Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A great festival roars back to life.

photo: Catalina Maria Johnson

Well, I guess I didn’t see this coming.

The shakeups at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) a few years back left the fate of Chicago’s many festivals and cultural offerings in doubt, and most of what unfolded over the course of 2012 only served to add to the sense of apprehension.

Fortunately, this year has had an entirely different narrative. 

First there was news that the city had formed a department to serve the needs of the local music community. Interesting, thoughtful exhibitions like the recent Spontaneous Interventions started returning to the Chicago Cultural Center. Then DCASE and the Jazz Institute of Chicago announced that the annual Jazz Fest was expanding its programming and moving to Millennium Park from the severely challenged Grant Park site. 

In 2012, a hastily scheduled World Music Festival squeaked by with a paltry 7 days, and local rather than visiting artists took an outsized role on stage. When it was announced that this year’s WMF expanded to 11 days, including 5 concerts at Millennium Park’s wondrous Pritzker Pavilion, it was clear that the city was treating the World Music Fest seriously and with the kind of commitment that many, including me, felt had been sorely lacking.

photo: Scott Pollard
Opening night was a spectacular triumph. The Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra enthralled a Pritzker Pavilion crowd of over 6,000 people made up of jazz heads and salsa fans alike with a high energy show opened by Puerto Rico’s Plena Libre. It’s an honest debate as to whether the giant flat screen hanging over the stage is an enhancement or distraction (I go both ways: it’s brilliant when it goes in for close ups, but the camera doesn’t always find the right soloist, and wide shots aren't possible without the heads of the folks in the first 10 rows appearing in the frame) but the fact that DCASE decided it was worth the expense spoke volumes about their commitment to the Fest.

There were other signs of assurance as well. Two Pritzker concerts were devoted to Indian and Pakistani music, and another to Ethiopian and Gypsy music. Perhaps most remarkable of all though, was the all night RagaMala celebration of Indian classical music that took place at the Cultural Center. Talk about commitment! The audacious experiment clearly showed the vision at work from the DCASE artistic programmers, and it was wonderful that the city backed them up and let them run with it. 

Another artistic triumph was hosting the Festival au Desert - Caravan of Peace. When civil strife in Mali cancelled the legendary festival there, a group of Malian musicians banded together to bring the fest to the world. Just weeks before the WMF schedule was announced, I heard someone complaining loudly that it was a disgrace that the caravan wasn’t coming here. And the truth is, it would have been embarrassing if it bypassed Chicago. Given the economics of the situation, though, it is probably only an entity like DCASE that could afford to present such a large undertaking. Audiences were treated to a large Pritzker concert as well as 4 more shows around the city in intimate venues, one of which paired Mali’s Sidi Touré with Cajun zydeco fiddler/accordion player Cedric Watson for a little trans-global cultural exchange.

Speaking of economics: Did I mention that the entire festival was free?

I managed to catch something like 10 shows featuring 20 artists over the 11 days, which means I missed much more than I saw. Such is the nature of such a large event, with nearly 50 concerts at 20 venues showcasing more than 70 artists. Almost everything I saw was terrific, and all of it I dare say was essential. I heard nothing but good things about the stuff that I missed.  As usual, the fest closed with the all day celebration at the Cultural Center, “One World Under One Roof”, where I witnessed what might have been the most unusual and surprising show of the whole Fest with Kiev’s DakhaBrakha, whose stunning visual flair, piercing harmonies and sly manner somehow mixed Ukrainian folk music with a Beastie Boys style hip-hop aesthetic. Yeah, I know. I guess you had to be there…

Thank you DCASE. Transitions are tough, and they can knock you off your feet. But you really stood up and ran with this one.

Bravo! And many happy returns.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Más Miguel

I recently had the opportunity to write a preview of Miguel Zenón's upcoming shows at Chicago's venerable Jazz Showcase. Space constraints and the necessity to focus on the Rhythm Collective band that he's bringing here caused me to continually go back and edit out stuff that wasn't relevant to the preview, but that I nonetheless felt compelled to mention. The MacArthur Foundation "genius" has just done so much in such a short time.

I've got room for it here, though.

The Rhythm Collective release Oye!!! Live in Puerto Rico is best viewed as part of a quartet of releases that move back and forth between the music of Zenón's home on the island and the cutting edge creativity of a forward-thinking jazz musician. Jibaro, Esta Plena, Alma Adentro and Oye!!! all, to some degree, place Afro-Caribbean traditions in a jazz context. It's not precisely Latin jazz, as there are no obvious signifiers and absolutely no fallback on standard rhythms and motifs. Instead, Zenón digs deep into the essence of these two African derived musics to get at an essential commonality.

Zenón has been investigating the cultural connection between Latin and North America since his first release, Looking Forward, in 2002. He's employed straight jazz quartets, lush chamber music and traditional percussion in pursuit of his ideas. A string quartet first showed up on 2008's Awake under producer Branford Marsalis' guiding hand. By 2011, Zenón was writing orchestrations for a large wind ensemble to give proper respect to the Puerto Rican Songbook on Alma Adentro. At the same time, he also spends a considerable amount of time (and some of his "genius" money) bringing the music of North American jazz masters like Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk to small Puerto Rican towns through his Caravana Cultura initiative.

photo courtesy New York Times
Even his projects that haven't been recorded are ambitious. When Zenón was in Chicago a few years back showcasing the (at the time) unreleased Alma Adentro, he also played something from another developing project that he called Identities. That multimedia cultural history project debuted the following year under the title Puerto Rico Nació en Mi: Tales From the Diaspora. It attempted to say something about the complexities of cultural identity when you've never even stepped foot in your country of origin. Video interviews with Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. were intertwined with music by both his quartet and a 12 piece big band. This New York Times review describes its premier in 2012. The project has since been retitled (and no doubt refined) Identities are Changeable: Tales From the Diaspora. It will be presented again in NYC this December.

2012 also saw the release of Rayuela, a collaboration with French pianist Laurent Coq based on an acknowledged literary masterpiece by Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar. The experimental novel takes place in Paris and Buenos Aires and is at least partly a meditation on a trans-global life. When Zenón and Coq began their collaboration, it was quickly decided that Zenón, a Latin American, would write music for the Paris chapters, leaving the French pianist to explore Buenos Aires. They chose unusual instrumentation, namely cello, trombone and tablas to fill out the sound. In a way, Rayuela continues Zenón's exploration of multiple identities as it tackles the work of a writer who split his time between French speaking Europe and South America. Enlisting the help of a French musician working in a distinctly American art form adds additional layers of complexity, with echoes of the lives of the many black jazz musicians who flocked to Paris in the 1940s and 50s.

There are many supremely talented musicians working in jazz, but I'm hard pressed to name another that conceptualizes on such a grand scale, that uses his musical gift to continually explore ideas and ask questions that go beyond music to larger subjects.

I'd say the MacArthur Foundation has invested well, wouldn't you?

Monday, September 16, 2013

The pleasures of the familiar.

When the subject of change comes up, I'm usually in favor of it.

At the very least, I embrace its inevitability, choosing to ask "Well, what now?" and deal with it, even run with it. Cultural exchange is like that. Each party is transformed by the other; neither remains exactly as it was. We're all the sum of our experiences, but the calculus never stops. Every encounter changes you.  Traveling to a new place is experience, yes, but if you don't come back different, what did you learn?

Places are like this, too. We've come up with lots of phrases to describe this ever ongoing transformation: "You can't go home again." "You never step in the same river twice." "Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are."

Technology, of course, has sped everything up. Decades are now years, years mere months. We can lament the fast pace, or we can quicken our step. Music, art, even food, all of them are subject to recombining, reevaluation and renewal as they churn ever onward.

I'm thinking about all of this because I'm sitting in a cafe that I used to frequent, but have only visited a few times in the last seven years. (It was a different time. I led a different life.) And this cafe is a defiant middle finger to everything I've said to this point. It hasn't changed a bit. The walls are the same color, the tables are in the same position, the espresso maker hasn't moved an inch. The same guy with the long grey beard is still doing woodcuts by the window. The overhead music remains light classical before 10am, moody alternative rock mid-morning, lively pop in the afternoon. They still get their bagels from the same Kosher bakery. They are still, wonder of wonders, cash only. The only thing I see different is the coffee supplier, having switched from a Chicago micro-roaster to one from Milwaukee that has more explicitly leftist leanings (and perhaps even better coffee).

This cafe was both my office and my place of refuge. It's where I learned to write, or at least came around to the notion that I could write. It was a tumultuous time in my life. Things were changing, and I was deathly afraid of change. My marriage was dissolving, but that very idea was inconceivable, setting up an internal conflict that I could barely acknowledge. So I came here, and I read, I wrote, I took comfort in being around familiar faces that were nonetheless, with few exceptions, nameless strangers. When the dissolve became a full-on split, it was not I who drove the wedge. Such was the potency of my inertia.

That was, as I indicated, seven years ago. I moved to a different part of town and consciously avoided the old neighborhood. I still came to this cafe on occasion, but with time and distance it happened less frequently. There were other, closer cafes to inhabit. There was one on the corner by my apartment that got their bagels from the very same Kosher bakery, but that placed closed earlier this year. It is worth noting that I find this particular bagel vastly superior to any other.

Which is why I came back here last week. To get that bagel. Some things, it turns out, are just as good in life as they are in memory. In the intervening years, my approach to life took a left turn into uncharted, improbable territory. The unknown was thrust upon me, but much to my surprise, it proved a nourishing wellspring of growth. With that came a perspective on my past as well as a more adventurous approach to the present. The world itself seemed to change. And yet, this cafe has been frozen in time.

It feels almost absurd to think of something as mundane as a cafe as part of traditional culture, but that's exactly what this one is. It's as ritualistic as church in here, and (if you accept its tenets) just as spiritually fulfilling.

It's good to be back.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


The Chicago Bears had their season opener at Soldier Field this past weekend, hosting the Cincinnati Bengals. I'm generally indifferent to football, and last Sunday was no exception. Nonetheless, the city was alive with optimistic expectation and its sidewalks filled with team jerseys. I was spending the day on my bike enjoying the vibe. My girlfriend had a meeting in Lincoln Park, so we though it would be a good idea to bike down early and spend a little time on the lakefront.

It wasn't the best of days, a bit overcast with a stiff wind pounding waves along the shore. After enduring about an hour of wind whipping, we grabbed a bite at Lito's Empanadas on Clark Street. Lito's owner is from Colombia, but his small counter service storefront isn't there to serve South American immigrants. Rather, it's on a fashionable and gentrified stretch of Clark near Diversey. The empanadas were excellent, though, crisply fried on the outside, yet having a grease-less inner layer enclosing the delicious fillings. My girlfriend prefers hers baked, so she suggested that next time we go to the place run by the Argentinians just up the street.

Our hunger pangs satisfied, she headed to her meeting while I pedaled off on a semi-directionless bike ride through the neighborhood. I lived nearby for a few years back in the 80's, but haven't spent much time here since then, so I was curious to see what had changed, and what was the same.

My meanderings took me past a stretch of sports bars on Webster that were, needless to say, quite rowdy on a football Sunday. It was then that I started to notice that not everybody was wearing a Bears jersey. Not only were there Bengals colors, but Cleveland, Detroit and Green Bay had their representatives as well. I also noticed several bars flying the colors of Ohio State and the Universities of Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan.

Chicago is the center of the Midwest, and it's tonier precincts are a landing place for the young and the successful. They are migrants in every sense of the world, looking to improve their lives by moving to a place with more opportunity. The principal difference is that their place of origin is typically farther up the ladder and more comfortable than that of migrants from other shores. I realize that's a gross simplification, that there are tech, medical and other highly skilled jobs that are often filled by immigrants. Often, of course, this is because they were a little farther up the ladder back home as well, and could afford to study at U.S. universities, of which Chicago is blessed to be the home of several.

My companion's meeting was over, so we hooked up again and returned to almost the same spot where we had our empanadas. The next store over is the cleverly named Del Seoul, which found its niche a few years back selling that wonderful Asian-Mexican but only-in-America invention, the Korean taco. Kalbi, BBQ pork or sesame-chili panko crusted shrimp served over warm corn tortillas and covered in kimchi. It's a small miracle of multiculturalism.

Like Lito's, Del Seoul opened on this stretch of Clark to serve the general public and introduce wonderful and formerly exotic food from home to increasingly sophisticated palates. The truth is, Del Seoul is more L.A. than Seoul in its inspiration (the first Korean tacos happened when somebody had the brilliant idea of combining L.A.'s iconic taco trucks with K-Town's BBQ), but the flavors are authentic, even as they mash things up even more with Koreanized versions of Montreal's poutine and Vietnam's bahn mi, creating whole new hybrids that I'm not even sure they have in L.A. At the same time, they've added more traditional meals to the menu, and the fair number of Korean students from nearby DePaul University that were earnestly tucking into these reminders of home attested to their quality.

Chicago, where migrants come from Korea, Mexico, Colombia and Michigan to mix and mingle and seek a better life than they had back home. How did I get so lucky as to be born here?