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by Steve Dalachinsky

"…to be able to tell, read, invent, and change a story." - Yo-Yo Ma

The new year has started off with a bang. We've got a new administration that rode in on a tide of new promises and old music by the likes of Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma ("lip-synched"), and Aretha. And we have what has begun as a promising season of new releases from independent labels, new operas by independent composers, new performances by independent musicians, and one great revival by the mother of all independent theater groups.

In late January I did a two-week stint in England, where I gigged at Warwick University, eating bad kosher food for six days and failing dismally in my attempt to explain to a couple of thousand Jews why I was the "Wrong Jew," and then moved on to Cheltenham, where I gigged with a brilliant sextet led by British composer Pete Wyer. This led us to the famous Pinewood Studios to record with Wyer for the BBC, and finally to London, where I gigged on a boat with a fantastic South African drummer opposite such luminaries as Lol Coxill.

Then I returned home, rested up for two days, and had the great pleasure of seeing one of my favorite groups, By Any Means (Rashied Ali, William Parker, and Charles Gayle), twice on the same snowy evening at two entirely different venues playing two aesthetically different sets. The first show was at Kenny's Castaways as part of the Winter Jazz Fest (which used to occur in the Knitting Factory until its recent move to Williamsburg) to an audience of at least two hundred; the second was a private concert for less than twenty people in the Film Building on Ninth Ave. and Forty-Fifth Street as part of the Company of Heaven Jazz Festival.


As for the operas, first I devoured Robert Ashley's trio, Dust,
Celestial Excursions
, and Made Out Of Concrete, at La Mama. Concrete is comprised of six seemingly unrelated stories as seen through the mind of an old man suffering from a stroke, and explores, among other things, golf and the fact that a "pyramid was designed to make us ask questions" such as "Who did it?" and "Why can't we do it now?"

Though I am not a devout Ashley fan, his importance as a composer,
poet, and performer is evident to me. He is an artist who lives in and thrives on the present, particularly the simple complexities of everyday lives, while in turn making these lives transcendent by their very lack of operatic emoting. This is accomplished by having every nuance of text interpreted in such a plainspoken, rhythmic way as to reveal its varied emotional textures. This style, so capably delivered by his "band" (four vocalists and himself), makes the dialogues timeless.

Though Ashley's messages are universal, he is a uniquely American artist who guides us through the maze of language by using the simplest words to describe the most troubling feelings. His librettos don't create puzzles, but allow them to create themselves as they emerge out of these myriad overlapping stories and images. Not unlike Kantor's use of the bio-object in theater, Ashley creates bio- language, wherein the actor/singer and his/her dialogue seem to merge to create a third organism which can best be described as a kind of breathing instantaneous life-force. In Celestial Excursions, there is a constant tug-of-war between the mechanical and the electronic without the adherence to spectacle.

On some levels, however down-to-earth the scenarios might appear to
be, Ashley's works, euphemistically deemed "television-operas," will
always stay beyond the grasp of the proletarians he so fervently
concentrates on and probably remain always confined to an audience
of primarily white, downtown intellectuals.


The next new opera to open this season is the long-awaited John Zorn-Richard Foreman post-punk, post-Ubu, post-Sade, post-Alice-Wonderland piece, Astronome: A Night at the Opera, presented by Foreman's Ontological Theater at St. Marks Church and running through April 2009. It's all you would expect from these great geniuses of post-post-twentieth-century mixologies. This almost non-verbal one hour piece contains music by Zorn which was composed first and then given to Foreman to "act" upon. It's powerful music that employs the talents of Joey Baron, Trevor Dunn and Mike Patton whose stand-in on stage is a fat, impossible-to-describe-in brief character with a fake microphone around his neck the only link for me to the present as far as décor goes and whom I thought was Mendel Schwartz, a character whose name is intoned many times during the production, though when I asked Foreman afterward if this indeed was Mendel Schwartz and if this entire play was seen through his mad eyes he flatly denied this. Earplugs are handed out with the tickets.

The final opera a/k/a musical theater piece was a one-day revival of Mark Blitzstein's 1937 The Cradle Will Rock which, like Ashley, is a mostly "sung" piece. It's indictments of big business, media and religion are still relevant today. The sad part that its fight for unionizing which it helped foster has also ended up being a fight for another corrupt arm of the populace it fought so hard for and most relevant to communists and lefties.

As for the major revival, that was the Living Theater's fiftieth-anniversary version of Jack Gelber's great pre-fix/post-fix play The Connection, which, though a bit dated, still has the strong impact of intense scripting and music. Written when Gelber was twenty-seven, premiered in 1958, filmed shortly after that by Shirley Clark, and subsequently revived several times over the years, the play has always contained great music and great musicians performing it, from the original Freddie Redd tracks with Jackie McLean in the driver's seat to such luminaries as Cecil Taylor, Cecil Payne, Gary Bartz and in this recent production Rene McLean (Jackie's son) and his quartet. The Connection is a play within a play, filled with improvisation, audience plants, and "real-life" junkies asking for money for dope in between its two longish acts. It was so real at times that it almost made me itch for a bag of dope myself.


After a smash run at BAM, the films of Finnish filmmaker Tuevo Tulio were again dusted off and displayed, this time at the Anthology Film Archives. The musical moment of the new year came in Tulio's 1944 film The Way You Wanted Me. Maija, an innocent country girl turned high-priced hooker, starts revealing secrets of the other hookers (who in the past had spurned and abused her) to their rich johns, while all the while in the background a lone piano is plaintively crooning "Go Down Moses." A few moments later, with the music still playing, Maija's daughter - who had coincidently shown up at the restaurant to sell the Finnish equivalent of Girl Scout cookies - opens the door to a back room only to discover her mom making it with one of the johns, hence finally realizing how mom has been spending her evenings. The use of this song to show one's slavery to oneself and the system that can treat impoverished women so harshly was for me a brilliant stroke.


Some gigs in recent months that transcended all boundaries include a Joey Baron solo at the Stone and the intense duo of Matt Maneri and Randy Peterson, also at the Stone. Randy is one of the most underappreciated, under-heard drummers around. For the "noise" crowd, the season started with the trio of Thurston and Gene Moore with Mats Gustaffson on baritone and electronics (check out the Sonic Youth/Gustafson/Merzbow lp on SYR records).

The oddest show I've encountered so far this year was Paul Miller aka D.J. Spooky's exhibit at the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea. The show included remixes of everything from Rodchenko to John Cage, including canvases that were barcoded with a remix of a Cage piece and that could actually be played when activated.

The major comeback of the year and possibly of the past 2 centuries was the return of ESP recording artist Giuseppi Logan in conjunction with the re-release of his 1964 classic The Giuseppi Logan Quartet. Logan who has been homeless and reported missing in action for the past 40 years was re-discovered recently in a story not unlike that of Henry Grimes. The difference being that unlike Grimes, Logan made only 5 recordings. If he's given more gigs and doesn't disappear again this fragile 77 year old legend may be one of the "new" joys for our ears to behold.


Finally, a hint of some new CDs from five enduring independent labels, some old, two new, and one blue. First, from Aum Fidelity, there's Farmers by Nature, featuring the trio of Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn and William Parker, who also did a beyond-the-call-of-duty CD-release set at the Stone. Next, there's Harmonic Disorder, the new one by the Matthew Shipp trio on Thirsty Ear's Blue Series. The trio also gave an outstanding performance at the Jazz Standard to accompany the disc's release.

And, from the fledgling French label RogueArt, Maison Hantée, a new concept in spoken word and music featuring both French and English texts by Alexandre Pierrepont and Mike Ladd, accompanied by such luminaries as William Parker, Hamid Drake, Roscoe Mitchell, David Murray, and Thurston Moore. And from ECM we're given the Dowland Project, featuring songs from the twelfth century to the present sung by tenor John Potter with John Surman on reeds, plus a violinist and guitarist. [Maison Hantée is in my Top of 2008 list, as is another Dowland from ECM. - Ed.]

Acid Birds, a truly fiery release, comes from Italy's all-vinyl limited editions label Qbico Records. It features Andrew Barker, Charles Waters and Jaime Fennelly playing 3 intense longish tracks including the endearing "If I die, my cat will eat my face," along with "Larvae" and the title track, packaged with a beautiful cover and pressed on swirling multi-color vinyl à la Dave Mason's '60s classic Alone Together.


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