All posts by kruekutt

Grateful for my beloved wife, son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren and siblings. Also a lover of theology, music, history, philosophy, classic novels, science fiction, fantasy and Looney Tunes.

Stratford Festival Review: Richard III by William Shakespeare

The thought will not down that an unfortunate choice was made when King Richard III was selected as the spearhead stage offering. It is definitely the most unwholesome of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, and its only character of any real dramatic interest is that of Richard himself — a physically repulsive hypocrite, liar & murderer without one redeeming feature.

— The Stratford Beacon-Herald, June 30, 1953

Defying the Beacon-Herald’s strictures, the Stratford Festival nonetheless opened its inaugural season with Richard III — with no less a personage than Alec Guinness (“the old Obi-Wan”, as I overheard a Festival-going mom telling her son a few years back) in the title role, and the results were raved about throughout the Anglophone world. Since then, the Festival has mounted the tragedy at least seven more times, with both widely-known actors such as Alan Bates (1967) and Brian Bedford (1977) and talented company members like Stephen Ouimette (1997) and Tom McCamus (2002’s 50th season) flocking to fill the part.

Having paid his dues at Stratford before launching into a well-rounded career that spans Canadian biopics of Pierre Trudeau & Glenn Gould and comic book movies (Thor: The Dark World and The Amazing Spider Man 2), it’s intriguing to see Colm Feore become a repeat Richard, 35 years after he first essayed the role at the 1988 Festival. His deeply physical take on the Duke of Gloucester, complete with a gait that evokes the scoliosis evident in the monarch’s recently-discovered skeleton, is visually riveting. His way with the text is equally arresting; doing without the scene-chewing excess of an Olivier, he’s nonetheless “determined to prove a villain” from the opening soliloquy, unabashedly eager to walk the Tom Patterson Theatre audience through his machinations as he claws his way toward the throne. And like Feore’s other role this season as Molière’s The Miser, his Richard becomes the focal point around which Shakespeare’s cast revolves, constantly manipulated and mesmerized by him whether they realize it or not.

Sooner or later, however, most of the other characters do discover what Richard really wants. Freed from their self-deception and ambition, it’s their reactions that give the tragedy both its recurring sparks of conflict and its building momentum. Michael Blake’s Duke of Clarence, with his dreamed intimations of his brother’s betrayal; Jessica B. Hill’s Lady Anne, whose loathing of Richard is palpable even as he perversely woos her (and wins her!); Ben Carlson’s clueless Hastings and Andre Sills’ scheming Buckingham, whose death row regrets soar to commanding heights — all these keep any empathy the audience may be developing for the would-be usurper at arm’s length.

Towering over all these are Seana McKenna (who played Richard in 2011!) as the mad, prophetic dowager Queen Margaret, calling down curses on all and sundry; Lucy Peacock, whose Queen Elizabeth soars to dizzy heights of spite and bereavement following Richard’s slaughter of her children; and Diana LeBlanc, whose Duchess of York is shocked into cursing her upstart son just as he gains the throne. This is titanic stuff — the loosely historical narrative may drive the action of the play, but the clash of deep — and deeply flawed — characters is what keeps us from joining Team Richard, despite the combined allure of Shakespeare’s words and Feore’s strange appeal. In fact, no sooner does Richard become king than we (and possibly he) realize that his downfall is inevitable — and that we need to see it, to make some sense of these tumultyous events.

Even in the intimate TPT (with one-third the capacity of the Festival Theatre), there’s spectacle aplenty to be mined by director Antoni Cimolino and the populous, well-drilled cast as Richard approaches his necessary end. Royal processions, civil unrest, a coronation, ghostly visitations and the final battle between the forces of the usurper and Jamie Mac’s enigmatic, recessive Henry Tudor stir the blood, even as they bring Richard’s lurid dreams to both their culmination and their dissolution. And while this generally traditional production is a feast for the eyes and ears that I can’t recommend highly enough, Cimolino leaves us with more food for thought as well. His prologue and epilogue are set in the present day, with the discovery of Richard’s skeleton and his reburial in Leicester Cathedral bookending the tragedy — as if to remind us that, no matter how high Shakespeare’s characters may fly, as the Bard wrote later in his career,

Golden lads and girls all must,
Like chimney sweepers come to dust.

(Cymbeline)

Richard III runs through October 30th at the Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre. Tickets available at stratfordfestival.ca.

— Rick Krueger

Stratford Festival Review: Freedom Cabaret 2.0

In last year’s cut-down Stratford Festival lineup, actor/musician/playwright Beau Dixon’s Freedom Cabaret (part of the Festival’s Forum of other performing arts and speakers) garnered some of the strongest reviews. Walking out of yesterday’s performance of Freedom Cabaret 2.0, I completely understood why.

Subtitled “How Black Music Shaped the Dream of America”, this year’s cabaret is loosely structured around the life of work and Martin Luther King, Jr. Dixon’s command of the black musical tradition is formidable and thrillingly eclectic; grasping the connections between decades and genres with a firm hand, his new set comfortably mingles jazz, soul, folk, gospel and even a touch of hip-hop in an arc that illuminates both King’s journey and the idealism he set loose during the era of the Civil Rights Movement.

And the ensemble that Dixon has reconstituted for this year — serving as the lynchpin on piano and vocals for a trio of singers with rhythm section — grasps those connections at the same level, vividly painting a compelling portrait of King’s context, life, death and legacy. Shakura Dickson’s floating soprano and Alana Bridgewater’s earthy alto scale the gospel heights of “Oh, Happy Day” and “Move On Up A Little Higher”, then pull back for an eerie, hovering “Strange Fruit” and Nina Simone’s wrenching “Four Women”; Aadin Church runs the emotional and vocal gamut from soaring tenor to down-home baritone on showcases like Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue”. Rohan Staton on guitar, Roger Williams on bass and Joe Bowden on drums lay down one irresistible groove after another, slipping serenely from a Jeff Beck quote in “People Get Ready” to the abstracted jazz of “Freedom Day”. And Dixon ties it all together with his supple piano, his power-packed voice and his understated yet emotional narration.

Most fascinating to me were the artists Dixon chose to anchor King’s story. Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “Living for the City” bookended the narrative, melding harmonic sophistication with unaffected idealism; the Staples Singers “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)”, “Freedom Highway” and “Respect Yourself” embodied both the lament of the oppressed and the spiritual grit to stand up against that oppression. But the searing quartet of pieces by chanteuse Nina Simone provided the real key to unlock the heart of King’s message. From unflinching confrontation with racism’s deepest horrors in “Mississippi Goddamn” (operatic in structure, visceral in its impact) through the heartbroken elegy for the fallen leader “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” pivoting to the visionary hope of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, Simone’s music is brutally honest and unsparing — but it also incarnates how King’s dream of hatred conquered by love was set loose in the 1960s and how its ramifications have been rippling out ever since.

The dream and its spread — even after the horrors of black history in the United States, even in the face of what obstacles remain following the progress of the Civil Rights era — are why Dixon and his ensemble can finish Freedom Cabaret with a hearty invitation for the Festival audience to join the “Love Train” that King set in motion. If you can, I highly recommend you catch it.

Setlist:

  • Oh, Freedom
  • Love’s in Need of Love Today (Stevie Wonder)
  • Why? (Am I Treated So Bad) (The Staples Singers)
  • Oh, Happy Day (The Edwin Hawkins Singers)
  • Move On Up A Little Higher (Mahalia Jackson)
  • Strange Fruit (Billie Holliday)
  • Mississippi Goddam (Nina Simone)
  • Freedom Highway (The Staples Singers)
  • People Get Ready (The Impressions)
  • We Shall Not Be Moved
  • John Henry (Harry Belafonte)
  • Black Man in a White World (Michael Kiwanuka)
  • (What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue? (Louis Armstrong)
  • Respect Yourself (The Staples Singers)/Respect (Aretha Franklin)
  • Freedom Day (Max Roach & Abbey Lincoln)
  • Phenomenal Woman (Maya Angelou)/Four Women (Nina Simone)
  • So Much Trouble in the World (Bob Marley and the Wailers)
  • Why? (The King of Love Is Dead) (Nina Simone)
  • Harlem (Langston Hughes)/To Be Young, Gifted and Black (Nina Simone)
  • Living for the City (conclusion) (Stevie Wonder)
  • Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now (McFadden & Whitehead)
  • Move On Up (Curtis Mayfield)
  • Love Train (The O’Jays)

Personnel:

  • Joe Bowden, drums
  • Alana Bridgewater, singer
  • Aadin Church, singer
  • Shakura Dickson, singer
  • Beau Dixon, piano, singer, musical director
  • Rohan Staton, guitars
  • Roger Williams, basses

Freedom Cabaret 2.0: How Black Music Shaped the Dream of America runs through August 28th at the Tom Patterson Theatre’s Lazaridis Hall in Stratford, Ontario. Tickets are available at stratfordfestival.ca.

— Rick Krueger

Stratford Festival Preview: The Miser by Molière

Harpagon, the title character of Molière’s The Miser, is a flat-out fool. Money — getting it, keeping it, hoarding it — is his obsession; in the presence of his stash, he kneels in abject devotion. But he also projects that obsession onto everyone else in his life. He berates his adult son and daughter for their “spendthrift” ways; he lends cash only at exorbitant rates (with outrageous stipulations in the small print); his fear of both having his treasure with him and letting it out of his sight easily slides into wholesale paranoia that everyone is out to part him from it.

The thing is, Harpagon isn’t completely wrong; his single-mindedness warps how everyone in his life approaches him. Both his children hesitate to reveal their new loves to him, for fear he’ll deny access to their trust funds. His household servants (including his son’s shady buddy and his daughter’s lover) suck up to him and diss their colleagues to his face, bitching behind his back and battling for dominance all the while. The local matchmaker (who Harpagon has tasked with finding him a new, young wife) and moneylender butter him up outrageously, hoping against hope to profit from their flattery. Even the ingenue both Harpagon and his son are after wants the miser’s money — to provide for her ill mother’s medical care, but still! The farcical complications of the play flow naturally and wittily from this set-up; in the company of a master fool who has what they desire, everyone’s foolishness will out.

Where the Stratford Festival’s new production of The Miser is faithful to that core revelation of Molière’s wry fable, it sparkles with a sneaky glee — even through two layers of adaptation (Ranjit Bolt’s Anglicized translation of 2001, further updated to contemporary Canada by director Antoni Cimolino). Guarding not only his briefcase full of Canadian $100s, but every absurd knick-knack in his Victorian horror of a house, Colm Feore’s Harper is the blazing star of this show; his alternating mania about Mammon and cluelessness about everything else send everyone around him into their own eccentric orbits. The household servants — ne’er do well Fletcher (a phlegmatic, sly Emilio Vieira), butler/secret lover Victor (Jamie Mac, confident and bewildered in turn), and chef/chauffeur Jack (Ron Kennell in full clowning mode) — alternately brazen their way through Harper’s whims and unleash their frustrations on each other; matchmaker Fay (Festival stalwart Lucy Peacock, in what amounts to a well-deserved star cameo) puts on a show of managerial competence for everyone else while gingerly fumbling with Harper like he’s about to explode; love interest Marianne (an empathetic, determined Beck Lloyd) stands up for herself and her mother appealingly, even as Harper and his son Charlie scrap over her like kids on a playground.

The characterizations of Charlie and Harper’s daughter Eleanor were what struck me as the weakest part of this production. While Qasim Khan and Alexandra Lainfiesta hit the right notes of frustration and futility (aided by the campy thrift-store chic of their costuming), their amped-up desperation comes across as shrill and brittle. The struggle between a serenely ignorant father and his deprived yet somehow spoiled children — the heart of the play’s satire — is where Cimilono least trusts Molière to connect. Instead, he crams gratituous Boomer vs. Millenial references into both the program notes and the script, saddling Charlie with a petty consumerist materialism and Eleanor with a string of cliche “woke yet broke” slogans. It has to be said that Khan and Lainfiesta sell this material with all their considerable ability; but for me, the insistence on painfully present-tense content is what keeps a funny production from crossing over into the hysteria that Molière generates when played with trust. There are plenty of simmering chuckles and outright hoots here, but not as many unstoppable guffaws as I had hoped for.

That said, this production of The Miser (complete with an over-the-top fairy-tale ending that does retain its hilarious impact through the layers of updating, as David Collins’ wonderfully deadpan Sir Arthur Edgerton sticks the landing) had the Festival Theatre audience in stitches, attested by the generous, heartfelt ovation for Feore and his supporting cast. If you can peer through the alternately opaque and overripe references to “the next Bezos” and “the land of Tim’s” (oh, and Harper’s distrust of safes — they attract the FBI as well as burglars!), you may well find yourself reflected in Molière’s unflattering yet strangely revealing mirror.

The Miser is currently in previews at the Stratford Festival Theatre. It officially opens on August 26th, playing through October 29th. Tickets are available at stratfordfestival.ca.

— Rick Krueger

Live from the Stratford Festival

This is an exciting time for the Stratford Festival. In 2022, we reopen our theatres, honour the excellence of the past and embark on a new leg of our journey together. A fresh start: an opportunity to reassess ourselves in the world today, reaffirm what we value and take the best path to an extraordinary future.

This will also be a year to celebrate milestones: our 70th season, the 20th anniversary of the Studio Theatre, the 10th season of The Meighen Forum, and the grand opening of our glorious new Tom Patterson Theatre.

It’s fitting, then, that our season theme for 2022 is New Beginnings. Our playbill explores the difficult moral and ethical decisions a new journey entails: What is the best way to start again? How can we avoid the traps of the past? In an imperfect world, what is good?

From Shakespeare’s most iconic play, Hamlet, to the American family classic Little Women; from the great Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman to such captivating new plays as 1939 and Hamlet-911, we offer you stories about navigating a new start in life.

Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director, Stratford Festival

Since 2004, my wife and I have been regular visitors to the Stratford Festival in southwestern Ontario. We’ve fallen in love with the Festival’s unbroken ethos across 70 seasons — dynamic, top-level performances by a dedicated repertory company of classics by William Shakespeare, Molière, Anton Chekhov, Berthold Brecht and others, as well as substantive, appealing musicals and fresh, often experimental works by today’s playwrights. We’ve also fallen in love with the city of Stratford; set in the heart of Ontario farm country, it combines picturesque architecture, unique shops and eateries, and a stunningly beautiful park system along the Avon River and Lake Victoria. And the thought of everyone who’s trod a stage at the Festival’s multiple theatres, played a rock show at the hockey rink or busked for change on the streets (ranging from Alec Guinness and William Shatner to Richard Manuel of The Band and native son Justin Bieber) makes the place a performing arts lover’s dream.

Which is why it hit hard when, in the wake of the worldwide pandemic, the Festival’s 2020 season was cancelled and the 2021 season only went on under severe limitations and restrictions. It’s true that the summer of 2020 brought welcome YouTube screenings of the Festival’s ongoing project to film every play by Shakespeare (along with other archival videos), culminating in the online Stratfest At Home subscription service. But, a few days back at a local B&B, with a full season of 10 productions energizing the town around us, has served to remind me that there’s nothing like the real thing. And that experience is what I plan to share here with you.

Over the next few days, we’ll be attending Molière’s The Miser (currently in previews at the Festival Theatre), Shakespeare’s Richard III (at the new Tom Patterson Theatre), and Freedom Cabaret 2.0: How Black Music Shaped the Dream of America (at the TPT’s Lazaridis Hall). Look for reviews posted here ASAP after each performance. Whether you’re able to visit the Stratford Festival this season or in the future (or take in what it offers online), my hope is to capture at least a bit of the serious fun, the sheer emotional and intellectual sweep, the thrills, spills, heartbreak and heart’s ease — in short, the immersive, cathartic experience live theatre at its best can provide, and that the two of us have come to love and crave.

— Rick Krueger

Record Store Day 2022: A Resonance Records Round-up

Sure, Record Store Day (Saturday, April 23rd this year, after a couple of pandemic-fraught years of multiple, shifting dates) has unquestionably changed during its 15 years of existence — now dominated by catalog reissues from the major labels instead of indies, often indulging the worst sorts of collector mania, making eBay a scalpers’ paradise for weeks afterward, then clogging store shelves for months to come. But away from the hype, the endless lines and entreprenurial gnashing of teeth, RSD has become a genuinely exciting day for jazz fans, thanks to labels like California’s Resonance Records.

The brainchild of experienced jazz producer/engineer/studio owner George Klabin, Resonance is uniquely structured as a philanthropic project, set up as a division of the non-profit Rising Stars Jazz Foundation. While continuing to release new music by artists such as clarinetist Eddie Daniels and vocalists Audrey Logan and Polly Gibbons, Resonance’s co-president Zev Feldman has boosted the label’s profile through more than a decade of tireless detective work, tracking down previously unreleased — or never officially issued — recordings by acknowledged jazz greats.

Two of the three RSD releases for 2022 feature one of the Resonance catalog’s core assets — an ever-growing collection of archival releases by seminal jazz pianist Bill Evans. This year’s offerings, Morning Glory and Inner Spirit, document two Evans-led trios recorded in Buenos Aires, Argentina six years apart.

Morning Glory, recorded in 1973 at the Teatro Gran Rex, showcases an exuberant Evans with his longest-serving trio, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morrell. These are three busy players who interact as equals and prod each other to escalating heights of inspiration, whether on the uptempo flag wavers “My Romance” and “Twelve Tone Tune”, the swinging “Up With the Lark” and “Waltz for Debby” or the pensive ballads “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” and “Esta Tarde Vi Lover”. The jazz-hungry crowd regularly goes wild (at 10 am on a Sunday morning!), which spurs the trio to push even farther — at times, Evans’ introductory chords are tumbling over each other in the rush toward the next trio statement. But this uncharacteristic excitability supplements the lyrical underpinnings of his thick chording and fine-spun melody, Gomez’s steady beat and floating solo flights, and Morrell’s inventive cross-rhythms. Every moment of adrenalin in this show is backed by thoughtful nuance and rock-solid interplay, living up to its storied reputation among Evans fanatics and fully deserving of wide release.

1979’s Inner Spirit isn’t more of the same — rather, it’s packed with vital contrasts, from Evans’ ruminative, exploratory intro for “Stella By Starlight” onward. With dazzling young bassist Marc Johnson and seasoned drummer Joe LaBarbera now on board at the Teatro General San Martin, this concert isn’t hyperactive in the way Morning Glory is; rather than fleet excitement, this trio plumbs the depths of both meditative ecstasy and centered, confident drive. Plagued by personal demons and self-inflicted health problems (he would be dead in less than a year), Evans was nonetheless intensely focused on connecting with his compatriots and his audience. New tunes in the trio’s book (originals “Laurie” and Evans’ solo showcase “Letter to Evan”, “Theme from M*A*S*H*” and Paul Simon’s “I Do It For Your Love”) slot in effortlessly beside old reliables; carryovers from the 1973 concert like “My Romance” and “Up With The Lark” (here done as an avant-garde duet with Johnson) become breathtakingly daring excursions along familiar routes, recognizable from their structure but utterly different in character. The climax comes with the closer, Miles Davis’ “Nardis”: a darkly colored, virtuoso Evans intro, a muscular trio statement, a richly melodic solo by Johnson, and a crisply delineated LaBarbera feature culminate in a searing final statement. In my ears, this may be the finest Evans effort Resonance has released; with all three players and the audience fully engaged from start to finish, it’s a gripping concert where every note counts.

Then there’s Mingus: The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s, a completely different thing that delves into new and rewarding territory for Resonance. Bassist and composer Charles Mingus (whose centenary is celebrated on April 22nd) was — to put it simply — one of the true greats of jazz. Inspired by founding legends Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as well as bebop pioneer Charlie Parker (he played with all three, plus many more titans of the form), Mingus loved to toss his multi-voiced, multi-sectioned compositions into the volatile atmosphere of his various Jazz Workshop ensembles — then feed the resulting heat with his always varying, always supple pulse to match whatever was happening in the moment. Recorded at the premiere British jazz club on August 14-15, 1972 for Columbia Records (who then unceremoniously dropped Mingus, Bill Evans and all of its other jazz artists except for Miles Davis in 1973), you hear the magic that he always aimed for and so rarely achieved to his satisfaction.

This is a transitional version of the Jazz Workshop: virtuosic young trumpeter Jon Faddis, Detroit veterans saxophonist Charles McPherson and drummer Roy Brooks (who doubles on musical saw – really), plus relative unknowns Bobby Jones on saxophone and John Foster on piano are ready and eager to tackle every twist and turn of this music. New-at-the-time compositions like “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues” and “Mind Readers’ Convention in Milano (AKA Number 29)” don’t just reflect Mingus’ concentrated, oblique thought processes in their titles; they provide head-turning obstacle courses for this band to navigate by the skin of the teeth, whipsawing across five decades of jazz during their extended timespans. The thrill is how, time and again, the group triumphs not over, but through the challenges, summoning the ghosts of New Orleans counterpoint, the hot bands of the Swing Era, the great beboppers and moderns — and constantly at the heart of the matter, the blues — then taking liberties that even the freest players of the time might blanch at. (The extended ballad “The Man Who Never Sleeps” is a prime example.) All of jazz history up to that moment is, remarkably, present in this recording; Mingus and his men fuse the inside and outside of the tradition into exciting, unpredictable slabs of sound that never stop swinging, whatever transmutations they go through on the journey.

Everyone at Resonance, from George Klabin and Zev Feldman on down, deserve aficionados’ thanks for enlivening another Record Store Day with these first rate releases. Look for them at your participating RSD store — vinyl LPs are released on Saturday, April 23rd (the day after Charles Mingus’ 100th birthday), CDs the following Friday, April 29th. CDs and downloads can also be purchased at Resonance’s website or Bandcamp page.

(Want to hear more about these albums? Check out Spirit of Cecilia’s latest interview with Zev Feldman here!)

— Rick Krueger

The Spirit of Cecilia Interview: Record Store Day 2022 with “Jazz Detective” Zev Feldman

Back in 2020, I talked with archival producer Zev Feldman about his ongoing efforts to make great, officially unreleased recordings by titans of jazz available the right way — with state of the art sound, lavish documentation and full payment to musicians (or their estates) and other rights-holders. As co-president of Resonance Records and consulting producer for Elemental Music, this year Zev is responsible for five new sets he’s shepherded toward release on LP this Record Store Day, April 23rd; links to each album’s Bandcamp page (which offer CD and download pre-orders for April 29th release) are below!

It was a delight to catch up with Zev again and talk about this cornucopia of fine jazz from the vaults! Listen to our conversation below; transcribed highlights follow the jump.

Continue reading The Spirit of Cecilia Interview: Record Store Day 2022 with “Jazz Detective” Zev Feldman

In Praise of Immanuel Wilkins

Where are the great jazz saxophonists today?

The last of the giants of the 1950s and 1960s, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter, have retired from live performance (though Shorter’s operatic collaboration with bassist Esperanza Spalding, Iphigenia, is just completing its debut run). The Young Lions who made their impact in the 1980s and 1980s — Branford Marsalis, Kenny Garrett, Donald Harrison, Joe Lovano and Greg Osby among them — continue to gig and record honorably, though without the boost they received from the recording industry before its post-Napster collapse. The flame kindled by Kamasi Washington’s ambitious remounting of 1970s spiritual jazz — two triple-disc sets, 2015’s The Epic and 2018’s Heaven and Earth — seems to have sputtered in the face of mass market fame, giving way to lower profile collaborations and soundtracks.

Who might carry that torch into 2022 ? I give you Immanuel Wilkins.

I gave Wilkins’ 2020 debut for Blue Note, Omega, a cursory listen when it came out, but missed the depths on display back then. Returning to it recently, I was belatedly blown away. Steeped in the music of the black church, Wilkins’ compositions offer a fresh take on spiritual jazz, leaner and more abstract; like Thelonious Monk’s best work, there’s an interior focus to his taut, angular writing. That interior emotion is unleashed via his playing; having thoroughly assimilated Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane’s vocabularies, Wilkins sends his solos spinning in freshly oblique directions. And he’s aided and abetted by his kinetic quartet (Micah Thomas on piano, Daryl Johns on bass and Kweku Sumbry on drums) who skitter as much as they swing, astonishingly flexible and in sync with their leader, whether at their knottiest or their most romantic.

The ambition of those compositions is noteworthy as well, though not surprising if you factor in Wilkins’ mentoring by both traditionalist par excellence Wynton Marsalis and cutting-edge postmodern pianist Jason Moran. Omega’s tunes run the gamut from the painful grief of “Ferguson: An American Tradition” through the fluid lyricism of “Grace and Mercy” to the dense, richly varied ideas of a four part suite composed during Wilkins’ time at the Julliard School of Music (“The Key”, “Saudade”, “Eulogy” and “Guarded Heart”). The absolute opposite of a blowing session, Omega laid down Wilkins’ impressive jazz credentials as a writer and a player — but also could have been an extremely hard act to follow.

To my delight, Wilkins’ new album, The 7th Hand, ups the ante! First, a six-part suite bookended by seething post-bop probes and modal riffing (“Emanation” and “Lighthouse”) that explores the polyrhythms of African percussion (“Don’t Break”), gospel music (“Fugitive Ritual, Selah”), the blues (“Shadow”) and folk hymnody (“Witness”). Then “Lift”, a half-hour of committed free exploration that broods, then snaps awake and howls in catharsis before it flutters to a soft, delicate landing. The concept behind it all: does the Holy Spirit have a role in what Wilkins, his quartet and his guests (the Farafina Kan Percussion Ensemble and flutist Elena PInderhughes) are creating in the moment? Given the consistent inspiration laid down here, I wouldn’t bet against it.

As always, your mileage may vary. But if you have any interest in the present and future of jazz saxophone, I strongly suggest you check out Immanuel Wilkins for yourself. Learn more about his Blue Note releases here.

— Rick Krueger

In Memory of David Longdon

Devastating news at Big Big Train’s website:

David Longdon
17th June 1965 – 20th November 2021

Big Big Train are extremely saddened to announce the death of David Longdon this afternoon in hospital in Nottingham, UK at the age of 56 following an accident in the early hours of Friday morning. He is survived by his two daughters Amelia and Eloise, his mother Vera and his partner Sarah Ewing.

Sarah Ewing comments: “David and I were best friends, partners and soul mates and I am utterly devastated by his loss. He was a beautiful person and I feel so lucky to have known and loved him.”

Greg Spawton comments: “We are absolutely stunned to lose David. It is unspeakably cruel that a quirk of fate in the early hours of yesterday morning has deprived him and his loved ones of a happy future together and all of the opportunities, both personal and musical, that awaited him next year and beyond.”

David joined Big Big Train in 2009, immediately making a significant impact with that year’s The Underfall Yard album. He proceeded to record a further eight studio albums with the band, including the forthcoming Welcome To The Planet, as well as fronting the band for a series of highly acclaimed concerts from 2015 onwards. In addition last year he released an album with the late Judy Dyble under the name Dyble Longdon. On the day before his accident he had been in the studio working on a new solo album.

“David made a huge impact on my life both musically and personally,” Spawton continues. “I loved him like a brother and already feel his loss very deeply. He was a true creative visionary with extraordinary depth of talent. But above all he was a first rate and very kind man. His family, friends, BBT bandmates and crew will miss him terribly.”

The band’s Welcome To The Planet album remains scheduled for release on 28th January 2022. A further statement regarding the band’s 2022 concerts and other activities will follow in due course.

The band and their management request privacy for David’s family and friends at this extremely difficult time.

— Rick Krueger

Giancarlo Erra’s Departure Tapes

That which passes, passes like clouds.

— aphorism/song title/album title, Robert Fripp

This is music from a broken heart.

Abruptly faced with his estranged father’s terminal illness, Nosound maestro Giancarlo Erra poured his reactions into brooding electronic improvisations, recorded (for the most part) in real time in the studio. The result is his second solo album, Departure Tapes. Shorn of the classical elements of 2019’s Ends, it’s both raw and eerily majestic — an extended sonic contemplation of mortal life’s limits and the human struggle to accept them.

The opening “Dawn Tape” lays out Erra’s improvisational process — not far removed from Robert Fripp’s Soundscapes or Floating Points’ recent Promises. A mournful lo-fi piano loop (complete with the noise of the recorder switching on) gently creaks into motion. As it repeats over the course of six minutes, Erra stirs in a static mid-range drone, a slow synth line and a recessed bass riff, randomly generated rhythmic chords and a yearning treble melody. The elements accumulate, grind against each other, gradually dissipate like clouds in a troubled sky, with the drone outlasting even the piano loop. But that’s just the architecture: what you hear is the beginning of a new day, its beauty evident yet obscured for Erra by Philip Larkin’s “unresting death, a whole day nearer now.”

Every track on Departure Tapes opens out from its simple beginnings to something rich and deep, no matter its actual length. The tender harp of the miniature “Previous Tape” provides a lush bed for its heartfelt, hornlike melody over an airy, insistent electronic groove. “169th Tape” is a portrait of collisions and avoidances, as orchestral clusters (treated with random, noisy decay) sweep across the soundfield, holding on against midrange chords and an irregular, descending bass line that threaten to overwhelm it. And “Unwound Tape” sounds like its title, a hypnotic, slow-motion crescendo that has the feel of something feared yet inescapable.

All this builds to the title track, sixteen minutes of heartfelt brilliance. Working off a long, wordless vocal loop, Erra explores his previous strategies, draping the haunting melody with chords and a bass line — then reboots for an extended, lyrical piano solo (featured at the start of the YouTube edit). Flowing from folk lyricism into free-form, dissonant splashes, Erra dances, halts, regains momentum to climb through thickening, pulsing string clouds. Which is when the vocal line returns, triumphantly soaring atop the static gloom. It’s a rhapsodic moment, evoking Mahler in its depiction of both the angst involved in confronting death and the catharsis of acceptance. Which beautifully sets up the closing “A Blues for My Father,” a yearning requiem of glacially shifting melodies and timbres, somber but nonetheless at peace.

It’s that sense of closure, of coming to terms with what awaits us all, that Erra powerfully, beautifully depicts with Departure Tapes. Working from his grief for his father, he’s given us a gift; whatever we believe awaits beyond this life, one day we will pass from this world, like the clouds he’s so vividly drawn on for these improvisational sketches. Coming to terms with that raw fact can enable us — as it would seem to have enabled Giancarlo Erra — to treasure what we have (as well as what we’ve had) all the more.

Departure Tapes is available on LP and CD/DVD from Burning Shed, or on digital download at Bandcamp. Give it a listen below:

— Rick Krueger

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, “They’re Calling Me Home”

Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi’s There Is No Other was one of my favorite albums of 2019. Reviewing it, I described it as

A sweep of traditions and times woven together . . . one of those albums that Duke Ellington might termed ‘beyond category,’ resonating with the core of our shared humanity.

Giddens and Turrisi’s breathtaking new effort They’re Calling Me Home does it again. Recorded in Ireland under lockdown conditions with limited guests, the duo spin shimmering sonic webs with viola, banjo, guitar, accordion and hand percussion, enlivening a brilliantly eclectic gamut of spirituals, folk songs, hymns, Baroque arias and striking originals.

And as always, Giddens’ incomparable voice compels your attention, tracing the commonalities of these variegated songs across the centuries — caressing Monteverdi’s “Si dolce e’l Tormento” and the Anglo-Appalachian “When I Was in My Prime,” testifying to a hope beyond reason on “I Shall Not Be Moved,” staring down mortality itself on a vehement, haunted version of “O Death:”

Separated from their extended families in North Carolina and Italy by the pandemic, Giddens and Turrisi have made, essentially, an album of laments; They’re Calling Me Home faces up to the spectres of separation (temporary and permanent) that continue to stalk our world. But strengthened by the confrontation, they — and we — come out the other side refreshed, able to rejoice in the life and love still there for us to find and cherish.

Buy They’re Calling Me Home at Nonesuch Records; listen to it below:

— Rick Krueger