Archive for profiles

the unlikely activist

Melissa Etheridge

melissa etheridge.

The last thing Melissa Etheridge ever imagined for her career was activism. But as a long sought life in rock ‘n’ roll began to take hold, the Grammy winning singer-songwriter discovered that being herself also meant standing up for herself.

“Seriously and truthfully, I never wanted to be activist,” said Etheridge, who performs a solo acoustic concert Saturday at the EKU Center for the Arts. “I’m seriously lazy at heart. I just wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star and live the decadent life. But I didn’t do that either.

“The thing is that I love music. The more I would get in it and the more successful I got, the more I saw how I had to be myself in this. The more I spoke the truth about who I was, the more that became activism. ‘Yes, I’m gay’ or ‘Yes, I have cancer’ or ‘Yes, I smoke cannabis’ or ‘Yes, I believe the environment is important’ – just by saying these things, I become an activist. Kind of what I’m trying to say is you don’t have to go out and change the world. All you have to do is look inside and be who you are. That will change the world.”

This year, Etheridge is taking the idea of being herself directly to her music. After 25 years with Island Records – a tenure that established a global fanbase for her rock/soul infused hits I’m the Only One and Come to My Window – she is now an independent. It’s a role she cherishes as much as that of activist.

“I began to looking at the record labels like, ‘Okay, I can do this with you and you might work one single and then you’ll put me on the pile’ or I can do it myself with my management, which has all the tools that I need to work an album, and they’re working me and not just the album.

“I think it’s a great day for the artist. I know the record industry is hurting, but I think the artist wins in this whole scenario.”

While her first album as an indie artist is nearly completion, Etheridge’s first recording away from Island came earlier this year with a song called Uprising of Love. Triggered by Russia’s demeaning treatment of its gay community, which drew international focus during the Sochi Winter Olympics, the song is more a call for unity than protest.

“The experience of the last 20 years in working for gay rights and civil rights and seeing my world change, seeing it willing to shed some light on some dark corners of our psyche and our sexuality, was like getting that boulder up to the top of the mountain. Then DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) was knocked down last summer and it felt like we really moved somewhere. We did something. But just weeks later, you get these pictures coming from Russia, and it’s like, ‘The work is really never done.’

“It is worldwide humanity. I just sat down and said, ‘What is the one message, what is the one thing I can say?’ I think above everything else, what changes hearts and minds is when a person changes their own heart and speaks truthfully so that people go, ‘Oh, I know a gay person. They are in my family or down the street or at work.’ So that’s what Uprising of Love is pleading to. It’s saying, ‘Look. This is how we can do it. I believe this and it starts with me.’”

Gay rights have been a focal point of Etheridge’s life and career since publicly coming out in January 1993, eight months before the release of her multiple platinum-selling album, Yes I Am. Numerous activist and benefit causes would be balanced with her music in the decade to come. But a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2004 reshuffled everything.

“This was at a time when I was really re-examining my life, my career and everything. ‘What is this? What is success? What am I doing? What do I want to do?’ And then to be broadsided by breast cancer just really wiped the slate clean for me. It really helped me set up my priorities.”

Bald and weakened from chemotherapy, Etheridge roared through the Janis Joplin classic Piece of My Heart at the 2005 Grammy Awards in what fans and critics still agree was a career defining performance.

 “When I was getting up there for Piece of My Heart at the Grammys, I hadn’t even been out of my house, basically. I did my radiation treatment that day and then went to the Grammys. I was seriously weak but I think that actually made for a good performance. It kind of settled me down.

“Basically, when I was going there, I just didn’t want anyone to make fun of me. I remember my guitar player saying to me, ‘You don’t know what you’re about to do, do you?’ I said, ‘No. I’m just going to do what I love.’ And I was so happy.”

Today, with a solo acoustic tour underway and her first indie album awaiting release, Etheridge feels enriched, empowered and a little wiser by her experiences.

“I love being older. I feel like life is really starting for me now. It’s like, ‘I’ve finally got the knowledge, the wisdom. It’s like, ‘Ah, I’m getting this now. I’m good here.’”

Melissa Etheridge: This is ME Solo Tour performs at 7:30 p.m. April 19 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. Tickets are $51-$71. Call (859) 353-6382 or go to http://ekucenter.com

vinyl hunters

kentucky headhunters 1

kentucky headhunters: doug phelps, richard young, greg martin, fred young.

How much does Greg Martin buy into the lasting fascination of the vinyl record? Well, when we caught up with the mainstay guitarist of the Kentucky HeadHunters, he was killing time in Bowling Green while an on-the-fritz turntable was being tended to at a repair shop.

“I was playing Jo Jo Gunne on it last night and it froze up on me.” But before heading home to Glasgow, he was contemplating one more stop.

“I’ve got a friend who runs a used record store. I’m thinking of stopping by just to see what he picked up today.”

Such remarks reveal two traits – a devotion to late ’60s/early ‘70s guitar-centric rock (Jo Jo Gunne was the ‘70s spinoff of the great ‘60s band Spirit) which abounds in the playing Martin has injected onto recordings by the HeadHunters over the last 25 years, and an equal love of the vinyl records, stereos and all things that made rock ‘n’ roll, literally, go around.

Both elements come into play with two area HeadHunters performances on Saturday. The first will be an abbreviated in-store performance at CD Central in honor of Record Store Day, the annual celebration of the vinyl format and the indie retail outlets that still honor it. The second will be a full length, arena sized headlining concert at Frankfort Convention Center – the second in a series of benefit shows for the Kentucky National Guard Memorial Fund.

“We all grew up with the vinyl record,” Martin said of himself and fellow HeadHunters Richard Young, Fred Young and Doug Phelps. “And we all grew up going to various indie record stores in our youth. We know the importance of the indies staying alive.

“I still have a huge CD collection, but I also never got rid my original vinyl. Being a musician back in the day, that was the way I figured out how to play songs and figured out Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton stuff. I bet I’ve got about 10 receivers and about three turntables hooked up at home.”

Word of Martin’s vinyl obsession has gotten out at home, too. He said he just acquired an LP copy of Moby Grape’s 1968 Wow/Grape Jam album from, of all people, his chiropractor.

“I’m going to listen to all of that tonight when I get home.
“When you get back into listening to vinyl, when you take the record out of the cover carefully, look at all the liner notes… it’s just a great experience. It’s about sitting back, listening to music and enjoying it. It’s art.”

The HeadHunters will be one five bands performing at CD Central on Saturday. The complete lineup features Shawnthony Calypso (12:30 p.m.), The Kentucky HeadHunters (1:30 p.m.), Warren Byrom and the Fabled Canelands (2:30 pm), Vegan Death (3:30 pm) and Summer Smoke (4:30 p.m.).

As always, with Record Store Day comes the single-day release of dozens of collectible vinyl recordings by all manner of major label and indie artists, from The Animals to Young the Giant.

What Record Store Day release is Martin eyeing especially?

“The vinyl reissue of Little Games by The Yardbirds. I’m just an addict when it comes to this stuff – just over the top crazy.”

The Kentucky HeadHunters perform a free set at 1:30  p.m. April 19 at CD Central, 377 S. Limestone for Record Store Day. Call (859) 233-3472 or go to www.cdcentralmusic.com. The band will also headline a 6 p.m. concert at April 19 at Frankfort Convention Center, 405 Mero St. in Frankfort with Borrowed Blue opening. Tickets are $20. Call (502) 564-5335 or go to www.guardmemorial.com.

more jimbo, please

jimbo

jimbo mathus.

As varied as his music has been – from the vaudeville swing of the Squirrel Nut Zippers to the roots-blues of the all-star South Memphis String Band to the raw, rambunctious rock ‘n’ roll of his current Tri-State Coalition – there has always been a singular stylistic core to the music of Jimbo Mathus.

“All of my songs are folk songs at heart,” said Mathus, who returns to Lexington for a Sunday performance at the Green Lantern with local blues/soul pros The North Side Shieks opening.

But the folk inspirations that Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition summon on their new Dark Night of the Soul album often possess a restless, rocking quality. He hammered the songs out during extended recording sessions at Dial Back Sound Studio, located near Mathus’ Taylor, Mississippi home. The studio is operated Bruce Watson, label manager of Fat Possum Records, who also served as producer for Dark Night of the Soul

“I went through a process of writing about 40 songs with Bruce.’ Mathus said. “I wrote the songs, but he came and listened to the demos I would create. Bruce really edited this thing down for me.

“I think people are going to be pretty surprised when they hear this. Some of the subject matter is a little darker, a little heavier. There is a song about a lynching on there called Fire in the Cane Brake. The title track is a song about what would happen if the earth was ending. Of course, there is some good old rock ‘n’ roll and some freewheeling stuff, too.”

The more protracted recording approach for Dark Night of the Soul differed in design from the whirlwind sessions with producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel for Mathus’ previous album, White Buffalo. But Mathus said that working with Ambel and Watson in such different settings has added greatly to the Tri-State Coalition’s maturity as a band.

“Roscoe wanted us to be a lean, mean rock ‘n’ roll machine with very few overdubs. The sound was very streamlined but we learned so much about being a band from him. Sometimes when I think I’ve learned it all, I meet somebody like Roscoe. We just performed live in the studio and it was a great experience. We were done within about three days time, having just piled up in a room with no headphones, no monitors or anything. It was just live.

“With Bruce, recording was spread out over about a year. I had the luxury of coming in every two weeks with a handful of songs and sketching out ideas and trying things. Some of them turned into some of the key pieces on the record that I would have never envisioned showing the band just because I thought they were too eccentric. It was just a different experience. Both are great producers, though.”

Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition will perform at 9 p.m. April 13 at the Green Lantern, 497 W. Third. Call (859) 242-9539.  

the new sounds of dublin

dublin guitar quartet

dublin guitar quartet: pat brunnock,brian bolger,michael o’toole,tomas o’durcain

Before a single note or an ensemble melody was played, the members of the Dublin Guitar Quartet had established a vision for the music they wanted to play.

Though conservatory trained, the four guitarists – Brian Bolger, Pat Brunnock, Michael O’Toole and Tomas O’Durcain – had little interest in a strictly classical repertoire. Instead they looked to the works of such established modern composers as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Arvo Part.

“There was a consensus even before the first rehearsal,” said Bolger by phone from his Dublin home. “There was a particular curiosity we had. The question was, ‘What would the music of American composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass sound like on guitars?’ It hadn’t really been done. Also, ‘How would a guitar quartet that specializes in contemporary music fare?’  So we kind of saw a guitar shaped hole in the contemporary music scene.”

But that fascination led to a deeper challenge – adapting and arranging compositions that were never intended as guitar pieces. Works by Reich, Glass and Part, and other modern classical composers have been adapted for numerous instrumental settings, but never for four guitars.

“I suppose we’re kind of limited in a certain respect in that the music of people (contemporary composers Mark-Anthony) Turnage or (Alfred) Schnittke, music that is very idiomatic and has lots of special techniques, doesn’t really work. It doesn’t make the translation. The music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich and Arvo Part translates the same way that the music of Bach translates to the guitar. It’s really kind of melodic and harmonically oriented, so it works well that way.”

The lengths the Dublin Guitar Quartet travel in a finding a new voice for contemporary music can be found in its arrangement of Eastern European composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s Musica Ricerata, which will be featured in the group’s April 2 performance at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville. The piece was originally written for piano before being reworked for wind and even saxophone quartets. All of the incarnations figure into the version the Dublin Guitar Quartet will perform.

“Ligeti is mostly known for his soundtracks,” Bolger said. “His soundtrack music was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, so people might recognize him from that. But Musica Ricerata is from earlier in his career so there is more explicit melodic content and more traditional things going on. It’s quite a jolly piece as well but still very modern. It kind of sticks out in the set a little bit, but it’s nice to have that variety.”

Did someone say variety? The Danville performance will also include music by Cuban composer/guitarist Leo Brouwer, former quartet member David Flynn (whose Chimurenga is a tribute to famed South African artist/activist Thomas Mapfumo) and the Irish rock troupe The Redneck Manifesto along with works by Part, Reich and Glass. The latter also figures highly in the Dublin Guitar Quartet’s recent recording activities. Its forthcoming album is devoted to guitar arrangements of Glass’ string quartets.

It all represents a marked progression from the music – what little of it there was – Bolger heard at home during his youth.

“Growing up, we only had two records in the house. One was the 1812 Overture – that really famous recording that explained how they made the cannons on the B side. The other was Cabaret. Those were the only two records in the house for a long time. Then I hit my teens and it was Metallica and thrash metal. I kind of found the guitar that way. I also liked a lot of post-rock music such as (Louisville’s) Slint and Tortoise, stuff like that.”

“It’s important for us today to find a common kind of message for any listener and not have an overemphasis on anything. When you overemphasize, you kind of sell yourself short. I like to mix things up and keep them changing so there is something there for everybody.”

Dublin Guitar Quartet performs at 7:30 p.m. April 2 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

the band montreal

kevin barnes

of montreal chieftain kevin barnes.

Sometimes the key to unlocking a band’s potential is allowing it to operate fully as a band.

That hasn’t always been the case with veteran indie-pop fave of Montreal. For over 15 years, it has worked as a nom de plume of sorts for Athens, Ga. song stylist Kevin Barnes. Onstage, a company of musicians would journey through myriad pop styles, from party funk to psychedelia to glammed up Brit pop and more. In nearly all other respects, though, of Montreal was a very singular vehicle with Barnes writing and recording nearly all the band’s music on his own.

Now, with a fascination for vintage folk-rock fueling his current songs, Barnes has decided to relinquish some of his command. For his recent Lousy with Sylvianbriar album, he enlisted a new musical team not as a mere foil for live shows but as the basis for a fully functioning band.

“It felt like a new chapter in my career,” Barnes said. “I turned over a lot of people that have been with me for awhile and just moved in this new direction. I’m very excited about it. I think it has breathed new life into the project.”

“The influences this time are mostly from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I wanted to make a record that was similar to that in a sense, as far as the way we went about recording and how I went about writing and teaching people parts. I liked the idea of getting other

people involved and having it be more communal and collaborative. But I also wanted to work really quickly, as in the course of just a couple of weeks. As a result, we were making all these spontaneous, creative decisions on the fly and just not laboring over it in a way that I have been laboring over the previous records.

“Basically, I just wanted to follow the blueprint of those records that I love – the Bob Dylan records, the Neil Young records, Leonard Cohen records, Grateful Dead records – all the records that were an inspiration for this record.”

Getting into the mindset of that music, however, required some distance – specifically, a pilgrimage to San Francisco, the epicenter of late ‘60s counterculture.

“I really wanted to get out of Athens and be somewhere new, somewhere that was kind of exotic and mysterious,” Barnes said.  “I’ve always been a huge fan of the beat poets and writers and, of course, the hippie scene from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. San Francisco is so interesting and so culturally and ethnically diverse. The architecture is amazing and just the way the city is laid out is really inspiring. I hadn’t spent that much time in San Francisco before, so I didn’t really know exactly what I was going to get out of it. But some sort of voice was calling me there and I just trusted my instincts. I lived for about three weeks in this rented apartment and wandered around and observed people. I read a lot and wrote a lot.”

With the groundwork for Sylvianbriar complete, Barnes was faced with the challenge of allowing his songs to develop with a new of Montreal lineup – vocalist Rebecca Cash, drummer/vocalist Clayton Rychlik, keyboardist Jojo Glidewell, pedal steel guitarist/bassist Bob Parins and guitarist/mandolinist Bennet Lewis – as opposed to by himself in a studio.

“It was difficult at first just because the group of people I had been working with… we were really close. We travelled the world together and had all these ups and downs together. So to basically move on and start a new life without them created a lot of tension and a lot of pain that definitely affected our relationships, which was inevitable. But at the same time, it’s exciting to feel like I’m moving in this new direction and dropping all the baggage of the past to move forward. So it’s kind of a bittersweet situation, I guess.

“For me, it’s all about the present moment and what I hope to accomplish in the future. I don’t really care at all about the things I’ve done in the past. That might seem kind of strange or whatever. But for me, it’s all about not looking back and just thinking, ‘Okay. Now what? Now what can I do?’ So I’m in a good place right now because I’m discarding stuff. Even Sylvianbriar, in a way. I’m just trying to move forward from that into some new area.”

of Montreal and Ortolan perform at 10 p.m. April 1 at Cosmic Charlie’s. 388 Woodland Ave. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 309-9499 or go towww.cosmic-charlies.com.

having a blast

jeff coffin

jeff coffin.

When reviewing their separate careers, one would suppose Jeff Coffin and Miles Osland were destined to be great friends.

Both are learned saxophonists, as well as artists active in fields of education and performance – although they have each has chosen one of those areas as a favored pursuit.

Coffin leads his own jazz fusion band, the Mu’tet, but has gained national notoriety as an alumnus of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (with which he won three Grammy Awards) and for his current role as sax man with the Dave Matthews Band. Osland is perhaps Lexington’s most visible jazz personality and the leader of several performance groups. His most enduring musical duty, however, has involved overseeing the jazz studies program at the University of Kentucky.

It was in the latter role that Osland reached out to Coffin, a New England born, Texas educated fellow saxophonist who had relocated to Nashville.

“I just called Jeff up out of the blue one day because I wanted him to come up and play and do some clinics,” Osland said. “And he agreed. Jeff is just one of the most humble, gracious cats that I know. He’s always giving of his time when he can. We’ve had him up here two or three times in the past in different capacities. This time, it’s going to be two days just jam-packed full of Jeff Coffin.”

“This time” is this weekend. Coffin will serve as an auxiliary member of the Osland/Dailey Jazztet, the combo Osland co-leads with pianist and UK faculty mate Raleigh Dailey, Friday at Natasha’s. Then on Saturday, Coffin will be the featured guest at UK’s annual Big Band Blast, a triple bill concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts that will bring together the high school level Jazz All Stars of Central Kentucky, the college level University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble (which Osland directs) and the community based Bluegrass Area Jazz Ambassadors. Coffin will perform two tunes with each group and offer a free jazz clinic in the afternoon that will be open to the public.

“A lot of the stuff we talk about in clinics deals with life lessons more so even than music lessons,” Coffin said. “I wanted to do clinics because I felt like I had some experience that I could bring to students, that I could talk to them about what they need to do to go out there, perform well and be successful at holding a gig, getting a gig and all the different things that are involved with that.

“It’s like, ‘I’m out here doing this. I know what it takes. You’re trying to get out here where I am.’ So I can talk to them about they need to do, and I really lay it on the line. Being able to play your butt off is a given. That’s where you start. It’s all the other stuff that’s going to get you the gig or not get you the gig. Those are the things we talk about. We kind of unwrap the mystery of it all and get in deep.”

The only trick in luring Coffin back to Lexington this weekend was logistics. Osland approached Coffin about helping out with the Big Band Blast over six months ago, but recording plans with the Dave Matthews Band kept a confirmation for the weekend out of reach until late into the winter.

“Ultimately, we didn’t have to face that conflict,” Osland said. “But it was really up in the air for a long time. I had Plan A. I had a Plan B. But everything worked out.”

Jeff Coffin performs at

+ 8 p.m. March 28 with the Osland/Dailey Jazztet at Natasha’s Bistro, 112 Esplanade. $10 public, $5 students. Call (859) 259-2754 or got to www.beetnik.com.

+ 3 p.m. March 29 for a clinic and discussion at the Singletary Center for the Arts Recital Hall, 405 Rose St. Free and open to the public.

+ 7:30 p.m. March 29 as part of the Big Band Blast at the Singletary Center for the Arts Recital Hall. Free. For more info, go to http://finearts.uky.edu/singletary-center.

back home again

scott miller 2

scott miller.

For the better part of a decade, Scott Miller was a performance regular in Lexington clubs. An immensely articulate songsmith, he became an ambassador of sorts for two seemingly unconnected musical camps – a thriving Knoxville musical community and a brand of Americana rock that knew a good time when it saw one, especially when it came to the libations that fueled the fun.

Miller returns to Lexington on Friday after a prolonged absence that has seen separations of sorts from both factions. Three years ago, he departed Knoxville – his home since the days of The V Roys, the rock troupe that introduced Miller to Lexington in 1996 – to his family’s Virginia farm in Staunton. A year before that, he became sober.

While both events happened out of necessity, Miller said he is now seeing the benefits of how they are playing out – personally as well as professionally.

“It’s been weird,” Miller said. “I’ve always thought I could do what I do from anywhere. It’s been a little more difficult than I thought, but I’m finding the balance. Not being near Nashville, because so much of my business is there, is tough. But I’m home. I’m where I belong.

Sobriety, not surprisingly, was no less difficult an adjustment. Up through Miller’s first post-V Roys albums, the boozy charm of his music was fairly innocuous. But during some of his final local shows at Lynagh’s Music Club and The Dame, performance sloppiness ran rampant. Even that wouldn’t have been such a big deal had records like 2003’s Upside Downside and 2006’s Citation not been full of such strong, folk-infused songs.

“Number one, that had to happen,” Miller said of giving up drinking. “If I look back on it through all the years, this was inevitable. Two, it’s always one day at a time. Who knows? I could go out tomorrow and blow everything I’ve just built over almost four years. But, man, I sing better. I play better. I’m much more in tune with what I’m doing. Before, I would just get up there and everything I tried to reach this transcendent state to make my art good…well, it really didn’t work. It just made it bad and out of time.

“The first year that I was sober was really tough. It was different being in front of crowds. It wasn’t stage fright. It was just hard to sort of find a groove. Everybody told me, ‘That will come.’ And it did. It did. I’m back in the pocket now. I enjoy the shows. Everything is better. It doesn’t mean everything is perfect.  But at least I’ve got a fighting shot.”

Adding to Miller’s current state of renewal was the 2013 release of what is arguably his best album, 2013’s Big Big World. The project was a collaborative record with Doug Lancio, long time lieutenant in Patty Griffin’s band who currently doubles as John Hiatt’s chief guitarist. Many of the songs on Big Big World were sculpted out of sound structures and melodies Lancio created that Miller later set lyrics to.

“Doug would start in the mornings and just sort of mess around and lay down different grooves and tracks. Then I would come in and listen to those and see if it inspired something to write about or else I would take some half-finished stuff I had and build to suit. I’d go down the hall and start splicing that stuff together and try to make a three-and-a-half minute song out of this 20 minute stuff we had.

“I didn’t really get to live with these songs before we put them out, so we’ve finally got everything down now. There is just something about going out and playing them every night. You start finding their cracks and stuff like that.”

Scott Miller performs at 7:45 p.m. March 28 at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. Admission is $10. Call (859) 281-1116 or go to www.willieslex.com.

in performance: pink martini and the von trapps

pink martini

thomas lauderdale and china forbes of pink martini.

If you thought squeezing the 15 cumulative members of Pink Martini and The von Trapps onstage at the Lyric Theatre for last night’s sold out WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour taping (along with multiple percussion kits and an upright piano) was a neat trick, imagine the task of sufficiently covering the full stylistic scope of this globetrotting crew within the span of a 60 minute program.

Not surprisingly, the collaborative teams splintered into several subgroups during the evening to cover as many bases as possible. Vocalist China Forbes started the party by leading Pink Martini through the brassy rhumba party piece Amado Mio that highlighted the groove of five percussionists and the effortless piano strolls of group founder Thomas Lauderdale that revealed a hearty classical bloodline.

Die Dorfmusik, on the other hand, whittled the onstage convention down to Lauderdale and Sofia, Melanie, Amanda and August von Trapp, the great grandchildren of the family immortalized in The Sound of Music. If that sounds like a gimmick, guess again. The quartet possessed remarkable clarity and precision in tone as well as a harmony. The resulting tune, heavy on polka-esque dance hall cheer, operated more like a vocal ballet. Similarly, Storm, a stunning original work by 19 year old August von Trapp, was essentially an acapella display (save for minimal percussion) with echoes of ancient choral singing, again with spotless tone and vocal phrasing.

From there, the show offered a brisk trip through Japan for Zundoko-Bushi that placed co-vocalist Timothy Nishimoto in front of an arrangement that referenced surf and soul grooves. Later, a fun mashup of Get Happy and Happy Days Are Here Again teamed Forbes and Nishimoto over a summery ensemble serenade while a likewise variation of Dream a Little Dream (sung with rich but understated poise by Amanda von Trapp) was bookended by quotes from Clair de Lune from Lauderdale.

Wrapping it all up were songs that could be viewed as signature piece for both groups. The von Trapps faced their collective past with the yodel-centric Lonely Goatherd from The Sound of Music before Forbes concluded the celebration with the carnival sunshine of Brazil.

There was a touch of irony to this global party, too. Though held on St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland wound up as one of the few locales it bypassed.

the return of nuevo tango

pablo ziegler 2

pablo ziegler.

Pablo Ziegler never thought much of tango at first. As a teenage Argentine pianist, he was far more eager to embrace the possibilities of jazz than the traditions of what he termed “old people” music.

Then he heard Astor Piazzolla.

“I thought he was great,” said Ziegler, 69. “I thought he was a genius for transforming the tango. He changed the entire mood of the music.”

So did the rest of the world. By expanding the music’s inherent mystery and romanticism to allow room for improvisation, Piazzolla founded a sound and movement often referred to as Nuevo Tango. Having served as pianist in Piazzolla’s band for over a decade (from 1978 until the composer’s retirement due to failing health in 1989), Ziegler rediscovered tango’s dark beauty – especially in the way piano interacted with the accordion-like bandoneon.

“When Piazzolla called me. I was like, ‘Really? You want to have me in your group?’ So we met to talk and I became a member of his quintet. Those years were like studying at a university. He put my mind in the music of my country.”

Today, as the unequalled heir to Piazzolla’s Nuevo Tango, Ziegler has been integral to the music’s continued evolution as well as its kinship with jazz. Furthering the latter are occasional collaborative concerts with acclaimed American vibraphonist Stefon Harris. The two perform together Saturday at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.

stefon harris

stefon harris.

“I have a strong appetite for challenges,” said Harris, 40.”Tango was a style of music that I wasn’t very familiar with. I had some level of awareness, but to be onstage with musicians who authentically live and play that music was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up at the time. And once we got onstage, we felt there was this amazing chemistry that couldn’t have been predicted.”

For Harris, collaborating with Ziegler falls in line with his working philosophy as a musician even if the music itself is often figuratively, as well as literally, foreign.

“One of my ambitions as a musician is to lead with empathy,” Harris said. “Fundamentally, what we do is about connections and interactions between human beings, so I would like to think I could get onstage with someone for the very first time and if I’m listening and I’m aware and empathetic, I’ll be able to find a connection almost immediately.

“One of the things I enjoy most about playing with Pablo in this setting is that it reminds me a lot of my classical training in terms of the attention to detail, the way you can phrase a melody. Everything is indicated with great specificity excluding, of course, the improvisation.”

Ziegler said he and Harris only team for perhaps five or six concerts a year. They have also released only one album together – 2007’s aptly titled Tango & All That Jazz, which was a live document of a performance given at the Jazz Standard in New York the previous December.

“He has a fantastic memory,” Ziegler said of Harris. “It’s like he has a kind of library in his brain. He knows all the charts and has an incredible feeling for this music.”

“Pablo is very open as a musician, so I don’t feel like I have to completely mimic the style of tango,” Harris added. “I’m allowed to bring my own voice there, as well. But in order for me to contribute something, I have to understand what’s going on first so I can contextualize that which I hope to contribute.

“Pablo is such a brilliant musician and plays such fantastic music. Playing with him has really had a great effect on my ability to grow.”

Pablo Ziegler Quartet with Stefon Harris perform at 8 p.m. March 15 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $36. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

beyond treme

rebirth brass band

rebirth brass band: keith frazier, derrick shezbie, stafford agee, phil frazier, vincent broussard, glen andrews, gregory veals and derrick tabb. photo by jeffrey depuis.

When you’re speaking with a New Orleans musician as versed as Stafford Agee on the Thursday after Fat Tuesday, you place a few topics on hold.

His 20-plus year tenure as trombonist with the pioneering Rebirth Brass Band, his contributions to the popular HBO series Treme and his love of mentoring the youth in his native New Orleans – all of that, for a moment, can wait. The inevitable first query dealt with Mardi Gras and the carnival spirit that came with it last week.

“Fat Tuesday went well,” said Agee, 44. “It went well. We had a lot of people come to the city and it was a very successful Mardi Gras.

“It’s a great experience in that you’ve got a lot of people from all over the world that come in and get to see New Orleans and experience bits of music in New Orleans. We just happen to be one of the bands that they come out and see.”

Rebirth Brass Band was formed in 1983 (Agee joined in 1986) and became one of several ensembles to blend Mardi Gras’ celebratory spirit and the street parading brass band traditions of New Orleans with all manner of outside influences ranging from funk to jazz to R&B and more. Agee asserted the band’s inspirations are as varied as its membership.

“We’re an open band,” the trombonist said. “Within an open band, the members weigh all their input in on what we do and everybody puts their own personal influence into the music. I’m more into smooth jazz and old school R&B and a lot of old funk music, like James Brown and Funkadelic, stuff like that.

“So it’s like you have nine people in the band with nine different musical personalities and maybe, say, 20 different genres of music that people like to listen to. All of that is incorporated.. That’s how we get the gumbo of music that we have and create the style of Rebirth.”

Off the bandstand, Agee was one of many Crescent City artists to take an active role in Treme, the series depicting life in post-Katrina New Orleans that recently completed its four season run. Agee served as a sort of conceptual stunt double for actor Wendell Pierce, who portrayed the streetwise trombonist Antoine Batiste.

“Wendell didn’t want to be the trombone player that picks up the horn for the show and didn’t really know what he was doing. He really wanted to learn all the technical aspects of it as a musician. He wanted to have the feel, the emotions, the body language a trombone player has when he is playing. He wanted to know more about the music. He actually learned how to read music. So as a beginning trombone player, he did really well.”

To a degree, the Batiste character mirrors Agee’s own life story as a child of the streets that found not only a career but a lifelong calling in music.

“Me being a lover of music and playing music, I believe, was more spiritual than anything,” Agee said. “I came from a well balanced home life and upbringing. But just seeing stuff in the street and seeing stuff that’s around you, you tend to sometimes be a product of your environment. The more I was around music, the more I started to love being a creator of music. So I started loving all aspects of it.

“I have been volunteering in high schools for about six years mentoring the kids. I know how life on the streets of New Orleans can be because I was once one of those kids coming up in that same lifestyle. I just want to let those kids know that there is a brighter picture than what they may find in everyday life.”

Rebirth Brass Band performs at 7:30 p.m. March 15 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets are  $25-$45. Call (502) 352-7469 or go to www.grandtheatrefrankfort.org

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