Category Archives: featured artists

CUJE feat. James Carter @Claflin1869 #CALABASH2016

Note: our local newspaper, the Times and Democrat, picked up this review online with an offering by Claflin student photographer Jordan Geddis. It’ll hit the print version Friday.

What a tour de force! Tonight Orangeburg experienced the Claflin University Jazz Ensemble featuring James Carter under the direction of one Mr. Vincent A. Chandler. Well, a fortunate cadre of Orangeburg cognoscenti did, anyway. For Claflinites, Orangeburgers, and others who did not get that privilege, let me highlight some of what y’all missed.

Chandler arranged and curated a program tightly focused on the development of his students and of a meaningful jazz scene at Claflin. The Music Department’s burgeoning jazz concentration within the music major bolsters a small but scrappy instrumental program, which means that the Jazz Ensemble often consists of dedicated students who work within irregular instrumental arrangements. Not to be discouraged, Chandler takes what most would consider to be a formidable challenge as his opportunity to create beautiful arrangements for this group.

Kicking off this group’s portion of the program with “African Flower” came through as Chandler channeling his inner Ellington: he writes arrangements with specific players and their strengths in mind. Carter exploded onto the stage, laying his gigantic tone over the gorgeous, reedy textures already crying poignant trans-Atlantic trade winds early in this powerful performance. With only a day’s interaction behind them, Carter and the ensemble coaxed a beautiful bloom from the frame of Chandler’s thoughtful arrangement. The Duke proved to be a unifying theme later in the show as the audience panted and screamed its way through thoroughly sensuous collaborations on “In a Sentimental Mood” and Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” What a way to hear the history of this musical idiom through the voices of its heirs!

Chandler and friends did not stop there, however. His trademark scat on Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere” made perfect sense opposite Carter’s hat tips to Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, the Prez, Hawkins, ‘Trane, and so many others. We have grown accustomed to Chandler’s standout trombonifications here at Claflin, but they took on even more power in context with one of his mentors. Seeing that interaction on what Carter calls the “sacred space” of the stage was pure fun, but it also had an organic creative authenticity that characterizes truly profound performances.

 These were not the only interactions that mattered in that space tonight, either. The show opened with a trio out of Columbia that nurtures a South Carolina Midlands jazz scene. For students to trade choruses and tunes with the Jay Ware and friends offers them and the audience an important reminder that we need to support local artists. These cats fully deserve that support for their classy warm-up of a crowd whose numbers betrayed the enthusiasm in the concert hall, for their devotion to the art form, and for the fine example they set for younger players and listeners. One of those young listeners sat rapt on my lap for the entire two-hour show.

Mr. Chandler, Mr. Carter, Dr. McGee and Friends, if musicians can get a five-year-old to do that on top of everything else this concert offered, they can do just about anything. “Music in its most profound state,” as James Carter observed in an earlier masterclass yesterday, “produces life.” It definitely produced a bouncing, happy spark of life for my son and me, as for the crowd that hung around for a half hour after the show.

The only questions left now have to do with how Claflin and Orangeburg can get more listeners of all ages into those seats. There’s good news here: #CALABASH2016 has only just begun. Orangeburg, check out the other FREE festivities and join this vibrant campus in celebrating Arts and Letters!



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Featured Artist: Tedeschi-Trucks Band

Last night my wife and I witnessed a marvel of postmodern blues-making at North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center. Since shortly before the release of their June 2011 release of RevelatorSusan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks have led the Tedeschi Trucks Band. They’ve been busy since then, building on a solid foundation to remain the biggest, baddest blues outfit I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing live. We’ve been closely watching Tedeschi’s career since her 2002 record, Wait For Me. Trucks we’ve only discovered more recently, but last night the band made a believer out of this listener.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band understands two things thoroughly: how well the distinction between bandleader and singer can work, and how to value every single contributor. While he’s soloing or listening to Tedeschi, Trucks calmly participates in various ongoing communications within the band. Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson stay locked into a singular groove–a formidable task for any band with two drummers–while they also manage to keep out of each other’s way and support the band with tasty exchanges. Brand new bassist Tim Lefebvre holds down the rhythmic and harmonic foundations with impeccably restrained taste. Kofi Burbridge wields his multi-keyboard setup masterfully, laying down basic harmonies on keys here, amping up the texture with a Hammond B3/Leslie combo there. Kebbi Williams, Maurice Brown, and Saunders Sermans each bring distinctive, entertaining personalities to the horn line. Behind them, a duo of highly versatile singers Mike Mattison and Mark Rivers alternate between providing stylized harmonic flavor and coming out front for their own features. Just don’t call them backup singers. Mattison began paying his dues well before singing lead on another Trucks project, and Rivers goes well beyond holding his own during shining moments in this band.

Meanwhile, capable leadership from Trucks keeps everything cued up and tight for Tedeschi, who has ample space to focus on bending phrases and wailing her way through blues idioms that make originals sound like classics. It is truly rare to hear a singer with rhythm as solid and consistent as hers. Every ornament, every nuance, every single rasp seems purposeful, but she delivers it all with a nonchalant humility, signaling to the audience that mastery is just part of her personal style.

To say that husband and wife both handle their instruments well as soloists would be a dramatic understatement. Tedeschi’s straightforward blues style has always served her well, and it’s a perfect compliment to the harder edge of her husband’s slide solo sound. Together with their collaborators they can bring the band from Metheny-esque soft subtlety to face-melting fever pitch, often within the same twelve-bar solo chorus.

This is unapologetic Blues with a capital B. Yes, they can funk it up with some tight horn lines, a good deal of interplay between their two drummers, and some good clean fun from a self-choreographed horn line. Yes, Derek Trucks can get his rockstar on with a bit of distortion, harmonics, and the help of some professional lighting that pales in comparison to his guitar lightning. But this music articulates a genealogy of American rock beginning with the Blues and only then moving through Jazz, Rock, and Funk in that order. The diverse backgrounds and personalities of the band come through this sound mightily. This music understands that all truly American art needs that variety in order to participate in moving sonic representations of who we are as a nation.

Tedeschi Trucks Band offered an evening of transcendent Americana last night. Soon they’ll take the show to Japan, India, and several European nations. They will make excellent emissaries for the venerable tradition of American Blues.

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Monheit was magnificent on Valentine’s Day

My wife is the coolest. Monday afternoon, she calls me and says, “hey, want to see Jane Monheit tomorrow night?” I had totally written off going to the performance for the usual reasons: too much to do, not enough money for a ticket, we’ll put the baby to bed and have a nice dinner at home, etc. I’m the worst kind of romantic: between workaholic tendencies and not wanting to rock the boat of routine, my good intentions rarely turn up something this exciting. She knows this about me, so it’s the exact swift kick I need to enjoy Valentine’s Day on an actual date with my wife.

We’ve been listening to Monheit since she released her second record, and we loved her third, In the Sun. Last night she delivered the kind of totally unsurprising brilliance that we’ve come to expect from her. She punctuated with honest humor, and she allowed a sizable audience into the rather intimate musical interaction that she enjoys with her backing trio.

These are marks of musical refinement that come from her total dedication to practicing the craft of song interpretation. Monheit has a huge instrument, but most of the time she manipulates it with such great care and restraint that it makes the larger swells all the more exciting. Her technical mastery feeds the tremendous musicality that she demonstrates in every interaction with her sidemen.

On that score, she surrounds herself with a totally capable trio. The pianist, Michael Kanan, shows both sensitivity to Monheit’s every ornament and flexibility to her stretch of phrase. Neal Miner lays down a solid foundation for the group and throws in a few tasty bass solos in the mix. Rick Montalbano holds his own on drums, emulating his wife’s vocal restraint with a rather unorthodox cymbal technique. Montalbano plays through the cymbals, both lengthening and softening his attack. Much as it contributes to the overall finesse and restraint of the group, the very same technique leaves his sound on the skins rather flat. In his louder punctuations, these sounds blurt outside the otherwise tightly controlled sound envelope. These profane interjections don’t detract terribly from the gestalt songcraft in which this ensemble engages. The group is comfortable together: Monheit extends her family affair through the musical and personal closeness she clearly feels with the other musicians. They’ve cultivated this kind of proximity on her latest record, Home.

Guest trumpeter and FSU faculty member Scotty Barnhart stepped in for a couple of tunes last night, giving Monheit’s group opportunities to shine with one of the best soloists of his generation. Barnhart put is usual sensitivity and musical tact on display, and Monheit’s group responded both musically and respectfully.

These were the rules of the evening: restraint, respect, and musical sensitivity. Monheit sets that tone from note one as a strong bandleader. Some of the most aurally delicious moments of the whole show derived from the trio and Scotty’s decisions not to play something, instead staying out of Monheit’s way to let her vocal explorations flourish. That particular brand of classy taste proves rare, and it endowed Valentine’s Day in Tallahassee with a healthy dose of romance.

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Zakir Hussain and Rakesh Chaurasia at FSU

Rarely have I ever seen live the unbridled virtuosity that Zakir Hussain Alla Rakha Quereshi and Rakesh Chaurasia demonstrated last Wednesday night in Florida State University’s Opperman Music Hall. They played to a hall so packed that people were hanging from the rafters, most of whom understood Hussain’s international reputation and his status as a world music demi-god. To say that these players were amazing would be a disservice. No one familiar with Hussain’s musicianship was surprised in the least with the dexterity, precision, and sensitivity they heard from either musician. The pleasant surprise here – thanks to Seven Days of Opening Nights and their Director, Steve MacQueen – was to see such a global drumming giant diversify the fall concert lineup at FSU. A sizeable Indian/Indian American sector of the audience expressed delight not only that Hussain was here in Tallahassee, but also that he played with the nephew of the great flute maestro Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.

During their whole visit, Hussain and Chaurasia demonstrated a forward looking approach to the contemporary practice of Indian “classical” music. During the concert, we watched sons of masters, two musicians who had never played together, meet each other musically. They communicated clearly according to the systems they had learned so well as younger men. They improvised within those boundaries, at once honoring their gurus and pushing the envelope with tremendous technical prowess.

Hussain explained the next day during a masterclass that he had played with Chaurasia’s uncle and teacher. Chaurasia, for his part, had watched the tabla player onstage with his uncle for years before playing with Hussain. The pair sounded as if they had been born playing together. At other points in his masterclass, Hussain emphasized that “the purists in India” had little to do with the kind of musician that drummers like Airto Moreira, Babatunde Olatunji, and Giovanni Hidalgo inspired him to be. His reverence for Indian masters paralleled this respect for other virtuosi. His comparisons of Indian musical systems to jazz made perfect sense of the fluidity he had with Chaurasia onstage.

Starting with the long view – a historical backdrop about where tabla music had come from – Hussain explained how relatively new it is and how the instrument is still changing and developing in terms of its technique. He made crystal clear that he strives to stay within the musical and theoretical boundaries that his musical pedigree demands while simultaneously revolutionizing tabla technique.

In both the concert and the masterclass, these technical elements surfaced in the complex counterpoint not only between raga and tala or between tabla player and flutist, but also between right and left hands. What Hussain plays with either hand could be food enough for even the most sophisticated ears; what we hear when they play together is something that neither hand plays on its own. The ears respond with similar mesmerizing bewilderment as when listening to good Indonesian gamelan music, a pointillistic string quartet, or the intricacies of Kisoga embaire (wood slab idiophone) music from eastern Uganda. Unlike these, however, Hussain and Chaurasia’s collaborations are so highly improvised as to be fleeting, leaving the feeling that even if precisely the same combination of sounds was never made again, we became somehow more enlightened having heard them at all.

It was also no surprise then that two musicians with this ability to affect audiences so profoundly proved to be so personable and kind. People think this doesn’t matter, but the truth is that it reflects a kind of social intelligence consistent with these artists’ highly developed musical sensibilities. For what is music if not a social experience, and what is performance but the demonstration of thorough competence and elegant improvisation within particular social spheres?

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R.I.P. Amy Winehouse, 1983-2011

Today an artist who showed such luster in her early career has been found dead at much too young an age. No doubt people will speculate about the cause of what London police are calling her unexplained death. Given her history, they’ll probably be right, but now is the time for mourning the loss of a tremendously talented woman. Amy Winehouse did what so many notable British artists before her have done: she began her career by imitating the best, she quickly grew into her own creative voice, and she found appropriate producers and other allies to amplify it.

Few obituaries do justice to the late Winehouse. JazzTimes certainly doesn’t sugar coat anything. The CBS News version rightly questions which was more tragic–her struggle with substance abuse or the resulting freak show that too many people too frequently made of it. Meanwhile, her adoring fans have already meticulously curated her wiki.

Sure, she had a few too many parallels with Billie Holiday, as with so many other great artists who had habits, but take a moment to remember her doing one of the things she did best: reinterpreting a standard.


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José León and Family in Tallahassee

This week in the Florida State University College of Music, the Center for Music of Americas presents Venezuelan musician José León. If you’re in town and/or on campus, you can bookmark the online calendar, find it in slightly different formats here, or check out the breakdown below in list format.

Tonight! September 13, 7:00 p.m., 201 Longmire Hall – Lecture/Concert

Tuesday, September 14, 6:00 p.m., 217 Housewright Music Building – Workshop with Aconcagua (FSU’s Andean regions music ensemble)

Thursday, September 16, 5:00 PM, St. John’s Episcopal Church (Monroe and Call Streets in Tallahassee) – reception and Afro-Venezuelan music concert presented in collaboration with the Riley House Museum.

Thursday, September 16, 7:30 p.m. – Workshop #2 with Aconcagua

Friday, September 17, 1:30 p.m., Lindsay Recital Hall – Seminar in World Music Studies

Friday, September 17, 9:00 p.m., B-Sharp’s Jazz Club – Venezuelan Music and Dance Party

It’s going to be a full week here. Join José León and his musical family, the CMA and the College of Music and get your Afro-Venezuela groove on.

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Monáe Puts On a Show in Style

FSU began a new term today, so this past weekend was full of parties. The one to be at Saturday night was Janelle Monáe’s set for Ogelsby Union’s “Last Call Before Fall.” Opening act The Blow didn’t need the clever name to deliver on its promise, but the Monáe show beginning a half hour later was the most put together four piece outfit Tallahassee has seen for a long time.

It takes only a brief look at Monáe & Leftfoot’s video with Big Boi to know that she’s about solid singing and precision dancing (James Brown comes to mind). Her live show is no different. From the white-gloved backup dancers with red tambourines to old-school R&B references all the way back to church with a quote from “All Creatures of Our God and King,” this is an artist who knows her audience and exactly what she wants to say to them.

She’s hired all the right musicians to help her say it, too. Her drummer flashed HSBCU-style stick tricks between gospel and marching tinged time keeping techniques. Her virtuoso guitarist helped her showcase impressive vocal clarity and range with their sophisticated harmonic imagining of Charlie Chaplin’s classic “Smile.” Her man on keys sported dork chic style while holding down both his own part and that of a bass player. All kept up with the tightly choreographed demands of a powerful one hour set.

I first heard about this artist in June, when she got a rave review over at BlackGrooves. I can think of no better artist to kick off FSU’s fall term with our not quite new university president than the fresh but clearly not green Janelle Monáe in her fashionably overstated tuxedo. Here’s wishing them both a good year.

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Featured Artist: Nora Chipaumire

Photo taken by Al Hall at the Maggie Allesee National Center for ChoreographyAbove: Nora Chipaumire mid-sketch at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (Photo taken by Al Hall)

It’s taken me an unprecedented MONTH to react to this artist, primarily because her residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) had such a profound impact on me. My interactions with Nora Chipaumire started because of a history professor who invited me to one of MANCC’s “entry points.” I had been to one other such “informal showing” before, and I had never been more intrigued by a dance event.* MANCC doesn’t present performances; instead, they invite choreographic fellows to come for residencies and the public only ever sees their work in its most embryonic and mutable phases. This takes pressure off of the dancer/choreographers so that they can concentrate on movement and experimentation, but it also creates a qualitatively different atmosphere for reception. It’s an environment that I have come to prefer as a more accessible way of wrapping my head around dance compositions.

During the few weeks between that initial invitation and the last showing of her collaborative piece, I have been humbled to do research for, work with, learn from, and laugh with Nora Chipaumire. She’s a person who enters the room with an irresistible magnetism about her. She says more with every detail of her body and movement than any other artist I have ever seen, and not only with her movement onstage. For example, Chipaumire cuts her hair like the male warriors in her clan:

Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography

Above: Chipaumire sports her “lion” hair during a rehearsal

Despite the centrality of natural hair to an aesthetic of Afro-centrism in African American style and culture, it’s probably difficult for most Americans to understand the full symbolic effect of this look for Chipaumire. Beyond being an international traveler, a renowned artist, financially independent woman, and generally boisterous personality, grooming this look smashes up Zimbabwean gender roles and norms even further. When she dances, she draws her vocabulary from an equally in-your-face repertory of movement.

One of the most poignant and fascinating images from her recent work involves an image of a Zimbabwean man who was burned alive in South Africa. Rather than embody a passive (if panicked) human torch, Chipaumire’s version of this person focuses on his humanity, his agency as an individual to experience suffering. The informal showing featured the music of Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited (in the flesh!), but I watched Nora rehearse this sketch to the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer, which lent both an window of intimacy into that person’s relationship with his Creator and a globalizing effect to this image of violence (particularly since Islam is widespread in Africa). The result embodied in performance the suffering of many people around the world, but most obviously and painfully the Zimbabweans who have recently experienced xenophobia and violence in South Africa.

Photo taken by Al Hall at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography

Above: Chipaumire “on fire” at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (Photo taken by Al Hall)

Chipaumire’s choreography juxtaposes of horrifically painful images behind masks of utter bliss: “everything’s fine, I’m fine, I’m wonderful, life is good” . . . complete with toothy minstrel grins. The whole atmosphere reeks of Dunbar’s masquerade, now thrown into stark contemporary relief through a more global light. Bondage, capture, torture, beating, and burning move past this mask, however, all with a sense of personhood and dignity that gives voice to the many thousands of voiceless suffering in Zimbabwe. Chipaumire’s process, moreover, comments on violence in a manner that extends a borderless statement of personhood both toward and on behalf of all who suffer needlessly.

*Sincerest thanks to MANCC, Nora, and all of the others involved with this project (you know who you are) for a wonderful two weeks, permission to use photos, and the opportunity to hang out with Nora, Thomas, and the Blacks Unlimited.

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Featured Artist: Vampire Weekend

Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Baio, Christopher Tomson, and Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend

The combination of my fantastic, Upper West Side Soweto-powered beach weekend and the last two posts over on Stuff White People Like have compelled me to feature Vampire Weekend at long last.  Did Clander’s inclusion of the “Oxford comma” in his latest (hilarious) post have anything to do with the VW song of the same name?  Or was that and the previous rip on Ivy Leaguers and those jealous of them some subliminal attempt to ride VW’s wave of success (I doubt it since Clander doesn’t really need such cheap tricks).  Regardless of Clander’s purpose, these Ralph Lauren sweater and boaters-wearing Columbia grads embody everything white people like.

Vampire Weekend came to their popularity in part because of one of my favorite blogs.  They’ve come full circle more than once already with numerous blogren and critics since then, garnering some pretty significant haters as well as some attention from those who are reading too much and listening too little.  But even the haters can’t deny that these gentlemen can play their instruments.

More important than that, they offer a refreshing melange of trends from the past 60 years of global pop music all the way from David Byrne (check out Ezra’s vocal quality on Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa) to Buddy Holly and Franco Luambo.  They’re clever lyricists, which is more than I can say for the many of the other jacked up wanna-be hipsters trying to make a splash on the New York Indie scene.  If these lyrics reflect privilege, as in “take your passport it’s no trick,” at least these silver spoon monkeys have the sense to poke fun at themselves for it.  Besides, the rich-boy snot dripping from their sweaters is clouding people’s judgment so much that the Village Voice’s rejoinder leveled a devastating critique on VWs more reactionary reviewers: according to the Voice’s Mike Powell, ” A lot can be gleaned about Vampire Weekend from the fact that their most evenhanded assessment to date has come from Teen Vogue.”  Ouch, Mike.  The truth hurts sometimes.

The bottom line is that Vampire Weekend has put out a polished record full of all the irony of scalar cello passages echoing from New England homes juxtaposed with the sweat and fun of 50’s Zairean pop.  My best advice if you haven’t heard this record is to go out and buy it.  If you’re reading this, that means you’ve probably already read too many other reviews from the mixed bag, so don’t listen to it right away.  Let the craze die down, buy some Franco, some Loketo, some Papa Wemba, and some Koffi Olomide, and then come back to Vampire Weekend.  You’ll have a whole new appreciation for them.


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Featured artist: Banksy

Too often art in public places has been shaped by the forces that put together funding to get it there or by the ambitions of an artist to go so far over the top that nobody can understand what they’re saying.  Not the case with Banksy.  I must be way behind the hipness curve on this one, because apparently this person has been around in the U.K. and has even done some work in Palestine.  Check out this clip from a British television program:

Now the weird part about Banksy is that he doesn’t want to be seen or known by anyone.  At first glance this seems to me like an effort to annihilate the ego, but with a name like Banksy, I’ve got to wonder…he’s obviously adept at publicity and he makes a living at this though nobody knows who he his.  Sure, nobody gets into art for the money, and yet he seems to be doing just fine.  Say what you will (no really, comment–I’m curious); this is still very honest art and it’s getting noticed all over the world, so he must be doing something right.


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