Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Angela’s Ring: A Witheringly Funny, Unexpectedly Prophetic Satire of EU Political Skulduggery

One of the most original and savagely insightful new albums to come out since the fateful days of March, 2020 is Angela’s Ring, a large-ensemble jazz opera written by bassist Kabir Sehgal and pianist Marie Incontrera, streaming at Spotify. Premiered before the lockdown, it’s a meticulously researched, venomously satirical look at the inner workings of the European Union, focusing on the admission of Greece and the nation’s precipitous decline afterward. As context for the lockdowners’ almost complete takedown of democracy around the world, it’s eye-opening to the extreme.

It’s more a story of political corruption gone haywire than any kind of examination of the sinister International Monetary Fund scheme to cripple the Greek economy with debt and devastate its citizenry. And it’s ridiculously funny. EU heads of state come across as decadent fratboys and sorority girls who never grew up and live in a bubble. If there’s anything that’s missing here – Sehgal has obviously done his homework – it’s the point of view of the average European. For instance, we only get a single number about the Greeks who’ve lost their property, their jobs and in some cases, their lives, to satisfy speculator greed.

The Leveraged Jazz Orchestra spoof Beethoven right off the bat in the suspiciously blithe overture, launching a Western European alternative to nationalist strife that left “a hundred million dead” over the centuries, as German dictator Angela Merkel (Lucy Schaufer) puts it. She is, after all, prone to exaggeration. And then she seduces the wary but bibulous George Papandreou (David Gordon) on a waterbed over a sultry, altered tango groove. Meanwhile, he frets how long it’s going to take the rest of the EU to find out that he’s cooked the books.

It takes IMF honcho Christine Lagarde (a hair-raising Marnie Breckinridge) to rescue him…but this deus ex machina comes with a hefty pricetag. A shady, crude Silvio Berlusconi (Brandon Snook) tells him not to worry, that Italy is in over its head even deeper, so…party time! With a monumental Napoleon complex, France’s subservient Nicolas Sarkozy (Erik Bagger) gets skewered just as deliciously. “Democracy isn’t your natural state,” he tells Merkel at a pivotal moment.

A hedge fund manager suggests a joust between Merkel and Papandreou, with Lagarde as referee. Who wins? No spoilers.

The music is inventive and imaginative, a mashup of styles from across the Continent, from folk to classical to jazz. Who would have ever imagined a celebratory Greek ballad played on Edmar Castaneda’s harp? That’s one of the more cynical interludes here. There’s also a slinky, smoky baritone sax break after Greece’s debt gets downgraded to junk by traders hell-bent on shorting it. Tenor sax player Grace Kelly adds suspicious exuberance; trombonist Papo Vazquez takes a moody break in a salsa-jazz number where Merkel’s treachery finally comes out into the open. Clarinetist Oran Etkin’s agitatedly sailing solo in an even darker latin-tinged number is one of the record’s high points, as is pianist Aaron Diehl’s similar interlude a couple of tracks later.

Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale. If you think this is outrageous and revealing – and it is – just wait til the collapse of the lockdown, the Nuremberg trials afterward, and the likely dissolution of the EU. Maybe Sehgal can write a sequel.

May 31, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating Cole Porter and Philanthropy at Lincoln Center

“Do you know Bob Steel?” the friendly Arkansas orange magnate asked his tablemate – a Red Sox fan celebrating his team’s fourth World Championship in fifteen years a bit early – at this year’s Lincoln Center fall gala last week. Just to be clear, this fan was not ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has also never tried to hide his fondness for the Boston team, and was also present.

“Not personally,” the considerably younger Sox fan replied.

He’s a good guy,” the Arkansan confided, almost conspiratorially. He’d been at UNC while Steel was at Duke; his friendship with the longtime Lincoln Center benefactor has remained strong since. This particular evening was Steel’s “turn in the barrel,” as he’d sardonically told host Patricia E. Harris in the weeks beforehand.

Fundraising consultant Amy Schiller, who was also at the celebration, empathized. For anyone who’s ever been feted at one of these events, it really is a turn in the barrel, she reminded. It’s less a barrel going over Niagara Falls than the kind in a .357:it feels like you’re hurled out into midair at the speed of sound.

Offstage, Steel and his vivacious wife are exactly as humble and unassuming as Harris described them, a quintessential culturally engaged cosmopolitan New York couple with whom you might have shared a “wow, that was something” moment after, say, a performance by the Philharmonic. The fundamental difference is that they may have essentially underwritten that moment of reflection and transcendence. 

They have three daughters. Pianist/singer Jon Batiste dedicated what may have been the highlight of the musical portion of the night, a glistening, rainswept, New Orleans-tinged wee-hours take of Cole Porter’s In the Still of the Night to them: “In the steel of the night,” he quipped.

As the lavish swells of the orchestra rose and fell from the lowlit stage, a full house were treated to a full hour of Cole Porter classics. In her slinky lace dress and heels, singer Kate Davis left no doubt as to what Love For Sale was about, her aching melismas giving the protagonist a poignancy to match the Billie Holiday version. The edgiest moment of the night was pianist Aaron Diehl’s simmering, shapeshifting interpretation of Too Darn Hot. The most kinetic points were located at the heel and toe of tapdancer Jared Grimes‘ shoes; he kicked up a storm to rival any sit-down percussionist.

Other than echoing John D. Rockefeller’s insistence that this continent’s flagship cultural institution should be a place for everyone, Steel didn’t say much. In this particular moment, that sort of quiet advocacy for one of New York’s treasures spoke a thousand times louder than any self-aggrandizing tweet ever could.

Batiste is at the Jazz Gallery on Dec 18, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $20. Diehl is at NJPAC in Newark on Nov 29-Dec 2 at various times with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; $20 seats are available.

October 29, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment