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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: “WEIRD AL” YANKOVIC-“The Hamilton Polka” (2016). 

Lin-Manuel Miranda has declared his love and respect for “Weird Al” on many occasions.  So it makes perfect sense that he would ask Al to contribute to the online Hamilton project known as HamilDrops.  The Decemberists’ “Ben Franklin’s Song” is amazing too.

But seriously, how could Al parody a more or less biographical story of a historical figure (that’s two hours long)?.  By not parodying it at all.

Rather, he makes one of his polka mashups which he’s been doing hilariously since his second album.  They are often a highlight of each new album.  This song compresses (almost) the entire musical into 5 minutes.

“The Hamilton Polka,” provides what’s essentially a CliffsNotes-style run-through of the musical’s hooks and highlights — just enough to get the entire musical stuck in your head all over again.

I love the way in the original, the third sister, poor Peggy, is sort of musically dissed whereas Al is just explicit about it.  And of course, how could he refuse to include some actual gun shots for “Not Throwing Away My Shot?”

So they cram in 

Alexander Hamilton
Wait For It
The Schuyler Sisters
Yorktown
You’ll Be Back
The Room Where It Happens
Guns and Ships
Washington On Your Side
Non-Stop
History Has Its Eyes On You
My Shot

And Al can really sing and rap some of those lyrics quickly.  It’s a really fun mashup.

[READ: January 11, 2018] Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father

Before the musical, most people’s familiarity with Alexander Hamilton probably came from this (awesome) commercial (even if none of us could remember what it was ultimately for).

Actually, my father worked for (and owned for a time) Alexander Hamilton Printing in Paterson, NJ, so Alexander Hamilton has always been a part of my life.  Although I had no idea why.  Not really.

There’s a new reason why people know about Alexander Hamilton (can you even say his name without singing it?).

And I’m sure that reason has something to do with the creation and publication of this book.  But Hennessey is not just jumping on the Hamilton bandwagon.  Well, maybe he is, but he has two other historical graphic novels out already: The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation (2008) and The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation (2012).  He also has books called The Comic Book Story of Beer, and The Comic Book Story of Video Games so he’s not all stuffy.

The musical is far more catchy than this book–far more steamy.  But this book is really chock full of details that the musical skips (for various reasons, obviously).  The book is a lot less interested in the romantic dalliances of the founding father, although it certainly does acknowledge them.

Indeed, the book is 176 fully illustrated pages jam-packed with information.  It reads a little, if not dull, then certainly more academic.  That’s because there’s a lot of text and a lot of history. (more…)

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[LISTENED TO: Summer 2017] Danger Goes Berserk

After how much we loved Brixton Brothers Books 1 through 3 we were excited to get to Book #4 (which appears to be the final book since it has been six years, despite what was hinted at in the end).

However, there is no audio book!  No Arte Johnson guiding us through the mysteries of these teenage sleuths.  No one to say Rick (pause) Jerk.

Gasp.

So we did the next best thing.  S. read it to us on a long car ride.  This is second best because it’s exhausting for S. to read out loud for that long and to have the constant complaints of “can you turn it up” which makes me laugh every time one of the kids says it.

It was great to be involved with Steve Brixton and his chum Dana once again.

The detectives are back (in Steve’s hilarious new office) and there are two cases to look into.  One is about surfing.

The other is about… gym shorts.

Someone has been stealing Brody Owen’s gym shorts.  Brody even paid Steve to take the case.  But Steve doesn’t want to take it.  Both because it’s stupid and because he’s got more important, bigger cases to deal with. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: RHEOSTATICS-Le Colisee, Quebec City, QC (November 30, 1996).

This is the same show that the Double Live version of “Saskatchewan” was taken from. It is also the show Dave wrote about in On A Cold Road.

This is also one of only two shows on Rheostatics Live that was recorded in Quebec.  Once again, they are opening for The Tragically Hip.

The show opens with some recording in French–no idea what it is–a hockey game?

The “Saskatchewan” is of course beautiful.  I love the way it gets really heavy near the end.  It’s also fun to hear a different recording of it (you can really hear them chanting “home Caroline, home Caroline.”

Next comes “Fat” one of the few songs they also played in Buffalo.  And then after a very brief “Digital Beach” they segue into “Claire.”  This version of “Claire” is really pretty on all counts.

As the band introduces themselves: “We are the Rheostatics,” you can hear someone in the audience shout slowly and clearly: “Bad. Time. To. Be. Poor.”  Dave asks what’s that man shouting?  “Bad. Time. To. Be. Poor.”  Martin shouts: “WHAT?”  The guy then deliberately shouts: “We came here to see you guys.”  I don’t think the band ever heard it, which is a shame as it’s such a nice sentiment and well executed.

The band plays “Four Little Songs” which is always fun live.  Afterwards, Martin says, “See four songs in one.”

Don (who is not as chatty as Dave Clark but does talk quite a bit) tells everyone “This next song [Bad Time to Be Poor] is the current single from our new record which you can buy here at the venue.”  Dave: “Well said, Donnie.”

The crowd is quite enthusiastic about the band prompting Dave to advise: “Save a bit for The Tragically Hip.”

This version of “Sweet Rich Beautiful Mine” does not feature Tamara Williamson, but it still sounds good.  Although toward the end of the song things get kind of staticky which is a bummer.  The warpy sound continues for a bit but it clears up near the beginning of “Dope Fiends.”  The song is wonderful.  At the end, Martin repeats “dark side of the moon” first quietly and then a lengthy falsetto on “moooooooooon.”   The guys mutter things during this section: “Pink Floyd,” “Side 2” before launching into the rocking ending.  The roaring song ends with a gentle version of the “You Are Very Star” lullaby, possibly the first version on the site.   There is whistling and falsetto lyrics as the band whispers good night.

It’s like a complete show in miniature.

[READ: June 21, 2017] “In the Palace of Cats”

This is The Walrus‘ Summer Fiction Issue with new fiction & poetry from 6 writers in total.  I won’t be reviewing the poetry, but I’ll be talking about the three short stories.

This story was really fun and weird.  It began as one thing, turned into a few other things and then resolved itself all with bizarre turns without ever losing its internal logic.

The story opens as a teen spy caper with Andrew bringing Hillary a message in secret code.  The message from Andrew is for Hillary so obviously no code is needed,  But they are spies, so everything must be encoded.   She goes off to decipher it–using a dictionary and selecting the word just prior to the word that Andrew wrote.

Greetings Math Princess.  The Candy Ninja is ready to move.

She was amused/dismayed that even copying words out of the dictionary he spelled one wrong: needeled (for needled). (more…)

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deweySOUNDTRACK: OMAR SOSA & PAOLO FRESU-Tiny Desk Concert #272 (April 22, 2013).

omarOmar Sosa plays piano and Paolo Fresu plays trumpet and flugelhorn.  Many types of music could come from this combination, but this duo creates beautiful, mellow music that is calming and lovely.  Fresu often places a digital delay on his horns which offer occasional notes and echoes.  He also clacks on the horn itself to give some percussive sounds.

Here’s the blurb about this show:

You don’t really listen to an Omar Sosa concert so much as experience it. The Cuban-born pianist’s overall demeanor exudes a sense of calm and deep reflection, while a spiritual connection to music and his ancestors comes through in his piano playing.

You can hear Sosa draw on more than 100 years of Cuban piano in the recognizable rhythms of his country’s music. But in Sosa’s hands, it’s not all fiery and bombastic; he’s most effective when he uses Afro-Cuban tradition as a guide to his distinct, subtle and nuanced approach.

In Paolo Fresu, Sosa has found a sympathetic musical partner. Fresu’s work on trumpet and flugelhorn provides a perfect foil for Sosa’s introspective intersection of jazz, Afro-Cuban sounds and a chamber-music mentality.

Sosa and Fresu’s quietly energetic performance behind Bob Boilen’s desk enveloped everyone in attendance like a soft mist. Fresu’s use of digital delay never clashed with Sosa’ acoustic piano, instead adding another color to the palette; at times, Fresu uses it to add a layer of rhythm with either the ring on his finger or a blowing technique into his horn.

I didn’t hear any of the Afro-Cuban traditions in this music.  It was all just very pleasant.  They play two long songs,”Alma” and “S’Inguldu.”

I loved the strange sounds that Fresu got out of his horns.  At the end of the second piece, he seems to be blowing into the mouthpiece not like he wants to “play” it but as if he just wants the air to go through it.  And the pitches and wind sounds het gets are echoed through the delay.  He also seems to be clicking his mouth to get even more interesting percussive sounds.  I’ve never seen anyone do what he does with the horns before.

And of course, when he is actually playing the horns, they sound wonderful.  I haven’t really mentioned Sosa at all, but his playing is tremendous too.  There’s nothing flashy or fancy about it, it’s just solid, beautiful piano playing with a gorgeous melody and tone throughout.

[READ: May 10, 2016] Dog Gone Dog

This is a book that I funded on Kickstarter.  I thought my kids would enjoy it–especially the gadgets in the back.  Turns out I’m the first one to read it, but Tabby expressed interest in it too.

The story in this book is pretty good, although I feel like the real “selling point” is the back half of the book which teaches you how to make all the cool gadgets that Dewey Mac uses.

As far as kid detective/spy stories goes, this one is pretty simple–although the mystery is satisfyingly complicated.  The story begins with Dewey Mac (short for McClain) sitting in school listening to an announcement from his mayor.  The mayor calls some volunteers on stage. Dewey wasn’t paying attention, so he doesn’t know why, but he is picked but as he gets on stage he knocks over the microphone and breaks it.

Using some items that are around, he makes a new microphone (called Canned Music in the back of the book). (more…)

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trinitySOUNDTRACK: GREASY KID STUFF–WFMU 91.9, New York City (1997-2006).

grekidIn my vast exploration of Greasy Kid Stuff (seriously, at least 15 minutes at work), I found the WFMU website.  It turns out that Greasy Kid Stuff, the radio show broadcast weekly from WFMU from 1997 until 2006.  Then they moved to Portland and couldn’t manage the remote connections properly, so the show ended on WFMU.

The good news is that you can hear weekly playlists of all of the shows from 2000-2006 on the playlist page.  They have playlists that date back to the beginning, but there’s only audio starting in 2000.  The bad news is that you the shows are all archived in Real Audio.  Which, I don’t know, may or may not really work anymore.

But for a historical look at a funny and weird kids show check out the archives, and if you still have Real Player, give it a listen.

[READ: June 17, 2014] Operation Trinity

The Cahill Files were a series of “books from the vault” of the Cahill family.  They were originally released as e-books and some of them have been collected as print books.  The first was Operation Trinity.  And like Vespers Rising, it chronicles the history of the Cahill Family.

The story is broken into three parts, each one chronicling the “life” of a painting.  The painting in question is Jan Van Eyck’s altarpiece (see bottom of post for picture of it). The first part is set in Ghent in 1566.  In reality, the painting was finished in the 15th century and was installed in the Saint Bavo Cathedral.

The story follows Matheus Jacobs, an ordinary, some might say even less than ordinary, boy whose family doesn’t seem to think all that much of him.  Until one day when his mother says that she wants him to become an altar boy so he can protect this altarpiece from the Vespers.  (His father doesn’t think he is worthy, but she disagrees).  He doesn’t know why his mother chose him, or what his mother has to do with anything like this, until she reveals that she can speak several languages and is well versed in the history of the Vespers.  He rides his untrusty mule to the church, where he marvels at the beautiful painting.

He soon meets Father Gerard who sends him on an errand.  While away, he hears a man inciting a mob against the church.  The mob grows incensed, as mobs do, and sets out trying to weed out the Catholics in the village.  Matheus is freaked because they are heading for his home village.  And when he arrives, he sees that the mob is trying to burn down his house.  In the fracas, one of his family members is killed, and the rest of his family insist that he head back to the protect the altarpiece because the Vespers are behind the mob and they are headed for the church. (more…)

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HarpersaprilSOUNDTRACK: CHVRCHES-“The Mother We Share” (SXSW, March 23, 2013).

chvrchesThis year NPR doesn’t seem to be offering many full shows from SXSW for download.  But they do have a number of streaming songs.  And since I have recently reduced the amount of time I can dedicate to posts, I’m going to talk about a few songs rather than albums for a bit.

I’ve never heard of Chvrches although NPR leads me to believe they have a buzz around them.  They’re from Glasgow (I like the Glasgow scene), but this song is really way too poppy for me.  At least in this live incarnation, it’s so spare and keyboardy.  The lead singer has a great voice but it is firmly placed in the pop realm (especially with the Oh Oh Ohs).

The band is good though, and I enjoyed the synth guy making most of the sounds of the song.    I’d be curious to hear more (especially t hat cover of “Purple Rain.”  Watch it here.

[READ: March 18, 2013] “A Delicate Truth”

I have never read John Le Carré before.  Indeed, I don’t typically read any kind of spy/thriller type books.  I realized recently that I like mysteries but I don’t have a lot of time for hard spy novels (if I may use the language of sci-fi to describe a spy novel–perhaps spy-fi?).

We recently watched some of Skyfall (the Redbox had to go back so we didn’t finish it–I think I’m not down with the Redbox, it’s just as inconvenient as a video store), so this British spy-fi story seemed nicely timed.

This was an excerpt from Le Carré’s forthcoming book.  And regardless of the story itself, I’m delighted that it was a self-contained excerpt.  It is a mission and the mission ends by the end of the chapter   Obviously there is a lot more to the book, but I was pleased that the excerpt didn’t having any kind of cliffhanger.  And now I don’t feel like I have to read anymore of the story.

So this is the story of Paul Anderson or, “Paul Anderson,” a “middle-ranking British civil servant  hauled from his desk in one of the more prosaic departments of Her Majesty’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office to be dispatched on a top-secret mission of acute sensitivity.”  That pretty much sums up the story and you can tell from that sentence whether or not you’ll like the book.  I have no idea if this sort of thing happens in real life at all.  And maybe that’s not the point.  In the Afterword, Le Carré talks about The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, his first novel, which everyone assumed was all true (he says you know it’s not true because they printed it).  And he;s always been annoyed that people think of his as a spy who started writing rather than an author who did some spy work.

So I guess that means he knows of what he speaks. (more…)

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