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Friday, December 23, 2016

Bop Being Bop

BE-BOP WAS THE FIRST SIGNIFICANT JAZZ STYLING to achieve popularity without first having been co-opted by white musicians, but its formative years – 1942-44 – went largely unrecorded because of a ban imposed by James Petrillo, hotheaded head of the American Federation of Musicians. Being as much a rebellion against as an outgrowth of swing, bebop wasn’t about to steal many Benny Goodman fans, but its joyous angularity found fans aplenty.

But fans need records to collect, and records need producers with the vision to encourage and capture performers still courting recognition. For the Savoy label, that was Teddy Reig, an ebullient jack-of-all-(music)-trades who landed in the producer’s chair in time to record a quartet fronted by tenor-sax genius Dexter Gordon. This was in December 1945, and started a run for Reig that would last until the middle of 1949 – including a few months in 1948 when he ignored another AFM ban and recorded some sessions anyway.

As Bob Porter observes in his introductory notes to the Mosaic Records set “Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions 1945-49,” “While there had been some bebop on Savoy prior to Teddy’s stewardship, things began to blossom as his activity increased.” And while bop wasn’t Reig’s only pursuit (he shepherded “The Hucklebuck” to its hit status, for example), he recorded enough to fill most of the ten CDs that comprise this set – and that’s without Charlie Parker’s contributions, which are easy to find elsewhere.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

For Your Classical Consideration

THIS HAS BEEN THE KIND OF YEAR that imprints its many aspects on all edges of our cultural life, and we need to go into 2017 with music that both heals and inspires. Here are some selections from the past twelvemonth with which to get started.

Lara Downes: America Again (Sono Luminus)

Although this CD was released a couple of weeks before The Election, it couldn’t convey a more necessary post-election message. “America Again” is the title of prolific pianist Lara Downes’s debut on the Sono Luminus label, taking its title from a Langston Hughes poem that asks, “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed – Let it be that great strong land of love,” a wish that will be tried and brutalized during the next four years.

The 21 selections offer compelling juxtapositions of works by composers synonymous with Americana and less-familiar voices, as when Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” (after a Nina Simone arrangement) is followed by Rican-born Angélica Negrón’s “Sueno Recurrente.” The 35-year-old pursued the dream of journeying from one America to another, ending up in Brooklyn with a varied and inspiring career.

Other highlights are Amy Beach’s evocative “From Blackbird Hills,” Duke Ellington’s appropriately titled “Melancholia,” an Art Tatum arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” and the traditional melodies “Shenendoah” and “Deep River” – along with short works by Lou Harrison, Florence Price, Scott Joplin, Harold Arlen, and others.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Road to Morocco

THANKS TO DENZEL WASHINGTON, we have a Moroccan restaurant in Schenectady. “I’d signed a lease on a building in Harlem,” says Aneesa Waheed, chef-owner of Tara Kitchen, “when the realtor called me and said that the owner was backing out of the agreement. That’s because Denzel Washington would be filming in the area and wanted to use the space–and would be paying $3,000 a day for it!”

Aneesa Waheed | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Waheed was upset, “but it was a blessing in disguise. I knew I would have been taking a huge risk, and, in the long run, I don’t think that would have been the place to do it.”

Tara Kitchen opened at the beginning of 2012 at 431 Liberty St., a couple of blocks away from Schenectady’s downtown, with Waheed and her husband, Muntasim Shoaib, putting in backbreaking hours while raising one small child and expecting another.

Waheed has a dynamic presence with an enthusiasm that’s contagious. And the courage to give up a very lucrative career. “I worked in publishing in New York City for ten years, but my life revolved around food. If I wasn’t thinking about what or where to eat, I was watching the Food Network. I grew up with seeing my mother cooking all the time. Indian culture revolves around food. While you’re eating breakfast, you’re planning lunch and dinner.”

Monday, December 12, 2016

Fiddler’s Peak

THERE WAS A TIME when it was considered unseemly to perform Bach’s solo violin sonatas without added piano, and Schumann was among those who obliged with accompaniments. That time is well behind us, and it’s now the mark of a fiddler’s mettle to record them solo, perhaps hitting them two or three times in the course of a career to show artistic development. Kyung Wha Chung has waited. Interpretive styles have shifted; the vogue of the historically informed performance style, which seemed obligatory twenty years ago, has eased, and Chung clearly has thought about how to color her approach to these monument.

Sonata No. 1 banishes any worry about a too-historically informed interpretation, especially in the second-movement fugue, where phrases are allowed to linger and twine to satisfy the odd contrapuntal requirements – odd only insofar as the violin’s physical limitations (you can only play two adjacent strings simultaneously) require some of the contrapuntal lines to be interrupted and thus implied. And that sonata’s gorgeous third movement also enjoys a richly bodied treatment.

The sonata finishes with a presto taken at an appropriately lively clip and with none of the interpretive pauses that plague other performances.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Dancing out of the Dark

Girding Our Loins Dept.: The national tour of “Dirty Dancing” landed at Proctors in Schenectady shortly after the election. The timing offered an unexpected insight into the show, as my review reveals.


WHEN THE MOVIE “Dirty Dancing” premiered in 1987, it was looking back a quarter-century to a more agitated era. Civil rights demonstrations were bringing out firehoses in the South; the birth control pill invited sexual liberation, but abortion was still illegal. We’d struggled, we’d fought, we’d won, and the ambitious uncertainty of teenaged Frances Houseman, known as “Baby,” seemed quaint.

Christopher Tierney and Jennifer Mealani Jones
Photo by Matthew Murphy
In moving the movie from screen to stage, the filmic structure has been maintained, complete with video dissolves as it rushes from scene to scene with a near-constant musical accompaniment. It serves the sappy coming-of-age story well, but just after the Broadway tour arrived in Schenectady last week, everything changed. The key song of the piece no longer is “The Time of My Life.” It’s “We Shall Overcome,” poignantly rendered by Chante Carmel in a scene that plays out like a picnic that Pete Seeger is about to attend.

We’re picnicking at Kellerman’s, a Catskills resort, where the waiters and counselors are there to instruct and serve in whatever ways will please the guests – up to a point, as affirmed by hard-assed owner Max (a commanding Gary Lynch).