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Archive for March, 2017

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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tyrantSOUNDTRACK: CHRISTINE SALEM-Tiny Desk Concert #326 (December 14, 2013).

As with many artists behind the Tiny Desk, I had never heard of Christine Salem.  So who is she?

Christine Salem sings songs that are old: They’re work songs and chants from the maloya tradition on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean. I first heard her in New York City as she shook a flat board called a kayamb, made of cane reeds, with two percussionists flanking her to provide rhythm.

Salem makes powerful, strongly focused music in which all the elements are essential, with nothing superfluous. She says it feels like the spirits move through her when she plays, and though you may doubt her if you’re a nonbeliever, you’d be hard-pressed to deny her your attention once you hear her.

And that’s pretty spot on.  She sings like a woman possessed–but in a good way–serious catharsis for these intense pieces which are amazingly musical for songs with no instruments except percussion.

“Listwar” showcases her strong, powerful voice when she sings by herself but the whole thing grows amazing when the other voices come in.  But even that doesn’t even prepare you for the wonders of the percussion that come next—that kayamb is mesmerizing, the big drum is so deep and the percussive sticks (which seems like he’s hitting what might be a lectern) all work perfectly.  All of the melody comes from their voices.  The backing guys also seem possessed by the music and the drummer is even laughing he’s so filled with joy.

“Alouwe” begins with claps and rhythmic chanting, which is pretty cool, but again, when the drums come in its even better. Halfway through the tempo picks up and she grabs that kayamb again and the intensity ratchets up.  There’s chanting from the men with lots of laughing and clapping at the end.  The final song is “Komor Blues.”  For this one, she is just by herself playing the drum.  While not as big as the other songs, it is just as intense, especially when the pace speeds up about halfway through.

I have no idea what she’s singing about, but I was mesmerized by the whole thing.

[READ: May 15, 2016] Tiny Tyrant

I read this book last year, never even imagining that it could somehow be comparable to our then highly unlikely leader.  Reading back on it now, I can’t get over the similarities between this fictional character and our television-inspired president.  I mean, look at how King Ethelbert is described: “Selfish, short-tempered, unscrupulous, stubborn, and willing to do anything to get what he wants.”

This book collects all of the Tiny Tyrant stories into one volume (Volume One: The Ethelbertosaurus & Volume Two: The Lucky Winner) were published by First Second with six stories each).  They were originally collected into four books in French (and translated into English by Alexis Siegel).

First Second had a lot of books by Lewis Trondheim in their earlier publication days but that seems to have gone by the wayside somewhat this decade.

Perhaps it is because his books are hard to classify.  They are basically kids books but they are pretty dark kids books–there’s usually death and blowing up and horrible things happening to people.

Tiny Tyrant is one of the sweeter Trondheim books that I’ve read.  Because even though the Tyrant is a tyrant, he is mostly unsuccessful  in his demands and nobody blows up [let’s hope we are so lucky with our country’s current wanna-be-dictator]. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ADAM TORRES-Tiny Desk Concert #577 (November 11, 2016).

Adam Torres has a pretty singular voice.  It is gentle and delicate and slips into a beautiful falsetto with relative ease.

As it turns out his songs are a little too slow for me to fully enjoy, but I do enjoy the melodies and can certainly appreciate his voice.

“High Lonesome” has a great melody–especially on the violin (played beautifully by Aisha Burns)–it’s her melodies at the end of each verse that really makes me want to listen to this song more.  It’s also amazing to watch how effortlessly he switches to the falsetto notes (the high, in high lonesome).  I also really enjoyed the way Dailey Toliver so delicately plays the bass–I actually assumed it was a six string for how gently he is strumming it–and that he can still play some appropriate notes on the Wurlitzer at the same time.

“Outlands” is certainly my favorite of his songs.  Between the scratchy, lonesome violin, the pretty picked guitar notes and the way he instantly switched to falsetto on the second note of each verse–it’s haunting.

“I Came to Sing the Song” is a new song which is even slower than the others.  Once again, his voice is lovely and the melody is very pretty, but this one is just too slow for me to fully enjoy.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that percussion (just two congas) is provided by the wonderful Thor Harris (who might have the most Tiny Desk appearances with various bands).

[READ: February 2, 2017] LastMan 6

This book was originally written in French (and called Lastman there as well).  These editions were translated by Alexis Siegel.

I was under the impression that this was the last volume in the series.  Why?  Well, mostly because at the end of this book, the ad for the previous book calls #5 the penultimate volume.  But this story not only ends with a WHAATTT?  It also ends with a total cliffhanger last page.  According to Wikipedia, there are 8 volumes of the original French, so I can only hope that First Second plans to print the other two (and more?) volumes.

But ending aside, this volume was outstanding.

It opens with a flashback to what Richard did to his partner Duke Diamond to get him in so much trouble back when.  The crux is that Diamond was doing serious drugs and Richard didn’t like it–the friction, and Richard’s reaction, all centers around that. (more…)

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[ATTENDED: March 25, 2017] Water on Mars

I love finding family-friendly performers who do amazing things.  When I read about Water on Mars (their website is so spare–they need more publicity!), it sounded terrific:

Water on Mars is intense juggling for space stations! One hundred rings thrown, backflips landed, feet twisted, water flying through the air, 21 balls juggled and 15 pins spinning, all set to the pulsing rhythms of an electronic beat.The company is based in Stockholm, Sweden and consists of the three jugglers Wes Peden (USA), Tony Pezzo (USA), and Patrik Elmnert (SWE) who worked intensively for years to combine juggling with music and acrobatics—not to mention snow, chocolate, tap dance, and 400 rolls of tape!

So yes, this is a show of juggling.  But holy cow it is like nothing I have ever seen (I mean, look at the picture on the right). (more…)

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