Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Wild, Ferociously Lyrical Take on the History of Jazz Uptown

The Manhattan debut of the multimedia spectacle The Spirit of Harlem at Harlem School of the Arts this past evening was everything the final night of the Charlie Parker Festival wasn’t: cutting-edge, fearlessly political and often very funny. And trumpeter Dominick Farinacci’s lavish ensemble didn’t even venture beyond the classics, tunewise. On one hand, songs like Strange Fruit are eternal for a reason. On the other, it’s seldom that a band is able to reinvent them in a way that does justice either to the spirit or the quality of the original.

After Farinacci introduced that haunting number solo, setting a mood more pitchblende than indigo, Shenel Johns sang Abel Meeropol’s chronicle of a lynching with a Nina Simone-like steeliness, in a stark duet with bassist Jonathan Michel. Dapperly dressed rapper Orlando Watson – whose slashing metaphors and intricate flow unearthed innumerable connections between the history of jazz, the New Jim Crow, Black Lives Matter and other historical moments – would reference that song later on, a hybrid kind of fruit still hanging from the poplar trees.

The Spirit of Harlem, which Farinacci put together at the annual upstate Catskill Jazz Factory festival, debuted in Italy just last week, The symphonic part of the evening – with tight, inspired student ensemble the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra – turned out to be a world premiere, the entire cast pulling it together in rehearsal about three hours before showtime.

The show’s premise is to bring jazz history out of world of pedants and snobs, with unexpected new interpretations and a focus on legendary Harlem jazz shrines. Tapdancer Michela Marino Lerman dueled it out with pianist Mathias Picard, through an increasingly complicated series of stride tunes that ended with a feral take of Tiger Rag. She clearly won the early part of this cutting contest, but Picard really gave her a run for the money with a diabolically fast coda that would have made Art Tatum proud.

Not everything was a total reinvention, but even the more standard interpretations were a lot of fun. The group – which also included vibraphonist Christian Tamburr, tenor saxophonist Patrick Bartley Jr., and drummer Kyle Poole – romped through a phantasmagorical version of Minnie the Moocher that left no doubt what Minnie was smoking. Likewise, Bartley’s eerie duotones and Middle Eastern-tinged wails in tandem with Poole’s shamanistic attack in A Night in Tunisia – which then segued into Dizzy Atmosphere – conjured up the spirit of the early bebop sessions several blocks to the south at Minton’s.

Bartley and Picard got bittersweet and lyrical with a Monk medley beginning with a fleeting excerpt from Pannonica followed by a somewhat furtive take of Round Midnight. After a lavishly orchestrated, rather sentimental new salute to impresario Norman Granz, the entire cast made a quick coda out of Sing Sing Sing. If jazz is your thing, even if you find this material moldy and figgy, Watson’s lyrical firepower and the irrepressible fun of the rest of the show will win you over.

Advertisements

August 27, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rap music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof: More Relevant Than Ever

Believe everything you’ve heard about the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene‘s production is fresh, the acting and singing are strong, the casting is smart and the music is both extremely dynamic and classy. Potentially vaudevillian moments are muted in favor of a gravitas that’s sometimes lush and sweeping, at other times austere and plaintive. At a time when people from Syria to Colombia are being forced from their homes to seek refuge thousands of miles asway, and when Jews from Pittsburgh to Poway, California are being murdered, this familiar old story has never been more relevant. And the fact that the narrative concerns daughters breaking free from patriarchal domination shouldn’t be overlooked either.

While the ongoing Manhattan run at Stage 42 marks the Yiddish version’s first American series of performances, Shraga Friedman’s Yiddish translation from the original English is not new: the Polish-Israeli actor and director debuted it in Israel in 1966. However, it is probably safe to say that despite the huge revival of Yiddish as a spoken language, the vernacular probably hasn’t changed much since then.

This is a long production, over three hours including a brief intermission, but it flies by. For non-Yiddish speakers (or those of us who only know terms of endearment and curse words), there are English and Russian supertitles – and some actual Russian sprinkled into the dialogue when the cossacks enter to stir up trouble. The entire cast seem at ease with the language throughout both the narrative and the musical numbers. Friedman’s translation not only rhymes but also pretty much matches the meter of the original songs, although a close listen reveals many instances where both the Yiddish and Russian take some clever poetic license.

As Cencral patriarch Tevye, Steven Skybell brings a curmudgeonly charisma but also an unselfconscious vulnerability to a role that in other productions all too frequently is done completely over the top. As his long-suffering wife Golde, Jennifer Babiak plays her cynicism as survival skill – and also gets to thrill the crowd with her vast, minutely nuanced, operatic vocal range. In a neat bit of casting, Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff) towers over her shy, nebbishy would-be fiance Motl (Ben Liebert). The rest of the cast – notably Jackie Hoffman, as barely tolerated busybody matchmaker Yente, and Joanne Borts, as Tsayt’s namesake ghost of a grandmother – bring as much resonance as sardonic humor to what are in many cases multiple roles.

The music is rich and often symphonic in scope. Andrew Wheeler conducted the orchestra with remarkable restraint and attention to detail. The group only cut completely loose in the klezmer dance numbers, which were as boisterously chaotic as anyone would want. Clarinet wizard D. Zisl Slepovitch snuck from behind the curtain to the corner of the stage where he bopped and fired off an all-too-brief series of biting chromatic riffs. As the eponymous Fiddler, Lauren Jeanne Thomas sometimes mimes and sometimes plays, but either way her timing and dynamics are perfectly precise.

At last night’s performance, the two best numbers were the tantalizingly brief, rustically ambered Sabbath Prayer – a momentary showstopper for Bobiak – and a sweeping, lingering version of the bittersweet, saturnine ballad Sunrise, Sunset. If I Were a Rich Man gets translated as Ven ikh bin a Rotschild, along with some sly wordplay that’s not in the original. Hannah Temple’s accordion along with the trumpets of Clyde Daley and Jordan Hirsch, and Daniel Linden’s trombone, brought equal parts fire and poignancy to the traditional tunes, especially at the end.

Beowulf Borritt’s stark, minimalist set design creates a striking milieu for the people of Anatevka and the never-ending succession of trouble they have to face. In one of many subtle strokes of staging, a fabric backdrop seems to be repaired, between acts, in a way that would befit one of the central characters. And the simple change of language helps immeasurably in creating a defamiliarizing effect. So you think you’ve seen Fiddler? You should see this one. Shows are Tues-Sun, generally at 8 PM with matinees as well. While the performances have been selling out for months, discount rush tickets are sometimes available.

June 22, 2019 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment