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Archive for the ‘Communists’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: JOYCE DiDONATO-Tiny Desk Concert #932 (January 15, 2020).

I was sure that Joyce DiDonato had performed a Tiny Desk Concert before, but I actually knew her from a gorgeous NPR Field Recording from 2015.

the last time we filmed the down-to-earth diva, she insisted on singing an opera aria at the Stonewall Inn, the iconic gay tavern in Greenwich Village.

DiDonato is an opera singer and her voice is amazing–she can soar and growl and everything in between.  But this Tiny Desk is not what you’d expect.  For although DiDonato sings in her beautiful operatic voice, the music the band is playing is anything but.

When opera star Joyce DiDonato told us she wanted to sing centuries-old Italian love songs at the Tiny Desk we weren’t surprised. But when she said she was bringing a jazz band to back her up, we did a double take. But that’s Joyce, always taking risks.  On paper, the idea of jazzing up old classical songs seems iffy. At the least it could come across as mannered and at worst, an anachronistic muddle. But DiDonato somehow makes it all sound indispensable, with her blend of rigor, wit and a sense of spontaneity.

The first song is by Alessandro Parisotti.  “Se tu m’ami” sets the stage for what this show is going to be like.  Gorgeous jazz with DiDonato’s impressive voice.

The musical formula for these unorthodox arrangements makes room for typical jazz solos while DiDonato molds her phrases to the flexible rhythms and inserts old-school trills and flamboyant roulades.

A cool trumpet solo from Charlie Porter takes a cool trumpet solo while DiDonato admires his skill.

After three minutes they segue seamlessly into Salvator Rosa’s “Star vicino.”  This one features a piano solo from Craig Terry which he begins with a line from “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”  The song also features a muted trumpet solo with a few drum breaks for Jason Haaheim

My favorite moment in the set comes just before 6 minutes where she sings a beautiful lilting melody and then hits a growly note that I was sure was the trumpet until Porter played the same note on his muted trumpet.  It was very cool and kind funny.  Especially when she says

there’s no soprano in the world who could get away with that

Less than a minute later she runs through her enormous vocal range from low to very high to soaring.  It’s amazing.

She says that in the classical world, the standard is perfection–rarely achieved.  Young singers try so hard to get it perfect that they lose the “grease” as the jazz players say.  So this project was designed to put the swing back in these old love songs.

The third song she says is by anonymous, but it is credited to Giuseppe Torelli. “Tu lo sai” is a love song that says, “you have no idea how much I love you.  No matter how much you scorn me, I still love you,”  She says they giving this the Chet Baker treatment.  I’m not exactly sure what that means, but there is some wonderful trumpet work in this song.

It has a slow opening with piano and voice.  The other instruments slowly come in and there is a wonderful moment during Porter’s trumpet solo where she picks up the note from him and runs with it.

Bassist Chuck Israels (who has played with everyone from Billie Holiday to the Kronos Quartet) never solos but he keeps the whole enterprise running perfectly.

For the final song Francesco Conti’s “Quella fiamma” they bring out Antoine Plante on the bandoneon.  She says, “Yea we’re going to South America in a minute.”

Porter uses a different kind of mute which creates a unique sound.  Then the bandoneon comes in and the South American flair is complete.  There’s an incredible moment at the end of the song where Joyce just trills away–showcasing so much of what she can do.

As the blurb says, despite how great the band is

the star of the show is the continually amazing DiDonato, whose voice is certainly one of the great wonders of her generation. The flexibility of the instrument, the colors she conjures and her fine-tuned dynamic range are a few of the reasons she’s still at the peak of her powers. She looks and sounds like she’s having the time of her life.

I see that she sings in Princeton pretty often.  Next time she;s in town I will make sure to check her out.

[READ: December 20, 2019] The Raven’s Children

This story was fascinating in the way it started as a very real story, suddenly added magical realism and then turned into an utterly fantastical story.  And yet it all works perfectly well as an allegory of the oppressive regime under Stalin.

Not bad for a book with talking animals.

This book was translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and she brings this story to life.

Shura is a young boy living in Leningrad.  He lives with his mama and papa as well as his older sister and a little brother.  They live in an apartment building and he and his sister are lucky enough to have a room to themselves.  The amusing set up is that they have to walk through a wardrobe that their father set up to separate the rooms (he removed the back but you can’t tell from the front).  This weird construction actually saves them later in the story.

Shura’s friend is named Valya.  His parents don’t want him hanging out with Valya, but they like to do the same things, so he disobeys.  Today they are putting pennies on a railroad track.  They had been doing this for long enough that they can tell how heavy a train is by the way the resulting items come out.

On this occasion the train that went by seemed to be full of people.  People crammed into each car.  As it sailed past, a piece of paper sailed out.  Valya grabbed it. Neither of the boys could read very well but they could see some numbers on it.  Shura was sure that the paper was important and he desperately wanted it. But he didn’t know how to get it from Valya without making him want it more.

They walked home and by the time they got to Shura’s place, they were physically fighting.  Shura manged to snatch the paper and Valya threw a rock at him.  The rock smashed a window of an older lady’s apartment in their building.  Shura knew he was in trouble for the window.  But it was Valya’s fault.  Of course, he wasn’t supposed to be playing with Valya. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JON BATISTE AND STAY HUMAN-“Believe in Love” (Field Recordings, November 6, 2014).

I had never heard of Jon Batiste and Stay Human until he became the bandleader and sidekick on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

It’s always fun to read about a famous person from before they were famous.  But this blurb doesn’t say much about him (that’s him in the yellow suit and melodica).  But the story about this Field Recording [Jon Batiste Leads A Private Street Parade Atop A Fort] was too good not lead the whole thing in.

Jon Batiste is from New Orleans, where a street parade might assemble around the corner on any given day. Evidently, he likes a good walkabout: He’s liable to lead his band at a guerrilla concert in the New York City subway, or out of a venue, or — as he did at the Newport Jazz Festival — off stage and into the audience.

After playing a set at Newport, he and the Stay Human band kept walking. They walked past the backstage trailers, through the quad stage and up onto an overgrown rampart of Fort Adams — the 190-year-old edifice that houses the festival. After a long day of travel, interviews and a headlining performance, they were there to give us a special and private encore.

The song they played, “Believe in Love” which is upbeat and pleasant.   It is a pretty New Orleans-inflected  (must be the sousaphone bass) poppy/jazzy song.  It’s a lovely understated song, with simple instrumentation: Jon Batiste, voice/melodica; Eddie Barbash, alto saxophone; Barry Stephenson, bass; Ibanda Ruhumbika, tuba; Joe Saylor, tambourine; Jamison Ross, cowbell/backing vocals.

The keyboardist and bandleader calls his portable performances “love riots”: attempts to generate instant community through music.

I love at the end, before they finish, they simply turn around and walk off (even the upright bass), still paying as the music fades from the microphone.

[READ: October 9, 2017] “The Proposition”

This story is about a successful immigrant to Toronto.  His success is more or less everything he hoped for himself, but he wishes he had just a bit more.

Roman Berman had, like many Jews, migrated to this area of Toronto and because he was successful, he was always asked for various avenues of help.  He wanted to sell his old car, but before he could, a friend called and asked if he would sell this car to Svirsky.  So he waited in his office, but of course Svirksy (who bought a lemon of a car previously) did not show at the appointed time.

Berman was sympathetic to his plight but still angered about the delay.  But he knew that when he first arrived he was also looking for help from anywhere.  He worked very hard to get hat he had–and still worked very hard–to the point of irritating the people he relied on for referrals.  But it was necessary if he wanted to provide a good life. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: AMADOU AND MARIAM-Tiny Desk Concert #695 (January 19, 2018).

Amadou & Mariam are musicians from Mali.  And they have a pretty fascinating history.

The story of Amadou and Mariam is still worth telling almost 40-years (and eight albums) into their career because it speaks well to who they are, the obstacles they’ve had to overcome and the positive yet realistic attitude that has made them such an international success. Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met when they were children in Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. Both had lost their sight when they were young and they began performing together. Later, in the 1980s, they married and began a career together.

As Amadou and Mariam said when their newest album, La Confusion was released, “We seek to make people happy with our music, help humanitarian causes and share positive messages about the good work being done by people in every corner of the world.”  Amadou & Mariam  bring some of the most lyrical melodies and joyful sounds we’ve ever had at the Tiny Desk, and their performance comes while their country endures great turmoil, including a coup and insurgencies.

Typically, they play with a bigger band but they stripped down their sound to a keyboard, a percussionist and a backup singer while the couple holds it all together with Amadou’s stuttered melodic guitar and Mariam’s sweetly gruff voice.

They play three songs.

“Bofou Safou” has a great slinky keyboard opening melody.  Amadou plays this cool understated guitar that’s pretty much always in motion But mostly I love watching the drummer pound on that giant gourd thing.

I love the clothes that Mariam and Amadou are wearing–a cool purple on blue pattern with each of the outfits made from the same material, but with the stripes going in different directions on each.

“Dimanche à Bamako.” opens with more of that cool riffing from Amadou and the audience clapping along.  Amadou actually sings leads on most of this song.

“Filaou Bessame” opens pretty big and clappy with a kind of disco feel to it.  It slows down in the middle with Mariam taking a little vocal section before it starts up again.  I love the discoey bass keyboard riff at the end.

The music from Mali is really fun and I’d love to see a show like this live.

[READ: July 21, 2016] “Inventions”

This story was translated from the Yiddish by Aliza Shevrin.  Singer died in 1991, so I’m not sure if this is a recently found story or an old one.

What’s particularly fascinating about this story is thew way it is framed.  The narrator says that since he moved to the country, he finds that he falls asleep by ten o’clock and he sleeps soundly until about 2 AM.  He feels totally rested and ready to do something.

One night he was inspired to create a story.  It would be about a Communist theoretician who attends a leftist conference on world peace and sees a ghost.

So he just summed up what his story would be about and then he proceeds to tell the story.  But it is told very casually–as a man retelling a dream, rather than as someone writing a short story. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: LYDIA AINSWORTH-“Afterglow” NPR’S SOUTH X LULLABY (March 23, 2017).

I was unfamiliar with Lydia Ainsworth, but I was instantly struck by the setting of her lullaby.

We asked Lydia Ainsworth to perform in Raum Industries’ Optic Obscura installation. Surrounded by dim, long-hanging optical fibers that look like an infinity room of cat’s whiskers, she sings a stripped-down version of the slow-burning “Afterglow,” accompanied only by an upright bass and light percussion.

I’m not sure what the original song sounds like, but this version is moody and intense.  The upright bass opens the song as Lydia’s whispered, sensual vocals come forth.  She has a beautiful voice and it is especially haunting in this setting.  It reminds me a bit of someone else although I can’t decide who.

The starkness of the silence when she stops singing is intense.  And I really like the way the song ends, not abruptly exactly, but rather unexpectedly.

[READ: March 21, 2016] T-Minus

Jim Ottaviani did the amazing graphic novel Feynman, and in the blurb about him in that book, it said that he also wrote T-Minus.  Coincidentally I had just brought T-Minus home for Clark and I to read.  He read it quickly and said it was very good.  It took me a little longer to read (I’m sure he didn’t read all the details) because Ottaviani jam packs this book with interesting facts.

As the title says, this is about the race to get a man to the moon.  It begins 12 years before the actual date occurred.  And it toggles back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union.

On the margins of many pages there are drawings of all of the various attempts each country had to get a rocket into the air.  The drawings show the design and then at the bottom it states the duration of the flight, the date and some other details.  The USSR’s first rocket (1957) lasted all of 20 seconds before exploding.  The U.S’s first rocket lasted about 7 seconds.

We meet a handful of people who were instrumental in the design and origination of these rockets.  (Ottaviani explains that many of these people are composites of real people involved–if he wanted to include everyone, there would be 400 people in every panel). (more…)

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after-room SOUNDTRACK: NICOLA BENEDETTI-Tiny Desk Concert #274 (May 6, 2013).

nicolaNicola Benedetti is a Scottish violinist who has had a storied career already.

Benedetti was mentored by Yehudi Menuhin starting at age 10, and won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Award a decade ago.  She plays a 1717 Gariel Strad. (It’s worth some $10 million.)

The first piece she plays was instantly recognizable–where had I heard it before?  Ah yes, the mournful and harrowing music from Schindler’s List.  [Williams: Theme from ‘Schindler’s List’].  She plays it perfectly, of course.  It’s evocative and instantly brings back scenes from the film.  And then apologizes for it being a bit of  sombre start.

 Then she plays a piece by Bach–he wrote six sonata and partitas trying to emulate many instruments at once.  This one is Bach: “Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin in D Minor.”  She says she’s not playing the whole thing because it’s 16 minutes long.  But she plays the first third which is also recognizable.  Once again, it sounds beautiful.  The blurb speaks of “the way she makes room for silence in Bach’s Chaconne before tearing deep into its dense warp and weft.”  And it is indeed enchanting.

[READ: May 30, 2016] The After-Room

This is the final book in a trilogy (what is it about trilogies that are so popular?) that began with The Apothecary.

This book is set in 1955.  (Sarah and I were commenting on how this era of history is an unusual one for stories to be set and how that’s a nice change).  Janie and Benjamin are safely back in Michigan after the deadly exploits of the previous book.

Benjamin’s father was killed at the end of the previous book and Janie’s parents have agreed to take care of him–so he is living with them.  Janie’s father is quite suspicious of a romance between the two of them and he has every right to be.  Janie is certainly in love and Benjamin probably is too, but he has other things on his mind right now.

I had planned to read this book when it came out, but I was involved with a very big book when it came out.  But I was at the library with nothing to do so I grabbed this and started reading it and I was hooked immediately.  In fact, I found this book so good, so fast paced and exciting that I put down my other reading and just flew through this. (more…)

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CV1_TNY_05_12_14Chast.inddSOUNDTRACK: TIMBER TIMBRE-Tiny Desk Concert #355 (May 10, 2014).

timberI wanted to like this band because I think their name is very clever. But I just don’t enjoy this kind of slow song.  Ten years ago I wouldn’t have even given this a chance, but since I have embraced the Tindertsicks, I have a lot more patience from this kind of music, but I just can’t get into this—it’s way too slow and meandering for me.  They play three songs, “Hot Dreams,” “Run From Me,” and “Grand Canyon.”  The second song “Run For Your Life” has a mellow Elvis vibe (I don’t like Elvis either), and when they break into the staccato guitar chords it sounds like Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared” (Nope, don’t like Orbison either).  I do like the way it builds but it’s not enough to sell the song for me.  And when you get to the lyrics, I’ll just say that the world did not need another song in which the singer calmly says “Run from me, darlin’, you better run for your life.”

[READ: June 4, 2014] “The Fugitive”

I really loved this story by Ulitskaya (which was translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich).  What I liked about it was that there wasn’t a lot of plot exactly, because it centered on the mind of the “fugitive” who is an artist in Communist Russia and is persecuted for his drawings.

As the story opens, the police have come to his house and question his wife.  They are there for Boris Ivanovich (yes, there is a problem for me with compound Russian names, but I found this was pretty easy to get through after a few pages) because he has made some drawings that put Communism in a bad light (letters made of bologna that spelled out “Glory to the Communist Party” with a price tag of 2 rub. 20 kop.

Once the police leave (he presents a document that gives him temporary safety), he flees Moscow to the distant village of Danilovy Gorki–a tiny settlement of five houses.  He stays with his friend and fellow artist Nikolai.  The country life is a novelty as he does all of the things that country folk do.  And he feels largely safe because he is far enough away from prying eyes.  He doesn’t even write to his wife for fear of giving himself away.  This also means that he can have wild sex with a woman who is visiting for the holidays–Anastasia (“She’s so educated.  But such a slut!”).  Eventually he tells his friend that he loves this life because it is so anti-Soviet, but the friend replies that it is not anti-Soviet, simply a-Soviet.  (more…)

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apprenticesSOUNDTRACK: EBONY BONES-“I See I Say” (2013).

ebonyI don’t really know what to imagine about this album from this one song.

The song opens with a skittery sampled vocal chant of “I See I Say” bouncing around.  It has a vaguely Indian sound to it (and reminds me of Ofra Haza).

After a bout a minute the voices slow to a halt which made me think something new was afoot.  But no, the voices start again, with more layers of keyboards and what is more or less a lead vocal keening away.

Then there are some actual sung words (and people chanting I See I Say), making the song sound fuller and fuller.

At first it didn’t really sound like a song so much as an introduction to something, but after a few listens, I can hear that there’s a lot more going on than I realized.   I just can’t imagine what the rest of the album will sound like.

[READ: June 30, 2013] The Apprentices

This is the second book in a trilogy (what is it about trilogies?) that began with The Apothecary.

This book is set two years after the action of the first book.  The kids are 16 now and have not seen each other since. (The book helpfully fills in the things that we have all forgotten since we read the first book, like that Benjamin’s father gave Janie and everyone a forgetting potion so that they would stay out of danger).

Now Janie is back in America, attending a private school (on a scholarship) while her parents are back making movies.  I would have loved to see more of Janie’s school, believe it or not, but the little we do see if enough to set the action in motion.  Janie, a very smart girl and a whiz at math, is accused of cheating by her roommate and (sort of) friend.  The friend is jealous of Janie because her dad keeps talking about how smart Janie is (and consequently how un-smart his own daughter is).

Obviously Janie is upset, but she is more upset because she has been working on an experiment in the chemistry lab.  She has been trying to remove the salt from salt water.  She has been getting memories of her time with Benjamin and one of the things she remembered was the desalinator.  She has been piecing together the formula and has just had a breakthrough.  But what will happen to her stuff (which is actually the school’s stuff?)

Benjamin has also been sending Janie cryptic messages.  She finally realizes that there is a code in which he is letting her know where he is.  It turns out Benjamin and his father are in the jungle saving people. Benjamin’s father has been using his apothecary skills to create some healing potions that are saving lives in the war-torn jungle.  But their mission is secret and Benjamin’s father doesn’t know that Benjamin is communicating with her. (more…)

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