist Gordon Kennedy.
But what was so surprising – and, ultimately, appealing – about the sprawling, 2 ½ performance was how comprehensive the repertoire was. All the expected “Frampton Comes Alive” hits were delivered, as was a show-closing encore of “I’m in You” (which is actually something of a rarity in his full band shows), which sent Frampton to an electric keyboard, marking the concert’s only non-acoustic moment. But with the familiar fare came loads of rarities that covered Frampton’s entire career.
From the early days was a playfully rhythmic revision of Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat” which he first recorded in 1969 with Humble Pie. Helping out the song on harmony vocals was the guitarist’s son Julian Frampton, who also opened the evening with a half-hour set. Equally unanticipated was an encore medley of “You Had to be There” (penned for the 2000 “Almost Famous” soundtrack) and the title tune to one of Frampton’s most overlooked albums, 1980’s “Breaking All the Rules.” But the real surprise had to be “The Lodger,” a track from Frampton’s 1972 debut album “Wind of Change” that switched out the original version’s brassy instrumental coda for the show’s most dizzying guitar solo.
Finally, there was a hit that seems to have grown old gracefully with Frampton, 1973’s “Lines on My Face.” An inherently sad tune to begin with, last night’s version seemed like a requiem, a tale of loss balanced by almost sagely reflection. It was the evening’s truest example of how this acoustic incarnation of Frampton’s catalog sounded both invigorated and ageless.
dea of Peter Frampton performing a predominantly acoustic concert might not seem very novel at first. Lots of veteran rock artists whose careers capitalized on electric environments in arena settings opt for unplugged performances as their careers progress. They offer the chance to play more intimate venues, operate with smaller bands and (usually) smaller budgets and, if nothing else, engage new arrangements for hits played night after night, decade after decade.
Last night’s self-described “raw” performance by Frampton at the Opera House did all of that. The theatre confines and acoustic make-up let the longstanding British rocker design a program that allowed for considerable between-song discussions of the inspirations behind his compositions, like the family heirloom that triggered the idea for the title tune to his 2014 EP for the Cincinnati Ballet (“Hummingbird in a Box”) or an especially moving dedication to his patents that segued into a remembrance of longtime friend David Bowie – specifically, the latter’s invitation for Frampton to join his 1987 world tour, thus redefining him as a guitarist instead of a rock star (“Not Forgotten”). Similarly, there were moments when some of Frampton’s biggest hits were keenly reinvented, as in when he directed the Opera House audience to sing the famed talk-box medley to “Show Me the Way” and turned the set closing “Do You Feel Like We Do” into a sing-a-long that eventually erupted into an intriguing acoustic jam with guitarist/accompanist Gordon Kennedy.
But what was so surprising – and, ultimately, appealing – about the sprawling, 2 ½ performance was how comprehensive the repertoire was. All the expected “Frampton Comes Alive” hits were delivered, as was a show-closing encore of “I’m in You” (which is actually something of a rarity in his full band shows), which sent Frampton to an electric keyboard, marking the concert’s only non-acoustic moment. But with the familiar fare came loads of rarities that covered Frampton’s entire career.
From the early days was a playfully rhythmic revision of Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat” which he first recorded in 1969 with Humble Pie. Helping out the song on harmony vocals was the guitarist’s son Julian Frampton, who also opened the evening with a half-hour set. Equally unanticipated was an encore medley of “You Had to be There” (penned for the 2000 “Almost Famous” soundtrack) and the title tune to one of Frampton’s most overlooked albums, 1980’s “Breaking All the Rules.” But the real surprise had to be “The Lodger,” a track from Frampton’s 1972 debut album “Wind of Change” that switched out the original version’s brassy instrumental coda for the show’s most dizzying guitar solo.
Finally, there was a hit that seems to have grown old gracefully with Frampton, 1973’s “Lines on My Face.” An inherently sad tune to begin with, last night’s version seemed like a requiem, a tale of loss balanced by almost sagely reflection. It was the evening’s truest example of how this acoustic incarnation of Frampton’s catalog sounded both invigorated and ageless.
sounded both invigorated and ageless.

in performance: manhattan transfer/take 6

Take 6 and Manhattan Transfer. Clockwise from left: Joey Kibble, Cheryl Bentyne, Alan Paul, David Thomas, Janis Siegel, Alvin Chea, Khristian Dentley, Claude McKnight, Trist Curless and Mark Kibble. Photo by John Abbott.

Take 6 and Manhattan Transfer. Clockwise from left: Joey Kibble, Cheryl Bentyne, Alan Paul, David Thomas, Janis Siegel, Alvin Chea, Khristian Dentley, Claude McKnight, Trist Curless and Mark Kibble. Photo by John Abbott.

Around the half way point of their robustly entertaining collaborative concert last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, the Manhattan Transfer and Take 6 turned the tables on each other and began covering each other’s hits. Take 6, the longstanding vocal sextet, began by turning a snippet of the Transfer’s “Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone” medley into a a roots music mash-up that fell somewhere between gospel and doo-wop. The quartet-strong Transfer countered with Take 6’s “Mary,” replenishing the song’s spiritual swagger with a revival-esque fervor all its own. Back and forth it went until both ensembles settled into the vintage Transfer hit “Operator,” serving up a joyous gospel charge that spoke not just to the potency of the 10 vocalists onstage but to an endearing sense of camaraderie that made this combo platter concert, aptly dubbed “The Summit,” so enjoyable.
Though their respective repertoires over the decades have led both groups through myriad styles, the Transfer and Take 6 are, at heart, jazz groups with a deep affection for harmony cultivated through instrumentally leaning blueprints. The Tranfer’s mix of male and female vocalists operated as a horn section – sometimes overtly so, as in Janis Siegel’s trombone like scatting during “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” The all male Take 6 modeled itself on band designs favoring rhythm sections, whether it was through modern touches of beatboxing or bass singer Alvin Chea’s punctuated improvising, which was modeled closely on the rubbery tone of an acoustic double bass.
Sometimes such craftiness underscored glorious, keenly orchestrated collaborations, as in the sleek cool both groups provided the show opening “Killer Joe” In the other instances, specifically during the brilliant Gene Puerling arrangement of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” such instrumental inclination underscored the singers’ artful command of harmony.
Both groups enjoyed fine moments apart from one another, as well. Take 6 nicely showcased its pop-soul preferences during a joyous take on Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” that juggled vocal leads, vocal percussion and even a brief exhibit of instrumental color on keyboard and guitar (although the bulk of the program used the Transfer’s regular trio, led by longtime pianist Yaron Gershovsky). The Transfer’s solo highlight was unavoidably sentimental – a lovely, elegant performance of “Candy” dedicated to the memory of group founder Tim Hauser, who died in 2014.
But it was the collaborative moments, like Take 6 joining the Transfer for the final chorus of the latter’s career-defining hit “Birdland” or the exchanges the groups batted off each other during the encore version of “What I’d Say” that unlocked the potential of 10 voices in unison celebration. That’s where The Summit went over the top.

in performance: aoife o’donovan/willie watson

aoife o'donovan.

aoife o’donovan.

As her genre-defying trio performance headed for the home stretch last night at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville, Aoife O’Donovan lamented the fact that a six hour-plus drive today to her next gig in Memphis meant passing up an invited tour of the Bourbon Trail. As a means of commiseration, she offered up “Oh, Mama,” a song that saluted the liquid spirits in question before morphing into a sing-a-long that approximated a tipsy lament.

An American born songstress of Irish ancestry, O’Donovan was many things. Vocally, she was wondrously deceptive, ushering in a sense of delicate, hushed articulation (on the set-opening “Briar Rose”) that was regularly capable of flaring up to match the mightier electric atmospherics of guitarist Anthony Da Costa (especially during “The King of All Birds”). That resulted in an Americana sound dressed with an attractive ambience led by the more plaintive clarity of O’Donovan’s singing. Drummer Steve Nistor was as imaginative as Da Costa in designing the mix of atmospherics and understated Celtic rhythm that fleshed out the music. But quite often, the most delicate moments of the show were overpowered when Nistor’s playing turned rockish. You tended to notice that more when the drums were absent, as on “Donal Og.” Without such anchoring drive, the lighter textures of O’Donovan’s singing seemed to float.

willie watson.

willie watson.

This double-bill concert began with an hour long set by Willie Watson, who continued to perfect his persona as a modern day troubadour of very traditional folk music. Armed with six string guitar, five string banjo and a high tenor voice that switched out antique Americana’s prevalent sense of woe for an clear, almost sinister sense of cheer, Watson sounded unexpectedly gleeful in his slow-opening treatment of Leadbelly’s “Take This Hammer” and the largely murderous retribution staple “Rock Salt and Nails.” That the song’s very dark extremes were sung with the same temperament and gusto of the horse racing staple “Stewball” or the otherwise ribald “Keep It Clean” spoke directly to the kind of high spirits Watson employed to fashion such vintage music for modern ears.

O’Donovan and Watson joined forces for an encore to honor Bob Dylan, who made history earlier in the day by becoming the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The headliners traded verses with Da Costa on “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” making all three sound like eager disciples of a suitably ageless folk muse.

 

in performance: chick corea trio

chick corea.

chick corea.

“Can you give me an A, please?”

That was Chick Corea’s request last night at Xavier University in Cincinnati as his sold out trio performance with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Brian Blade got underway. What the veteran jazz composer and keyboardist, 75, had in mind was something of an audience tune-up. He would execute a series of playful runs on piano – some artfully simplistic, others devilishly treacherous – in hopes the audience would sing his notes back to him. It was an engaging performance icebreaker, for sure – so much so, that Corea employed it again over two hours later during an encore version of perhaps his most recognized tune, “Spain.”

Such was the current reflection of what has always made Corea such an engaging performer – the ability to maintain a sense of playfulness even as his music dived deep into stormy compositional waters. But this acoustic concert was lighter in tone than the fusion and heavy bop-driven exercises that defined much of his playing through the decades. The initial skirmish, for example, opened out into a summery arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” than was anchored, as many of Corea’s own works were, by a sparse bass melody that countered piano runs of often delicate construction.

A similar make-up dominated the new Corea original “A Spanish Song,” where the music revealed an overall darker hue. But decades old works like “500 Miles,” “Humpty Dumpty” and “Sicily” emphasized a broadly animated trio sound that bordered on the exuberant.

Speaking of which, Corea benefited greatly from his onstage allies in summoning the show’s fanciful feel. Gomez, 72, spent 11 years as bassist for another jazz piano giant, Bill Evans. Last night, he brought a density and dexterity to the music, whether it was through the spacious grace of the Evans staple “Waltz for Debby” or the rugged bowed soloing that ignited “Darn That Dream.” Blade, 46, may have been a generation removed from his bandmates, but his sense of swing was potently exact throughout the performance, especially with the tasteful drive he set up under Corea’s piano leads during “Alice in Wonderland.”

Toss all of that cross generational jazz intellect together and, sure, one didn’t mind giving Corea an A at all.

 

in performance: gunwale

gunwale, from left: dave rempis, albert wildeman and ryan packard. photo by dan mohr.

gunwale, from left: dave rempis, albert wildeman and ryan packard. photo by dan mohr.

As has been the case with several Outside the Spotlight concerts through the years, the most arresting aspect to last night’s often explosive set by the Chicago trio Gunwale was the silence as well as the sounds it created.
First, to the music itself. The 45 minute performance last night at the University of Kentucky Niles Gallery was a lesson in dynamics with saxophonist and OTS frequent flyer Dave Rempis at the helm. Split between three improvisational workouts of roughly similar length, the music allowed Rempis equal time for expression on alto, baritone and tenor sax, in that order.
The opening alto piece set the pace, however. It introduced hushed, fractured sax colors along with assorted slaps and scrapes by bassist Albert Wildeman and drummer/electronics manipulator Ryan Packard that proved anything but usual rhythm section fare. Then, about three minutes in, the switch was thrown and the full trio erupted into a furious, almost punkish assault – a blast of turbo swing that emphasized Gunwale’s sense of dramatics as well as dynamics. Then, just as quickly, the music deconstructed again.
The rest of the performance dealt as much with the assembly of the trio’s assorted sounds and temperaments as the final musical (and in some cases, purposely non-musical) statements.
While Rempis was always the focal point, Packard’s bag of electronic effects punctured the trio’s otherwise organic surroundings. In one instance, the drummer let a high frequency electric whine mesh with Rempis’ baritone mischief for a kind of otherworldly Euro-American mash up. At another point, he let the disembodied cone of a speaker reverberate off a snare to create a percussive effect of peculiar acoustic-meets-electric beauty.
But it was what happened at the end of this heavily abstract scrapbook of sound that just about stole the show. After electronics, bass and tenor concluded an engaging slow fade, no one onstage moved. For close to 30 seconds, a silence hung in the room that was so complete that outside campus noises – specifically a marching band drumline practicing in a nearby courtyard – provided what was literally the last musical word.
Rempis remarked afterward that getting a roomful of people in any kind of setting to remain quiet for even a minimal amount of time is difficult. Last night, the silent coda was so natural that you would have thought it was one of the few scripted moments in a performance that otherwise worked off no game plan at all.

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