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Archive for the ‘Russia’ 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: PEARL JAM-“Santa God” (1993).

On December 2, Pearl Jam announced that their fan club holiday singles will be released to streaming services.  Their first holiday single was released back in 1991.  It was “Let Me Sleep (Christmas Time).” They are rolling out the songs one at a time under the banner 12 Days of Pearl Jam.

These releases are coming out as a daily surprise.

The song opens with a quiet guitar melody and Eddie’s droning style of vocal until the bass comes in and the song starts really moving.

It’s a flashback to childhood

Now and then I remember when
Us Adults were little Kids
And our only worry was
What we get from Santa Claus

There’s a little synth melody in between verses as the song seems to grow more positive.  The chorus is simple and reminds me in style of some of the later Nirvana songs (with the backing vocals especially).

It seems like it’s a sarcastic song, but indeed, it’s not

How I learned from right and wrong
Had to be good for Santa Claus
He made me, stop misbehaving
And once a year if I did my job
I’d be given my favorite toys
So simple, the principles

It’s a catchy enough song, but probably won’t run up the holiday music charts anytime soon.

[READ: December 7, 2019] “An Errand in the Country”

This year, S. ordered me The Short Story Advent Calendar.  This is my fourth time reading the Calendar.  I didn’t know about the first one until it was long out of print (sigh), but each year since has been very enjoyable.  Here’s what they say this year

The Short Story Advent Calendar is back! And to celebrate its fifth anniversary, we’ve decided to make the festivities even more festive, with five different coloured editions to help you ring in the holiday season.

No matter which colour you choose, the insides are the same: it’s another collection of expertly curated, individually bound short stories from some of the best writers in North America and beyond.

(This is a collection of literary, non-religious short stories for adults. For more information, visit our Frequently Asked Questions page.)

As always, each story is a surprise, so you won’t know what you’re getting until you crack the seal every morning starting December 1. Once you’ve read that day’s story, check back here to read an exclusive interview with the author.

Want a copy?  Order one here.

I’m pairing music this year with some Christmas songs that I have come across this year.

This is a short short story.  It concern a Russian man who has been living in the United States for most of his life.  Gregory has been a successful businessman in New York City.  He was exacting and always on time.  Actually, he’s rather a a jerk.

He returned to Moscow infrequently, and when he did, his visits were brief.  He wanted to stay at the Ritz but his mother was always upset with him if he didn’t stay with her.  So he agreed to stay in her run down place, where he knew he would not be able to get the smell of her apartment out of his clothes. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SNARKY PUPPY-Tiny Desk Concert #916 (November 20, 2019).

I feel like I’ve been hearing a lot about Snarky Puppy lately.  So much so that I assumed they were a new band.  Wrong:

Snarky Puppy has been a force for a while now, earning the ears of millions for more than a decade.  The band started as college friends in the jazz program at the University of North Texas back in 2003. But the formative era came a few years later, after Michael League [bassist and bandleader] became a part of the gospel scene in Dallas and eventually brought the jazz students to church, where music plays a different role than it does in the classroom. In the pulpit, it’s a channel for spiritual healing, a communal experience between players and congregation. As an experiment, League pulled his jazz friends and his gospel bandmates into one ensemble, where the two groups bonded together and established ground-zero for building the sonic identity of Snarky Puppy

I also had an idea that (because the name sounds similar to Skinny Puppy) that they might be a, what, young bratty dark punk band?  Wrong again.

Their secret sauce? A long-simmered recipe of jazz, funk and gospel.  Thirteen albums later, you can still hear these gospel and jazz orbits crashing into each other.

Oh, and one more thing.  They only play instrumentals.

They’re a band whose lyric-less melodies are still yelled (sung back) to them at their concerts around the world, as a shared catharsis for everyone in the room.

I really couldn’t have gotten that more wrong.

The band plays two songs in this lengthy set.

The first is called “Tarova.”  It opens with a wonderful sequence of keyboards.  Shaun Martin plays the keyboards with that talk box thing (made famous by Peter Frampton).  He seems to be having a kind of call and response solo with Bobby Sparks.  Sparks has the most fascinating thing on his keyboard.  A very large whammy bar/lever that he is able to push really far down to bend notes far more than any keyboard I’ve ever heard.  It was so much fun watching him do this, I was very glad he was up front.

During all of this, “JT” Thomas is keeping time on drums.  The song proper jumps in with a fun funky riff with lots of trumpets.  Everybody gets to do something impressive in this song and there’s a bunch of solos as well.

I really like the middle funky section that’s mostly bass and keys.

The song builds to a moment when everyone stops–after a two second pause which makes everyone clap, they resume with a great percussion solo from Nate Werth.

When the song ends, League introduces everyone and says who soloed.  He jokes, “That’s what you;re supposed to do in jazz, right, say who soloed n case anyone was confused that there were solos going on.”

Then he addresses the crowd.  He says that most people there are employees and family and an abundance of interns.  He wants to turn the cameras around for a minute (only one or two turn around) and force you into a musical rhythmic experiment.  Turns out that

Seconds before we hit record, Snarky Puppy’s bandleader, Michael League leaned in to ask if he could “do a little crowd work.” I suspect he waited until the last second on purpose, but it’s been easy to trust this band when they have an idea, judging by the three Grammy Awards they get to dust off at home after every tour run.

What resulted was a Tiny Desk first: League divided the audience into two sections, one side clapping out a 3/4 beat and the other half a 4/4 beat, creating a polyrhythm that I’m sure a handful of coworkers didn’t feel so confident trying to pull off. But this band pulls you in with simple instruction and a little faith.

League says, “we’re going to a polyrhythm because things have to get nerdy and unenjoyable.”  The crowd does admirably well with the two rhythms going on.  They are aided by Nate Werth on percussion who is really amazing (not necessarily here, but in the two songs).  I believe that they are creating 7/4.

The audience is warned that this polyrhythm will be used in the second song “Xavi,” dedicated to their friends in Morocco.

The song opens a funky bass and a lovely flute melody from Chris Bullock.  Then after a short guitar lick by Chris McQueen the whole band jumps in with a really funky melody.  The riff is taken over by two trumpets Justin Stanton (whose trumpet has a mute) and Jay Jennings (no mute) and Chris Bullock who is now on sax.

I was going to say you really don’t hear much of the violin in this set as it gets kind of melded with everything else.  Then mid way through the song, Zach Brock takes a wild and, often, effects-riddled solo in the middle of the song.  It might be my favorite part of a set that has many highlights.

The clapping part is used twice.  In the first one, the band is kind of quiet and the clapping is aided with great percussion from Werth and another lovely flute.

The guitar and bass in this song are fantastic even if they are never entirely prominent.  There’s also a very cool keyboard solo from trumpeter Justin Stanton.

Then the clapping comes around a second time.  During this one, there’s a guitar and keyboard making all kinds of sounds while the drums keep hitting everything, there;s more percussion and a little more flute.

The whole set is tremendous fun.  Totally not what I was expecting and so much better.

[READ: August 15, 2019] The Idiot

I grabbed this book because I had written down the author’s name as someone I wanted to read.  I also got a kick out of the title (and the obvious allusion to Dostoevsky).

I started the book and enjoyed it and then realized that I had read an excerpt from this story already.  And that is why I had written the author’s name down.

This book was written as a kind of response to her first book.  In an essay in The Guardian, she explained that:

In her first book, The Possessed, New Yorker journalist Elif Batuman complained that as an incipient novelist she was always being told to eschew books and focus on life. Literature since Don Quixote had been seen as false and sterile; disconnected from lived experience. After years as a graduate student of Russian literature, she decided to challenge this by writing an account of her own haphazard attempt to live with and through books.

Of the excerpt I wrote quite a lot (and quite a lot that almost gets left behind after the excerpt): (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NEGATIVLAND-Points (1981)

Negativland’s second album continues with the noisy nonsense of the first.  This disc actually has track titles, which is nice.  It’s about 38 minutes of experimental sounds, home recordings and all manner of noisy sound effects.

“Harry to the Ferry” features David teasing his mom who is playing the accordion–retake after retake with laughing and frustration.  Totally covered by jamming noises.  At the end his, aunt sings while his mom plays the title song.

“The Answer Is…” is simple synth sound–possibly even a demo from a synth?  It sounds like an ice skating rink.  It’s quite nice.  After three minutes we get the title sampled and then the music begins again with a bit more improv.

“Scolding Box” over menacing synths, David says “Green boy is extremely mad, he’s going to start scolding.”  The rest of the nearly six minutes is wavery, unsettling synth waves and what might be clarinet samples.

“That Darn Keet” David shouts, “Blue boy escaped!” followed by thumping and more menacing synths.

“Dear Mary” with a buzzing sound underneath and amid slamming noises, a man recites a stiff, formal letter to Mary about how hard it is to be yourself.  The end is a TV clip from a game show.

“Clutch Cargo ’81” piano improv with weirdo synth sounds bouncing in an out.

“Babac D’babc” all manner of weird chirping sounds and maybe balloons and then people arguing about their marriage.  The argument comes in chunks with each one getting more intense.

“A Nice Place to Live” a promotional audio for Countara Costa county.

“A Bee Fly” mechanical sounds and high pitched noises for a minute before it jumps to a track that actually talks about a bee.

“No Hands” starts as a song of sorts under lots of echo.  Then come voices of people at a barbecue (with more bee interruption) and meat sizzling.

“Potty Air” is basically six minutes of various electronic noises and static–seems like they are testing out to see just what their electronic machines can make.

[READ: April 20, 2019] “White Walls” 

This story is set in Russia and was translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell.

It begins with the tale of Mikhail Avgustovich Janson, a pharmacist of Swedish descent.  In 1946 he built a dacha near Leningrad intending to rent it out to city folk.  He was soon ready for tenants and a family.  But “The Lord had something else in mind,” and Janson died soon after finishing everything.

The narrator’s family were his tenants and they bought the land from Janson’s widow.   But that was years before the narrator was born–she never met Janson.  But she and her brothers found all kinds of artifacts in the house.  Items in the attic and a large iron object that the kids assumed was a bomb even though they were told it wasn’t.

In 1997, the narrator and her family decided to strip the wallpaper and make the place their own at last.   They bought new wallpaper that they rather liked and began stripping the old. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: GEORGIA ANNE MULDROW-Tiny Desk Concert #839 (April 8, 2019).

I’d never heard of Georgia Anne Muldrow.  My takeaway from this set is that Muldrow is a wonderful hippie–spreading love and peace and being a total free spirit.  But what do we know about her?

The blurb says

The first song I ever heard from Georgia Anne Muldrow, back in the early 2000s, was called “Break You Down.” The opening line spoke directly to my experience as a twentysomething coming into my own:

“Don’t let them make you forget who you are
Don’t let them break you down”

I later found that she wrote, produced and performed that song when she was only 17-years old. She possessed talent and perspective beyond her years and I became a fan.

But more interesting than that is this piece of information.

She’s also made a name for herself as a collaborator with artists [like] Erykah Badu, with whom she introduced the notion of “staying woke” to the world, years before it was appropriated as a hashtag.

“Overload” opens with her doing some crazy muttering and sounds.  I didn’t think I’d like the song at first, but it got really funky with some cool keys from Mokichi (his keys dominate most of the songs as the main instrument) and a very cool six string bass from Bronson Garza.  I really like the chours.  By the end she is totally intense and into it–an amazing performer

I know they want to kill ya. I know they want to break ya.
I’m sure they envy you because your love is so true.
They want to break your mind they want to drive you crazy.
They don’t love no black man unless hes in slavery.
But let my love raise you higher.

It’s pretty awesome.

Some time would pass before she eventually released her debut album, Olesi: Fragments of an Earth, in 2006. Since then, she’s released well over a dozen, mostly self-produced projects. While much of her music’s focus has been on the healing, preservation and education of African American people, the themes are universal: family, struggle and of course, love.

Up next was “a reworked and animated versions of the song ‘Flowers.'”

She and the band were floating the possibility of swapping the duet with her partner in music and life, Dudley Perkins with another song. But she decided it was more important to showcase their shared love on the song “Flowers,” originally from Perkins’ 2003 album A Lil’ Light.

It’s a softer song.  She sings the beginning and then Perkins takes over.  I don;t like his voice all that much and find this song rather dull.  But they clearly had fun plying it.

They end the set with an extended and jazzy version of “Ciao.”  She plays bongos to start this one which accentuates Renaldo Elliott’s drum kit.  It has a jazzy bass line and feels really improvised.   She starts riffing on going to Africa–South Africa or Togo she stars rhapsodizing about all the places they could go Nigeria  left alone by the police there because we’ll be in the majority.

Pack my bags and go where the equator hugs me, maybe even pick me a mango.

Georgia Anne Muldrow is a force of love and it is hard, and somewhat foolish to resist her.

[READ: April 10, 2019] Be Prepared

T. has had this book at home for quite a while (she’s quite the collector of graphic novels).  I have seen the cover for ages and so I had an idea of what the book was about.  Boy was I wrong.  For I assumed it was about summer camp.  And while it is, it is about so much more.

I really enjoyed her drawing style in Anya’s Ghost but I like it so much more in this book.  Her drawings of Vera with her big glasses is just so charming and sweet.  I was hooked from the first page.

As the story opens we see Vera at a birthday party for Sarah Hoffmann.  The party is important–an ice cream cake, pizza, (with a stuffed crust) and of course, a sleepover.  All the girls have fancy sleeping bags, but Vera’s is Russian and very utilitarian.  All of the girls gave Sarah accessories for her fancy historical doll. While Vera drew her a picture.   The girls wonder where Vera’s doll is, and Vera lies (badly) about hers being at home.

When Vera has her own party later, she tries to create the same atmosphere–but fails miserably.  The ice cream cake is a Medovik tort (with writing in Russian), the pizza is from Dmitri’s and the drink is Kvass (carbonated beverage made from rye bread).  Everyone slept over, but they all called home to get picked up in the middle of the night.

Vera didn’t really fit in with anyone.  But she still had friends (and Sarah was certainly nice enough). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: TWEEDY-“High As Hello” (Field Recordings, August 7, 2014).

This Field Recording [Tweedy And Son Take To The Tunnels, Friends In Tow] is another one from the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.  Much like with the Jazz Festival, it was raining during the folk festival.  This means the musicians had to play in a that by now familiar tunnel–away from the elements.

These musicians were NPR favorite Jeff Tweedy and his then new project, Tweedy.  The project features Jeff’s then 18 year-old son Spencer on drums.  Jeff and Spencer are accompanied by Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius (who don’t get to really show off their pipes, but do provide great backing vocals).

With the rain, it was not possible to shuffle drums, so

Spencer Tweedy’s drums are made from found trash and objects lying around the fort, including a cardboard box and some boxes of gum. Still, magic happened.

I can’t help but remark (again) on the wonderful sound equipment.  The band sounds terrific and you can hear all of the guitars (a full band list isn’t given).  Somehow Spencer’s drums don’t sound like cardboard boxes.

This recording is from 4 years ago either before Jeff started wearing the ubiquitous cowboy hat or he didn’t want to wear it in a tunnel.

“High as Hello” is a slow song with great backing vocals and solos from at least one of the three guitars.

[READ: September 18, 2018] “Poor Girl”

This story was translated by Anna Friedrich and is about a woman trapped in a situation she hates.

What’s interesting is that it’s unclear if the title refers to the young mother or her daughter (as they are both poor in different ways).

The opening line is quite surprising:

The wretched mother could easily have lost her sanity watching her husband love their daughter….

What an odd thing to be upset about.  Until…

the way he stroked the child when she was falling asleep or waking up, his blissful expression when they touched, the fact that he bathed her himself, believing it to be his right and his responsibility.

So, the woman, Irina, raises some red flags, although it’s not always clear if she is being reasonable about them. (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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