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Archive for the ‘Tiny Desk Concert’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: JOYCE DiDONATO-Tiny Desk Concert #936 (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: JORDAN RAKEI-Tiny Desk Concert #935 (January 13. 2020).

I’ve never heard of Jordan Rakei.  I didn’t enjoy the first song of this Tint Desk, but that probably because I don’t really like “soulful R&B artists.”  But the other songs are a bit more jazzy and fluid and I enjoyed them more.

It also seems like Tiny Desk sets that I don’t enjoy are longer than the ones I like.  This one is four songs in 17 minutes–how do artists I’ve never heard of get more screen time than artists that Bob and Robin love?

The blurb is really glowing about the band and musically they are really tight.

The band opened with “Say Something,” from the group’s 2019 album, Origin. It’s a song that encourages people to take action and speak up for themselves.

It’s got a simple riff on the bass (Jonathan Harvey) and the guitar (Imraan Paleker).  The main feature of this song seems to be the backing vocalists: Linda Diaz, Sam Wills and Opal Hoyt who dominate the song.  I think this song just overstays its welcome since the “say something” refrain is sung about a hundred times.

They followed with “Mind’s Eye,” a commentary on technology that questions whether advancements are always a good idea.

I enjoyed the opening looping synth riffage (presumably from Jordan).  Then it kicks in with a vaguely Latin rhythm with percussion from Ernesto Marichales and a cool drum pattern of rim shots from Jim Macrae.  I liked this song a lot more.  bothe because of the really interesting middle section with cool bass lines and swirling synths and guitar as Rakei switches to piano.

This song is jazzy and it segues into the even jazzier “Talk To Me,” from the group’s 2016 debut album, Cloak.  I guess I prefer the clean piano sound and more sparing backing vocals on these two middle songs.   The end is fun with just about everyone playing some kind of percussion instrument.  Jordan sings something although i don’t know if it’s in another language or is just interesting sounds.

The final song “Speak,” was inspired by the TV show The Handmaid’s Tale, it imagines a world where nuclear war has left half the women infertile, as technology runs amok.

For this track it’s just him on piano.  I thought i would enjoy him solo a bit more than with the band, but I don’t find this song all that interesting, so bring the percussion back!

[READ: January 18, 2020] “Protocol”

This was a strange story and I didn’t really understand what was happening for the most part.

The coolest part of the story is that it was a translation and translator David Short managed to write passages with a heavy British accent even though it was originally written in Czech.  I can’t imagine what was happening in the original that would give a sentence like

An’ on top o’ that being a purveyor of love, ‘aving everyone ‘ang on till his death…

Of course, I have no idea why the character would have a heavy accent–it was never alluded to.  In fact, I don’t know why any of this story was the way it was. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BROWNOUT-Tiny Desk Concert #934 (January 10, 2020).

I’d heard of Brownout when they released Brown Sabbath, a funk covers album of Black Sabbath songs.  They have also released an album of Public Enemy covers.

I didn’t realize that they were a long-established band (fifteen years).  They originally started as a Latin funk band (and backed up Prince).  Their singer, Alex Marrero, has only been with them for four years or so–it was originally a side project that turned into much more.

One of the things you need to know about this band is that they can change traditions or genres almost on a dime. The core members dip into soul, Latin funk, a form of Peruvian cumbia called chicha, and funk covers of both Black Sabbath and Public Enemy.

The first song they play “Somewhere To Go,”

is punctuated by an old-school R&B horn section (Mark “Speedy” Gonzales on trombone and Gilbert Elorreaga on trumpet) that’s deceptively simple and emblematic of the power of their concept and spirit.

The song has a slow groove and starts with a cool bassline from Greg Gonzalez.  There’s rocking, distorted guitars and lots of horns.  He sings a few lines and then starts singing into a megaphone “paddle your way out of this.”

The next song “Nain” is also new, “with lyrics in Spanish about being different and not fitting in and seeing that as a positive.”

The intricate interplay of the baritone sax (Joshua Levy), guitar (Beto Martinez), bongos (Matthew “Sweet Lou” Holmes) and electronic and acoustic drums (John Speice) launch the second cut, “Nain,” into another down-tempo burner,

I love the way the horns play a simple melody after the first section that sounds a bit like a commercial break in a TV show–waiting for whats to come next.  Again the guitar is interesting, playing a few complex patterns while the echoing keyboard solo from Peter Stopschinski adds a trippy aspect to it.

The final song is “You Don’t Have To Fall,” which includes

old-school Tower of Power horns that made quite a few heads dip and hips shake in our corner of the NPR building,

The song has a ripping guitar solo from Beto Martinez’s during  which Alex plays a shaker gourd.  It’s really catchy.

They seem to be able to do it all.

[READ: January 10, 2020] “The Whale Mother”

Leila’s marriage has fallen apart.  She still lives with her husband and kids, but they have both hired lawyers.  Her lawyer had told her things were over and she should “Go forth and date.”

So she decided to book a retreat

While on the SeaTac-Whidbey Island Shuttle, the older man in front of her started talking to her. He says he’s lived on the island for more than ten years.  When the ferry arrived, he led her upstairs–not waiting for her but assuming she’d be following him.  He was married–he wasn’t trying to pick her up–he just seem to enjoy talking to her.  Their time on the ferry was a little disappointing to her because she wanted to stay inside in he “sophisticated interior” but he went right through to the deck.  Nevertheless, she enjoyed the company and developed a bit of a crush on him.

He asked what her heritage was.  This “was the question she would have asked him if such a question weren’t now a minefield.  Leila welcomed the question when it came from another brown person but would not have assumed other brown people felt the same way.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BRIDGET KIBBEY-Tiny Desk Concert #933 (January 8, 2020).

I love the harp.  Ever since I took a very brief class in grad school (like 4 weeks), where I learned exactly how to play one, I’ve wanted to buy one (that’s an expensive hobby).

Harps are usually thought of as celestial instruments, think “the stereotype of the genteel harp, plucked by angels.”

But the range on the harp is unreal–47 strings!  Such highs and lows.  And the things usually weigh a ton (not literally, or maybe literally).  When I saw Joanna Newsom, I was delighted to see her play a harp from relatively up close.

Now here is Bridget Kibbey.

Kibbey is crazy for the harp. She first heard one at a country church amid the Northwest Ohio cornfields where she grew up. Now she’s the go-to harpist for contemporary composers, some of whom who are writing pieces especially for her.

To be able to watch Kibbey play these pieces up close is breathtaking.  She starts with Bach (arr. Kibbey): “Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565.”  Yes, that one, the one we all know on the organ.  Well, hearing it on the harp is a whole new experience and watching her steamroll through as her fingers fly all over the place is wonderful.  You can marvel as she “offers tightly interwoven voices, like gears in a clock, with melodies and rhythms that sparkle.”

She says she transcribed the piece for the harp on a bet.  It gives her a chance to explore Baroque counterpoint and the drama of this piece.  And does she ever.

The second piece is by the “great living jazz artists Paquito D’Rivera” from Cuba.  He plays clarinet and saxophone and wrote “Bandoneon” (arr. Kibbey) for piano, which she transcribed for harp.   It is an Argentine tango and is really terrific.  I love how she keeps that bass line steady while the high notes fly around the harp.

Kibbey is really fun and boisterous and she’s very excited about her instrument.  It’s fun to hear her talk about what she’s going to be playing next.

The final piece is a “little ditty” she grew up singing in the cornfields of Ohio.  It’s Bach (arr. Kibbey): “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” from St. Matthew Passion.

I see that she has played Princeton a few times in the past.  I sure hope she comes back!

[READ: January 9, 2020] “The Country in the Woman”

This story was published this month in a collection of previously unpublished work.

I don’t believe I’ve read much by Hurston and I was a a little put off that this story is written in partial dialect.

Looka heah Cal’line, you oughta stop dis heah foolishness you got.

But I quickly got over that as I saw what she was doing with the story.

Caroline and her man, Mitchell, are from Florida but they have moved to New York City.  The New Yorkers all want Caroline to be more like a New Yorker but they know you can’t get rid of “the country in the woman.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DANIEL NORGREN-Tiny Desk Concert #932 (January 3, 2020).

download (19)I feel like I’ve heard of Daniel Norgren, but I really don’t know anything about him.  In fact, when I first started playing this Tiny Desk Concert I was surprised at the kind of music this Swedish musician played because it was steeped in American roots music.

Daniel Norgren has been self-releasing his analog recordings for nearly a dozen years. At the Tiny Desk, he and his band sampled music from three different records.

For the first song, “Putting My Tomorrows Behind,” Norgren plays piano.  There’s a slow, simple drum beat from Erik Berntsson.  And when the chorus comes along, all four sing with gorgeous harmonies.  There’s a pretty bluesy guitar solo from Andreas Filipsson.

Throughout the five minutes of this slow song, it feels like a piece of working-class Americana:

I hear myself saying, I’m doing fine
My life is a walk through the pines
But I’m sick and I’m tired, spending my time
Putting my tomorrows behind

The sky is big and white and I’m locked inside
Working all day with a frown
I guess I’m just a coward who would need to get fired
And banished from this town

For “Everything You Know Melts Away Like Snow” Norgren switches from piano to guitar.  This simple song runs 6 minutes with minimal lyrics.  But it has some lovely backing vocals and an interesting lead vocal melody that seems to go nicely with the guitar lines that are picked out.  As he played,

the bluesy Swedish musician kept his eyes tightly shut, as he seemed to tap into old souls to help conjure his tunes.  His body sway[ed] and writhe[d] as he and his band create[d] a dream state calming enough to slow the day’s hectic pace to a crawl.

Norgen takes the guitar solo on this song (mostly on the lower strings–a very bluesy kind of solo).  You’d swear this song came from an American band from the sixties.

You can’t really hear his Swedish accent (you can hear a fraction of it when he sings) until he introduces the band.  I also like that Anders Grahn plays the upright bass as Norgren is talking, giving everything they do a musical feel.

“Moonshine Got Me” is the oldest song he plays–it dates back to his 2011 EP Black Vultures.  The title sounds like Americana but the song also is not about “moonshine,” the liquor, it is about the actual moon shining. It’s over ten minutes long and opens with beautiful intertwining guitars–both he and Filipsson play different lines that feel like leads but which keep the melody perfectly.  His voice is the most aching on this song.

There’s a lengthy slow jamming middle section, in which both Andreas and Daniel take solos.  As the song slows, Daniel moves back to the piano and picks out a quiet melody to bring the song to a close.

[READ: January 6, 2020] “Linda Boström Knausgård’s Post-“Struggle” IKEA Trip

I don’t usually write about short pieces like this.  But this is about an author who I’ve recently read and whose new book I am quite interested in.  Plus, Linda Boström Knausgård is the ex-wife of Karl Ove Knausgård and she was written about so much in those books that I feel like I know her (fairly or unfairly).

This piece is, indeed, about Linda Boström Knausgård in an IKEA.  She is in New York for a book tour for her new novel Welcome to America.

It’s odd to feel you know things about a person when you have never met them and your only exposure to them is from someone else’s point of view.  There’s not a lot that Linda Boström Knausgård can do to get away from what we “know” about her.   But this little story does show her to be a bit more upbeat than the way she was left off in the novels.

It also made me laugh that the author of the piece felt the need to explain IKEA as “a notional store from Sweden.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SPANGLISH FLY-Tiny Desk Concert #931 (December 31, 2019.

Spanglish Fly is a pretty funny name for a band

Spanglish Fly [is] one of the true pioneers of the boogaloo revival scene happening on the East Coast. For about sixteen minutes, our little corner of the building was the hottest Latin dance club in D.C..

The band (eleven members at the Tiny Desk) combine two styles of music to create a great deal of dancing fun in these three songs.

There is something absolutely infectious about combining the deep groove of an Afro Cuban tumbao bass line with a conga marcha, while the horns answer a call-and-response with the vocalists, all in a confined space.

The first song “Bugalú Pa Mi Abuela” opens with some clapping and that familiar conga style of piano from Kenny Bruno.  It’s cool how the music jumps between this style and the grooving bass (including some cool bass slides) from Rich Robles.  This song gets you moving right away and has a trombone solo from Ric Becker.

The second song slows things down and is a bit more serious.  “Los Niños En La Frontera” has a slow burn of social consciousness.  It means “children at the border.”  And although the song is more somber, the musical is style rich and vibrant.  It opens with shakers from Paula Winter and cymbals and timbales from Arei Sekiguchi.  Then the piano jumps in with a call and response from the horns.  In addition to a lead baritone saxophone line from Stefan Zeniuk, there’s also Matt Thomas on tenor saxophone and Jonathan Goldman on trumpet.

I haven’t mentioned the vocals yet because it’s in this song that both singers really demonstrate their power.  Jessenia Cuesta sings lead first but in the end Mariella Price takes over and sings a different, faster more intense style.  Their voices work together really well.  And as the song ends, Jessenia holds an impressively long note.

The final song is “a song about shoes.”

The horn ensemble work that drives “Boogaloo Shoes” is worthy of the song’s title, a name taken from the classic dance form that drove East Coast teens crazy in the 1960s. The percussion immediately causes hips to sway.

This song is sung in English and features some more of that great piano and even some yips and yells from the singers.  The chorus has a couple of really fun moments when Dylan Blanchard on the congas and Arei do fast drum fills.  Matt Thomas takes a pretty lengthy solo on tenor sax and the end features a spoken word in which Mariella tells us that they are putting the “you” in zapata boogaloo.  Jessenia Cuesta ends the song with one more great vocal turn.

It’s a really fun set and if your body is not moving during it, you must be dead.

[READ: January 6, 2020] “The Strangeness of Grief”

Recently, Michael Chabon wrote an essay about his somewhat ambivalent feelings about the death of his father.  Now it is V.S Naipaul’s turn to discuss this as well.

Naipaul’s father was forty-five or forty-six when he had a heart attack.  He was working for the Trinidad Guardian while V.S. was at school in Oxford.

Although his father was to receive half pay, he seemed unconcerned about the state of the family finances.  Indeed, the episode seemed to leave him with a lightness of spirit.  So he began writing comic short stories.  They were quite successful.  The BBC even asked V.S to read one of the stories in the “Caribbean Voices” program.  The amount they were going to pay him would be the amount it would cost for him to get to London from Oxford.  But when he told his father about the expense, his father decided to buy him a gift to show his appreciation. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: Bob Boilen’s Favorite Tiny Desk Concerts of 2019.

For 2020, I intend to put more albums in my Soundtrack section.  But it’s amazing how time consuming that can be.

Nevertheless, I’ll always be posting about Tiny Desk Concerts because I watch all of them.  So I’ll start 2020 with Bob Boilen’s favorite Tiny Desk Concerts of 2019.

It amuses me that Bob Boilen and I often share very similar tastes in music, but our favorite things are usually quite different.

When we first started filming musicians playing behind the Tiny Desk in April 2008, the beauty was in the intimacy and simplicity of these concerts. Now into our 11th year, after more than 900 Tiny Desks, the other treasure I find in these concerts is the variety. I remember having the cast of Sesame Street here in May, with NPR parents and their children seated on the floor watching the Muppets. The following Monday we had the blood red-faced raging of Idles, climbing all over the desk and singing “I’m Scum.” The scope of music is invigorating, especially considering a world of listening where we can not only get comfortable with what we love, but where the quantity of music from any particular genre could keep us happy all year. Tiny Desk concerts are here to shake up your tastes a little and help you stretch your ears and discover something you never knew existed or convert you to something you never thought you’d like. Here are 10 great examples of that magic from 2019.

I don’t have a list of favoirtes, but I will make some observations about Bob’s.

Bob seems to really like bands who put their names in all caps.  Also bands who have a number (specifically 47) attached to their letters.

Quinn was the Tiny Desk Contest winner.  Sesame Street is pretty iconic.  Taylor Swift is something of a surprise, but was clearly the biggest name they’ve ever had.  And yet, Lizzo’s Tiny Desk has twice as many views as Taylor Swift’s (5 million to 2.5 million!).

Looking forward to their 1,000th show later this year.  I wonder who it will be.

[READ: January 6, 2020] “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”

This was a great short story about playing a video game.

For decades, the video game industry has been releasing video games in which a protagonist kills people from other countries.  Since I don’t play these games, I never really thought about what it would be like to be from that country and to play those games.

Surely people from all around the world like to play video games, and they probably want to play the popular ones as well.

In this story an an Afghani-American kid, Zoya, who works at Taco Bell has saved up all of his money (the money that he doesn’t give to his out of work father) to buy the final game in the Metal Gear series.  He has been playing this series which has becomes “so fundamentally a part of your childhood that often, when you hear the Irish Gaelic chorus from “The Best is Yet to Come” you cannot help weeping softly into your keyboard.” (more…)

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