Thursday, March 27, 2014

A global dance party

I'll get the 'full disclosure' part out of the way first. I used to work for the Chicago Sinfonietta as their Communications Director, and I still do some research and writing for them for which I am compensated. I have a great deal of respect for what they do, both philosophically and creatively. But I should be clear: This respect flows from an alignment of my values with their activities. I don't say nice things about them because they pay me to do so.

I previewed their most recent concert for Arte y Vida Chicago, and you can read that here. I attended the concert a couple of nights ago and have had some time to think about what I heard and saw. That's what this blog post is about.

A few quick words about the Sinfonietta for those of you who didn't click the Arte y Vida link. They are led by a woman from Taiwan, who inherited that role from the African-American conductor who founded the orchestra 27 years ago. They play a mix of standard repertoire (that's what most people think of when they hear the words 'classical music', leaning heavily on music written by dead white guys) with newer works by living composers who are often the complete opposite of dead white guys. Somehow, they make this work, finding room for both in a single thematic concert. It probably helps that they shy away from dissonance and extremes. There's a populist aesthetic to be sure, but it doesn't cross the line into pandering.

photo by Chris Ocken
Their most recent offering was titled Global Dance Party. Given that the concert was presented at Chicago's Symphony Center, you can rest assured that dancing is generally not encouraged. The orchestra's marketing addressed this contradiction with some gibberish about 'dancing in your seats'. Nonetheless, there was a reason for the title: A focus of the programming was built around Indian-flavored hip-hop dance music of DJ Rekha, whose style makes liberal use of Bollywood and Bhangra sources from her cultural and ethnic background. Hip-hop being what it is, though, lots of other sounds make their way in: dub reggae and dancehall, Latin and Brazilian, and of course fat beats. It's music designed for sweaty dance clubs and street parties, not concert halls. Integrating a live orchestra into that was an audacious and unlikely experiment.

Did it work? For the most part, yes. The centerpiece was a tune called Pyar Baile, a song that was released a few years ago by Rekha and her writing and production partner (and Indian percussionist) Dave Sharma. It's a thick slice of carioca funk seasoned with Bollywood touches and features vocals in both Hindi and Brazilian Portuguese. Unfortunately, technical difficulties with Rekha's deck forced everyone to hit the reset button, and even after they did an uneven sound mix found the orchestral arrangements overpowering the electronics.  The arrangements weren't interesting enough by themselves to encourage any dancing, in the seats or otherwise.

I'll get back to Rekha later, but it's the rest of the evening that provided context for this 'DJ with an orchestra' thing, taking it beyond novelty. There were not one, but two guest conductors leading the orchestra (usually not at the same time). Both are rising young stars gaining a lot of notice, but on the surface have little in common. Alexandra Arrieche was born in Brazil and brought South American works with her from Astor Piazzolla and Hector Villa-Lobos. The 30-something African-American conductor Joseph Young selected works from the equally young African-American composer Jonathan Bailey Holland. The wild card was something from the Hungarian composer Erno Dohnányi.

All the selections shared upbeat tempos and sonic brightness. Piazzolla is the inventor of nuevo tango, of course, and his Fuga y Misterio is a whirlwind of rhythmic strings. Villa-Lobos is a Brazilian national treasure, and the orchestra sounded wonderful on his Bachianas Brasileira No. 2. Holland's work is harmonically and structurally complex, but it's inspiration here on The Party Starter and Motor City Dance Mix were the great disco and soul records of the 1970s, heavily flavored with hi-hat, suspended piano chords and glistening strings. Even the outlier, Dohnányi's Symphonic Minutes, proved a lively choice, based as it is on Hungarian folk dance.

What everything had in common was that all the composers took something popular (in the "of the people" sense) and interpreted it through another musical form. The conductors, clearly relishing the opportunity to lead music that was dear to them, coaxed sustained inspired playing from the orchestra.

photo by Chris Ocken
That brings us back to DJ Rekha. In sourcing her sounds from ethnic traditions, she translates them into dance floor fillers. The Sinfonietta experiment took this one step further, bringing Rehka's mixes into the realm of, quote-unquote, serious music. But it is a party, after all. Rekha returned for the finale, her deck fully functional and sound balance fixed, for a three movement suite comprised of material originally developed for a DJ set in a club. The orchestral arrangements were uncluttered, giving the beats and samples room to breathe and do their intended thing. A crucial extra element was inviting an orchestra violinist who is also a noted jazz musician to grab the spotlight and inject several energetic improvised passages in a sort of duet with Rekha. In a final touch, the Sinfonietta organization had cleverly invited a number of young Indian dance students to flood the aisles and edges of the stage. Turning up the house lights blurred the distinction between stage and audience. Now the party had, finally, started in earnest.

A total success? Um, maybe not quite. Worth doing? Depends on your perspective. Mine is that great things can happen when you mix cultures. I'm not only talking about ethnic culture, but also the increasingly meaningless distinction between high and pop culture. If the unfettered shared joy in the hall at this concert is any indication, this was certainly a welcome achievement.

photo by Chris Ocken

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Border Crossings: A Musical Conversation

In my last post about the Palestinian-American composer and musician Simon Shaheen, I made reference to a violinist friend who leads a number of jazz ensembles. In the piece, I attempted to show a cultural timeline that connected Arabic music to that of the Caribbean, via both Spain and Africa, and further went on to be an ingredient of jazz. I rather shamelessly concluded the piece with a plug for my friend's upcoming performance. Consider this the follow-up.

Proyecto Libre at Constellation Chicago, March 7, 2014
Violinist James Sanders presented his Proyecto Libre, or "Free Project", for only their second performance since being formed in the fall of 2013. Sanders has led a Latin jazz band in Chicago for many years, but he also works frequently in mainstream jazz and collaborates regularly with several members of the Chicago avant-garde collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The connective tissue to all of this is the art of improvisation, and a huge influence is Sanders' Dominican heritage and the Afro-Caribbean music he grew up listening to. The commonality is African music, or more specifically, what African music became when it reached the Americas.

In the Caribbean and South America, African traditions mingled with Spanish and Portuguese culture along with indigenous sounds to form cumbia, merengue, samba, bomba y plena, danzon, son jarocho and so on. In the colonies settled primarily by the English (you know, the United States) Africans encountered something different: Scottish ballads, military bands, European classical. And then there's New Orleans, which had a little of everything: First ruled by France, then Spain, then briefly back to France before being given over to the United States, and everyone passing through Cuba and Saint-Domingue before making their way there. "Same ship, different ports," is how New Orleans jazz musician Irvin Mayfield describes this cultural migration imposed by the slave trade. Military brass bands were especially popular in New Orleans too (a side effect, I suppose, of all those competing countries jostling for dominion). Jelly Roll Morton took it all in as he began to invent what would become jazz, but he was careful to cite the "Spanish tinge" for giving the music that extra syncopation.

Congo Square, New Orleans
Jazz, of course, grew and mutated as subsequent generations sought new artistic challenges. Those changes often took the art form down divergent paths. There's Latin jazz, of course, which had its beginnings when be-boppers of the 40s and 50s experimented with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Post-bop, you had the giants of free improvisation taking jazz into entirely uncharted waters, often reaching all the way back to Africa for inspiration, but mostly skipping the islands in between. The AACM collective more or less descends from these Afrocentric explorations. Meanwhile, back in Africa, innovators were listening and creating their own homegrown African jazz.

What Sanders is trying to do with Proyecto Libre is have a family reunion. He has organized it as a collective, but the driver is the idea that there is common ground between these disparate musical languages, and by bringing together musicians fluent in one language but not as much another, they could engage in fruitful conversation. The current line-up includes an Afro-Cuban percussionist plus a drummer and bassist from the AACM side. In the middle, moderating the "discussion", is Sanders and his violin, using his rigorous classical training and experience in both languages to open up space for everyone to contribute. Jazz is as much about listening as it is playing, and nowhere is this more true than in free improvisation.

James Sanders' violin.
When I heard Proyecto Libre in their first performance in December at the Afro-Caribbean Improvised Music Festival, I was impressed by the artistic give and take, but I had a sense that the Afro-Cuban element was looking for a way in to a scene that was being dominated by the other players. Well, what a difference a couple of months can make. For their second performance, which I witnessed this past Friday night, all four members were on equal footing from the start, having found time to musically get to know each other during the interim. Sanders started things off with a few plucked notes on his violin, soon joined by the bass and little cymbal accents on the drum kit. Within a minute or so, the congas joined in, and the gentle interplay between the four musicians suggested the elegance of a danzon without precisely sounding like one. This suggestion, but not imitation, of the classic Cuban sound showed how much the players were learning about each others specialties and finding something new to say together. Soon, Sanders was using his bow while the drums and congas played interlocking rhythms and the bass negotiated the space between them, gently prodding things in one direction or another as the intensity built.

What followed was over an hour of straight music making, and all of it improvised, literally being created as it was happening. To use the conversation metaphor, one player would introduce a thought that would take the discussion in a particular direction, each participant offering their contribution. After that line played out a bit, there would be something of a pause to take a breath and reflect on what was just discussed, allowing someone else to contribute a fresh idea, which would take the conversation in a new direction. Passions ran high, but mostly joyful ones, as one thought inspired another. It was especially compelling to watch the two drummers, brothers from different mothers if you will, lock eyes and smile as each new idea surfaced.

As an intellectual exercise, it was impressive. As music, it was nearly transcendent. This was the sound of borders being breached, of walls being torn down. African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and African languages were all spoken, but more importantly, also listened to, responded to, moving the music forward.  When music works, it does so on a level that bypasses intellect and is experienced by the entire body. This certainly happened Friday night. Hell, there was even some dancing at the end. This was fun. It wasn't until the following morning that I thought about Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, whose legendary jams would go on for hours and hours, music that combined the fierceness of John Coltrane's fiery explorations, the out-and-out funk of James Brown and a cry against injustice that frightened the authorities. And doing all of that in a big, sweaty dance party.

Sanders has a website that is packed with video and audio performances that touch on all the facets of his musical journey. Proyecto Libre already have another performance scheduled in April. I talked to James after his Friday performance, and he hinted that he was already planning on experimenting with different voices to see where that particular conversation will lead. I'll be there listening.