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Archive for March, 2017

80SOUNDTRACK: LAWRENCE BROWNLEE-Tiny Desk Concert #308 (October 5, 2013).

Sometimes it makes sense tome when I don’t know a Tiny Desk Concert performer.  Lawrence Brownlee is an opera singer and therefore way outside of my comfort zone.  So what do we know about Brownlee?

These days, Lawrence Brownlee spends most of his time on the stages of the world’s great opera houses. That’s where you’ll find him singing Rossini and Donizetti. His supple, strong, high-flying voice can negotiate the tightest hairpin turns with grace and elegance; that, and his ability to command the stage as an actor, has won Brownlee the praise of critics worldwide.

But as much as he excels at opera, there’s a special place in Brownlee’s heart for African-American spirituals. Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, Brownlee sang gospel music in church, and now he’s returning to that tradition by releasing a new album, Spiritual Sketches — and singing selections from it here in the NPR Music offices.

Brownlee bases much of his operatic success on his sturdy church-music grounding. “I would say that the flexibility I have with my voice is in large part because I sang gospel in church,” Brownlee told NPR in 2007. “It’s a lot of improvisational singing with a lot of riffs or runs.”

The spirituals might be well-known, but through Brownlee’s voice, they shine in new, occasionally jazz-inflected arrangements by Damien Sneed. “There Is a Balm in Gilead” floats in a newly contemplative mood with the addition of a few blue notes and chromatic touches, while the spunky piano line Justina Lee plays in “Come By Here” seems inspired by great stride players like James P. Johnson.

But the heart and soul of this concert is “All Night, All Day,” a performance that swells with a potent combination of tenderness and operatic horsepower. The song speaks of a protective band of angels — angels that Brownlee told the audience are watching over his 3-year-old son Caleb, who’s just been diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder.

“It’s called ‘All Night, All Day,’ but I’ve renamed it ‘Caleb’s Song,'” Brownlee says. The soulful vocalisms with which Brownlee closes the song are gorgeous and tinged with anguish.

I don’t have much more to add–that was a thorough blurb.  His voice is indeed amazing.  But equally surprising is how gentle his speaking voice is–if you heard him speak before singing, you’d be leaning in to hear him talk and then he would blow you away with his singing voice.

A couple things about the pianist: He tells us that this was the first time that Justina Lee had seen the music for these songs (she plays it wonderfully).  But also that the piano sounds rather flat and spare compared to the fullness of his voice.  Was this a microphone problem?  It was just kind of strange.

But otherwise, this was a beautiful set.

[READ: August 20 2016] Around the World in 80 Days

I have never read Around the World in 80 Days.  I really enjoy Verne’s stories, I’ve just never read the novels.  So when I saw this adaptation, it seemed like an interesting place to start.

I don’t know how complicated the original story is but this adaptation makes the story seem fairly simple (except for the intentional complications, of course).

So the play starts with an introduction to Phileas Fogg–an insanely punctual man. We watch him do the same routine three days in a row.  Each day he leaves his house, plays whist (wins) and then returns home. On the third day, however, he has to fire his valet because the tea is not at the required 97 degrees.

He still goes to play whist of course but he is stopped by a man named Passepartout who wishes to be his new valet.  Passepartout has worked for exhausting/questionable people in past and he is looking forward to working for someone as calm and regular as Fogg. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DONNY McCASLIN-Tiny Desk Concert #589 (January 9, 2017).

Donny McCaslin’s band was responsible for the jazzy music that propelled David Bowie’s final album.  As the Tiny Desk blurb says:

David Bowie had long wanted to make a record with a jazz band, and on Jan. 8 of last year, he realized his dream with the release of Blackstar. Two days later, he was gone. Donny McCaslin’s band helped him make that record, and now, a year later, we pay tribute to Bowie and Blackstar by bringing McCaslin’s band

As a bandleader and sax player, [McCaslin’s] put out a dozen albums, the most recent of which is Beyond Now, with musicians Tim Lefebvre on bass, drummer Mark Guiliana and keyboardist Jason Lindner.

Beyond Now was recorded after Blackstar, features a few Bowie covers and stretches the band’s own usual boundaries. For this Tiny Desk concert, you can hear an extraordinary group playing extraordinary music — including an instrumental version of “Lazarus,” from Blackstar.

The band plays three pieces.  “Shake Loose” is 7 and a half minutes.  The music is great behind the sax—dramatic and interesting.  I think I just don’t care for the sound of saxophones as much these days, because I love the bass thumping and the great sounds from the keys but the soloing doesn’t excite me.  I love in the middle of the song that there are really cool spacey sound on the keys.   And the whole middle section where it’s the keys playing weirdo stuff and the drums keeping a groovy jazz beat–that’s awesome.

So I may be the only person in America who has not heard the whole of Blackstar.  I actually don’t even really like the one song I did hear (I don’t care for the jazzy parts).  So I can’t compare this six-minute instrumental version to the original of “Lazarus.”  I love that the keyboard is playing a very convincing grungy guitar sound.  I’m not sure if the sax is doing a vocal line or just playing around, but I love the music for this song a lot.

“Glory” is about the glory of the creation of the beautiful world that we live in “that will hopefully be intact as we move forward.”  This is an 11 minute song with all kinds of great swirling keyboard sounds.  I really like this song—the bass and keys together are great.  And either I’ve grown more used to the sax or its mixed a little lower, but it works so much better with the music.  About three minutes in there’s a lengthy trippy mid-70s Pink Floyd echoing synth solo.  Which is pretty cool.  So overall, I really enjoyed this set.  And maybe I need to go give Blackstar a listen.

[READ: March 25, 2016] Around

I really enjoyed Phelan’s Bluffton.  The story was interesting and I really enjoyed Phelan’s artwork–subtle with delicate coloring and very thin, expressive lines.

This book also contains Phelan’ wonderful artwork and the story (or stories) are also really interesting.  For this is a book about three remarkable journeys around the world.

Phelan gives a fictionalized (but accurate) history of the adventures of Thomas Stevens (Wheelman in 1884), Nellie Bly (Girl Reporter 1889) and Joshua Slocum (Mariner 1895).

I hadn’t heard of the two men and I found their stories quiet fascinating.  I knew of Bly’s journey but I didn’t know all of the details and I found it equally interesting. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: TEGAN AND SARA-Tiny Desk Concert #580 (November 21, 2016).

This particular Tiny Desk Concert is very painful to watch.  Not because of the music, but because it was recorded the day before the 2016 election, when the world was good and positive and happy.  Tegan and Sara are fun and optimistic about making history and about drunk tweeting the results.  And their mood is infectious.  People actually believed that goodness would win.

Sigh.

So, horrors aside, Tegan and Sara play a four song set–they say that they  couldn’t decide on just three songs.  They play three from their new album and one older song.

And the blurb notes:  It’s hard to believe Tegan and Sara have been making music for 17 years.  ….  Contrary to the poppy sound of 2016’s Love You To Death, the two insisted on performing their Tiny Desk concert acoustically — stripping down highly produced songs while hearkening back to their early recordings. Without the distraction of production, we’re left with the gorgeous sound of roughly identical voices blending. Plus, their endearing banter and jovial sibling rivalry left us defenseless against their charm.

I wondered if they did four songs so that they could each sing lead on two.

Tegan sings lead on “Stop Desire” (with lovely harmonies from Sara).  There’s a bass (by Eva Gardner) and drum, but this song is mostly a simple, pretty piano melody.  It sounds like it was meant to be poppier (at least compared to their earlier stuff), but it still sounds very nice.

When the song is over, Tegan says her instinct is she wants to banter …  “if i had known this many people were going to come, I would have applied a little more attention and focus to the application of makeup and clothing” (although she looks very good already).

Sara sings “Boyfriend,” her voice is noticeably huskier.  The lyrics of this song are great, in which a lesbian relationship might not appear that way at first listen.

You call me up like you want your best friend
You turn me on like you want your boyfriend
But I don’t want to be your secret anymore.

Then Sara talks about Ryan Adams confronting bad reviewers and how she was thinking that that was an approach they could take since they got many bad reviews.  But now she enjoys ignoring bad reviews, saying the best you can do is ignore it and then they only get three retweets or 3 hearts on Twitter and you’re like “I hope you enjoyed writing that bad review for 3 people.”  She pauses and says, “that makes me sound mean spirited…but I guess I am.  I guess deep down inside I might be a Donald Trump person.”  This elicits groans from many including Tegan.  Sara jokes, “Too soon?  We’re Canadian and we can’t wait for your election to be over too.”  That’s when Sara said the thing about making history and she apologizes that she brought the room down.

Sara sings “100x”  which has a “di-di-didnt you” chorus.  Again this hints at the poppier format, but I like the song in the stripped down version–it’s piano only (from Gabrial McNair).  Tegan gets the lead in the middle section, which is quite a change in style.  It’ s cool song overall.

When Tegan says that they couldn’t decide on three songs, the crowd applauds and she jokes, “Thank yo for your enthusiastic response.”  Then   Tegan asks if everyone else is hot, to which Sara jokes, “Honest to God, Tegan has talked about her heat issues for the last 5 years. I am so afraid when menopause hits.”

Tegan sings lead on Closer, their single from Hearthrob and it is quite pretty. The whole band is back on this one–and their voices work so well together.  I also love that Brendan Buckley is using one of those box drums for the bass drum.

I really enjoy this set a lot, if only their prediction about the elections was better.

[READ: December 1, 2016] American Born Chinese

I have mentioned this book a lot.  But I only recently realized that I never posted about the book itself.   I read it a long time ago and it is the reason I fell in love with First Second graphic novels (and why I have more or less read all of their books by now).

It had been long enough since I’d read it that I didn’t remember just how fantastic it was.

This book is three seemingly unrelated stories–about a monkey god, a teenaged boy, and a sitcom with an incredibly offensive Chinese character.  The way he stitches these stories together is amazing. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: OLIVER ‘TUKU’ MTUKUDZI-Tiny Desk Concert #307 (September 30, 2017).

The blurb says that this guitarist is a legend, which makes me feel bad that I’ve never heard of him.

He seemed so casual — sitting on a bar stool behind the Tiny Desk, acoustic guitar in hand — but when you hear that husky voice, you’ll know why he’s a legend. Oliver Mtukudzi, or “Tuku” as his fans lovingly call him, plays spirited music, born from the soul of Zimbabwe. He’s been recording since the late 1970s, with about as many albums as his age: 60.

But Mtukudzi’s new record reveals a heavier heart than before: Sarawoga is his first recording since the loss of his son Sam. He and Sam — also a guitar player, as well as a saxophonist — had a special relationship touring together. But in March 2010, Sam Mtukudzi was killed in a car crash at the age of 21. Oliver Mtukudzi recently told NPR’s Tell Me More that “the only way to console myself is to carry on doing what we loved doing most. Sitting down [to] cry and mourn — I think it would have killed me.”

All three songs, “Todii,” “Huroi” and “Haidyoreke” are all gentle, with Tuku’s guitar playing mellow meandering melodies and his gravelly voice being soothing at the same time.  It’s interesting that for “Todii,” a more upbeat song he is clearly singing not in English, but the chorus (sung by the backing musicians) is “What Shall We Do.”  The backing musicians are there for percussion–congas, and maracas–and backing vocals.  And their vocals are done in a traditional way.

[READ: January 2, 2017] Volcanoes

This Science Comics book was very different from the previous two.  It was designed as a fictional story full of with factual information.

At first I found this really weird and off-putting, but by the end, I thought the story was pretty compelling and that the factual information was presented in an interesting and informative way.  And what I realized afterward was not that I didn’t like the fictional aspect but that I really didn’t like the illustrations.

For some reason, Chad chose to have the main characters with very distinctive and unusual features.  Aurora, the main character had a line of black hair down her forehead.  Her sister, Luna, has really really big eyes and their guardian, Pallas, has a block of gray hair.  I found all of these choices to be unsettling and unpleasing to look at (although it does allow us to tell them apart quite easily).  However the volcano and other nature images were really fantastic. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MATT ULERY’S LOOM-Tiny Desk Concert #312 (October 19, 2013).

When a jazz band (or really any band) is named after a person, it’s always fun to try to guess who that person is in the band.  The first song “Coriander”  starts out with some trumpet notes and a kind of intro melody that’s played by both the sax and the trumpet.  And then about a minute and a half in, the keyboards take over, with a great cool 70s jazz/funk sound (the keys sound is my favorite part of this band).  And then of course behind all of this is the constancy of the drummer and the upright bass.  So, which one is Ulery?

I never would have guessed that he’s he bassist.  For his job in this band is basically to hold everything together.  The horns are doing their own thing, the drummer is doing all kinds of cool syncopated jazz beats. And the keys are just soloing like mad.  I don’t know if it’s because the bass isn’t very loud in the mix (it’s really isn’t), but his presence is almost not really there.  At the 4 minute mark of “Coriander,” the whole band drops away and the keys pick up a cool riff and then the horns chime in and eventually the bass comes back in.  I think he’s just not loud enough because watching him, it sure looks like he’s doing a lot more than what I hear.  And yet he’s never flashy.  As I say, he’s the ground, not the star.

When he speaks he’s rather quiet as well.  He says he loves NPR and gives a shout-out to his local Chicago station WBEZ.

Then they launch into the second song “My Favorite Stranger”  in which the keyboardist has now switched to accordion (a pretty pearly white and red affair).  I really like when the bass clarinet takes over the melody for a bit.  The accordion acts like drone with the trumpet taking most of the leads (although I love when the bass clarinet gets to run those same leads as well).

And for some background on Ulery:

The Chicago bassist Matt Ulery writes beautiful music in an unpretentious way. It’s intricate stuff, with interlocking parts and segmented structures. It often borrows from Eastern European scales, orchestral tone colors, folky textures. (On his backpack, he sports a SXSW patch from when he toured with a rock band called In Tall Buildings.) But it doesn’t sound like calculus class, as in some other ambitious works of modern jazz. It never seems to stray too far away from pretty melody over undulating rhythms, and that deceptive simplicity sets it apart.

Last year Ulery put out a grand two-disc set of music you might call “chamber jazz.” By A Little Light had strings, orchestral horns and singers — the whole nine yards. But he has also long done lavish on a smaller scale with a band called Loom. A rejiggered quintet lineup (note: Matt Ulery, bass; Marquis Hill, trumpet; Geof Bradfield, bass clarinet; Rob Clearfield, keyboards/accordion; Jon Dietemyer, drums) produced this year’s Wake An Echo, which the band brought to our office during a brief summer tour.

[READ: December 14, 2014] Tetris

I really enjoyed Box Brown’s take on Andre the Giant.  I really wasn’t sure what a book about Tetris could contain.  I mean, I love the game, but what’s there to say about it?  Well, it turns out, quite a lot–250 pages worth, in fact.

Beyond the game itself, Brown talks a bit about the history of video game development, including a bit of the history of Nintendo. But then he gets into what happened when people started to get addicted to those little falling blocks.  Who knew that Tetris had such a convoluted history?

The book starts off (in Brown’s wonderfully simple drawing style) with a picture of Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris and his friend Vladimir Pokhilo.  Alexey says he has been thinking about the pentomino puzzle. (more…)

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[ATTENDED: March 26, 2017] Foxygen

I really loved Foxygen’s album We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic.  The whole thing is great–retro and modern at the same time with a great sense of theatrics.  They recently put out a new album Hang, which is also retro (touching on nearly every era–disco, big band, swing, rock and even (apparently) a concept.  I’ve been really enjoying Hang (although I prefer Ambassadors still).

I had also heard that their live shows were crazy, so I thought it would be a great theatrical show.  (Before they came out I was delighted by the keyboard tech’s shirt that sat Not My President with shaking hands (one hand was a snake biting the other).

So I was a little surprised to see that there were no theatrics at all–no props or elaborate anything.  Well, except for lead singer and center of attention Sam France.  The show opened with Jonathan Rado sitting behind the piano and then the rest of the band coming out.  There was a three-piece horn section, drums, bass (which was mixed waaaay too loud in the first half of the show–why don’t sound people recognize that right away?) and then a second keyboardist/guitarist. ( I can’t find names for anybody). (more…)

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[ATTENDED: March 26, 2017] Gabriella Cohen

I typically check out who is opening for a show before I get to the show.  I never had a chance to look up Gabriella Cohen beforehand, so I had no idea what to expect.

When she first came out it was just her with her guitar and her bandmate Kate ‘Babyshakes’ Dillon on backing vocals (red lights are really harsh for a camera phone it seems–very hard to not get a blurry pic). They sang a song together which was simple but charming (it seemed to be about a breakup).  They made me smile as they tried to figure out which side Kate should stand on.  And while Gabriella’s playing and singing were fine, I was delighted with Kate’s backing vocals–soaring and high. (more…)

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