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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The World’s Funniest Jazz Band Explore Weird Pennsylvania

Since their beginning in the early zeros, Mostly Other People Do the Killing have built a wild and erudite career as the Spinal Tap of jazz. Their satire ranges from over-the-top cartoonishness, to layers and layers of inside jokes, to mimicry that sometimes so closely resembles the style they’re spoofing that it’s hard to distinguish it from the source material. And these guys go deep. Over the years they’ve flipped the bird to Count Basie, Ornette Coleman, and 80s fusion jazz in general, sometimes lovingly, sometimes with a snarky sneer.

They started out as a horn band, took a hiatus after multi-reedman Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans became occupied with, um, more serious projects and have lately reemerged as a piano trio. How does their latest album, Disasters Vol. 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – stack up against the rest of their magnificently twisted oeuvre? This spoof of lounge jazz and occasionally other genres is sick, cruel and as ridiculously funny as anything else the band have ever recorded. The sickest thing about it is that a lot of musicians play music that sounds exactly like this sometimes, and think it’s good.

As usual, all the songs on the album relate to a location in bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliott’s native Pennsylvania. This time, he expands the concept to disasters, most of them manmade. The group go straight for the ultimate Pennsylvania nightmare with the opening number, Three Mile Island. How lethal is it? Hardly. The liner notes, by longtime MOPDTK chronicler “Leonardo Featherweight” claim that it depicts a nuclear power plant meltdown in reverse, and that’s plausible, as the band coalesce from dissociative bubbles (both drummer Kevin Shea and pianist Ron Stabinsky muck around on Nord Electro here) to hints of blues and eventually a jaunty swing blues tune.

The second number, Exeter is where the howls really begin, Shea reprising his usual suspect role as a Jones more Spike than Elvin. This snide lounge jazz parody may or may not reflect the corporate cynicism of the owners of the Knox Mine, who in 1959 attempted to save a few bucks and drill a little too close to the Susquehanna riverbed. The resulting flood turned not only the mine but the area around it into an aquifer and effectively destroyed the local coal mining economy.

Marcus Hook, on the Delaware River, has been the site of more than one fiery collision involving an oil tanker. The band commemorate one or more of them via a succession of loungey cliches in what more pretentious types would call an electroacoustic performance.

Stabinsky gets to revisit his hometown of Wilkes-Barre in what is supposedly a tale of the 1972 flooding there in the wake of Hurricane Agnes, but seems more of a snotty bag of cheap fallback piano riffs. Then the band make a diptych out of Centralia (home to the eternal flame, or at least eternal smolder) and Johnstown (that one everybody knows, right?). In the first part, Elton John seems to be a target, maybe Vince Guaraldi too. The second is a fool’s paradise of a jazz waltz.

Elliott breaks out his bow for a long overdue spoof of Halloween jazz (and maybe Thelonious Monk) in Boyertown, where a horrific theatre fire claimed over a hundred lives in 1908. Dimock, best known as the town where tap water would burst into flames as a result of fracking run amok, is immortalized with an endless series of cheesy quotes run amok – the false ending is priceless. These merry pranksters wind up the record with an “alternate take” of Wilkes-Barre which is too venomously good to give away. Somewhere there’s a cynical music blogger who’s going to pick this as the best jazz album of the year.

March 22, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Mammoth, Deliriously Funny, Searingly Relevant New Recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide

Once one dismisses
The rest of all possible worlds
One finds that this is
The best of all possible worlds

So sings Sir Thomas Allen in his role as Dr. Pangloss, in the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’ epic new recording of Leonard Bernstein’s satirical opera Candide, streaming at Spotify.

When Lillian Hellman enlisted Bernstein and what would become a rapidly expanding cast of lyricists in this ridiculously funny parable of McCarthyite witch hunting, little did anyone involved with the project know how much greater relevance it would have in the months after March of 2020. Marin Alsop leads the orchestra and a boisterous allstar cast of opera talent in a massive double album culled from concert performances in the fall of 2018.

Tenor Leonardo Capalbo plays the title role. Soprano Jane Archibald is Cunegonde and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter plays the Old Lady, with a supporting cast of Thomas Adkins, Marcus Farnsworth, Katherine McIndoe, Carmen Artaza, Lucy McAuley, Liam Bonthrone, Frederick Jones and Jonathan Ayers in raucous multiple roles. Simon Halsey directs the choir.

Alsop and the orchestra have just as much fun as the singers. Bernstein’s score comes across as almost as satirical as the text. As a parody of centuries of European opera, it’s not quite Scaramouche doing the fandango, but it’s close. The coda of act one is priceless.

For the most part, the plot is consistent with Voltaire’s novel. As you would expect in an operatic context, the characters are infinitely more over-the-top. We learn early on what a horrible pair the credulous Candide and the bling-worshipping Cunegonde make. Innuendo flies fast and furious, and some of the jokes are pretty outrageous for a production first staged in the late 50s. The lyric book by itself is a riot – although it only has the songs, not the expository passages. Listen closely for maximum laughs.

Alsop perfectly nails Bernstein’s tongue-in-cheek seriousness and good-natured melodic appropriation, through one stoically marching, bombastic interlude after another. There’s phony pageantry to rival Shostakovich. Swoony string passages and hand-wrenching arias alternate with the occasional moment where Bernstein drops the humor and lets the sinister subtext waft in. The most amusingly grisly part of the story is set to a parody of the climactic scene in the Mozart Requiem. Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherezade are recurrent reference points.

The most spectacular display of solo vocal pyrotechnics belongs to Archibald – in response to a hanging, appropriately enough. For the choir, it’s the Handel spoof early in the second act. Music this comedic seldom inspires as much repeated listening. And the political content, in an age of divide-and-conquer, speaks truth to what at this moment seems to be rapidly unraveling power.

January 6, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Restriction-Free Show From One Of New York’s Most Interesting, Individualistic Jazz Reedmen

Until last year’s lockdown, multi-reedman Mike McGinnis was a ubiquitous presence in the New York jazz scene. He’s an eclectic, erudite composer and arranger, as adept on the sax as the clarinet, equally informed by Americana and music from across the European continent. With his lush nine-piece Road Trip Band, he rescued Bill Smith’s picturesque 1956 Concerto for Clarinet from third-stream jazz obscurity. But as serious and straightforward as much of his own work is, he also has a great sense of humor. It’s anybody’s guess who he’s playing with at his gig at 2 PM at Parkside Plaza in Prospect Lefferts Gardens on Oct 17, but it’s bound to be entertaining, especially as there are also dance performances on the bill. The space is at the corner of Parkside and Ocean Avenue, close to the Q stop at Parkside Ave.

One particularly colorful project McGinnis has been involved with for over a decade is the Four Bags. He plays clarinet and bass clarinet in the band alongside trombonist Brian Drye, guitarist Sean Moran and another trombonist, Jacob Garchik, who plays accordion. Their most recent release, Waltz, came out in 2017 and is still up at Bandcamp. The connecting thread is a frequent but hardly omnipresent time signature: they should have called the album The Three-Four Bags.

To set the stage, they put a coy dixieland spin on what could be a Mexican folk tune, El Caballo Bayo, then go fullscale cartoon on you. It’s obvious, but impossible not to laugh.

The joke in the second track, Runaway Waltz is polyrhythms – those, and a baroquely comedic sensibility. Waltz of the Jacobs is a brassy, Belgian-tinged musette, the four taking a couple of increasingly cartoonish detours before Drye and Garchik engage in some calmer, completely deadpan clowning around.

Invisible Waltz is not a John Cage cover but one of the deliciously slow, airy, sinister tunes the group like to throw at you once in awhile. The group go back to jaunty latin sounds with Puerta Del Principe, which also has droll hints at flamenco, unexpectedly stormy gusts and a head-scratchingly exuberant McGinnis clarinet solo.

Vaults Dumb ‘Ore bears a suspicious resemblance to a famously venomous Randy Newman song that Nina Simone covered. The band switch her out for a brooding, bolero-tinged interplay between accordion and guitar, then Drye adds a surprisingly somber extra layer before Moran takes it into increasingly fanged psychedelia. Finally, the jokes kick in, one poker-faced quote after another.

G is for Geezus is a buffoonish New Orleans theme. There are also bits and pieces of variations on Les Valse Des As, the wryly nocturnal closing cut, scattered throughout the album. Fans of funny jazz acts like the Microscopic Septet and Mostly Other People Do the Killing will enjoy this goofy but very seriously assembled stuff.

October 13, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Tiptons Sax Quartet Release the Funnest Jazz Album of the Year So Far

Since the zeros, the Tiptons Saxophone Quartet have been making some of the most lusciously irreverent music in jazz. Their deviously entertaining latest album Wabi Sabi is streaming at Bandcamp. Joined by their longtime drummer and ringer dude Robert Kainar, the four reedwomen fire off one catchy, harmonically rich number after another, drawing on styles from Romany brass to soca to dixieland and many points in between. Their music is picturesque, upbeat and occasionally cartoonish. Everybody in the band writes, and sings – or at least vocalises. This is one of the funnest and funniest albums of the year.

The album’s opening track is December’s Dance, by baritone player Tina Richerson. It’s an acerbically pulsing blend of Ellingtonian lustre and dusky Ethiopian chromatics, Kainar pushing the song deeper toward funk as the solos around the horn peak out with a wild crescendo from alto player Amy Denio.

Similarly, Denio’s El Gran Orinador is a Balkan/latin brass band mashup with a dixieland-like horn intertwine, Richerson playing the tuba bassline on her baritone. Tenor player Jessica Lurie’s friendly ghost of a solo as Kainar squirrels around is one of the album’s high points. The title track, by tenor player Sue Orfield balances lushly triumphant harmonies with a spare, camelwalking Afrobeat groove and a soaring, carefree vocalese solo.

A Sparkley Con, by Lurie has a lithely undulating New Orleans second-line rhythm, Richerson again playing the tuba role beneath the cheer overhead before cutting loose with a tersely bluesy solo. Root Dance, a second Denio tune has Serbian flair in the horns’ biting chromatics, dramatic vocalese and tricky rhythm: the precision of Orfield and Lurie’s tenors fluttering like a trumpet section is breathtaking.

Kainar’s keening cymbal harmonics gently launch a spacey intro to Torquing of the Spheres, an especially resonant Lurie composition, goes slinking along in 10/8, the composer taking a tersely spiraling solo on soprano. The band head to Trinidad, with some New Orleans mixed into Richerson’s lively but enveloping Jouissance.

Memory Bait, by Orfield is part punchy go-go tune, part action movie theme and a launching pad for some of the album’s most ambitiously adrenalizing solos. Denio’s final composition here is Moadl Joadl, a Balkan tune with a broodingly atmospheric intro that lightens when the dancing rhythm comes in.

Lurie manages to build the album’s lushest brass band evocation in 3x Heather’s 17, maintaining the tricky Balkan rhythm around a wryly suspenseful drum break. The album winds up with Orfield’s Working Song, shifting from a rather somber oldtime gospel theme to echoes of a 19th century field holler mashed up with Afrobeat and reggae, This is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

Fun fact: the band take their name from Billy Tipton, a well-known saxophonist and bandleader who was born biologically female but managed to live and perform as a man for decades, at a time when it was almost as daunting to be a woman in jazz as it was to dress as a member of the opposite sex. How far we’ve come – one hopes, anyway.

July 17, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

A Box of Fresh Takeout From 2012

Of all the offbeat off-off-Broadway productions of the last decade, In Appetizing Proportions has to be one of the most original. Premiered at the now-defunct Tank in 2012, it parodied foodie memes and obsessions. Taking the meaning of slow food to new levels of deceleration, over the next eight years the musical members of the cast sporadically worked on a five-song ep of tracks from the show. Finally, this strangely compelling music is out and is streaming at Bandcamp.

The press release for the album describes it as “surreal scenes plucked from the thoughts of an Upper East Side woman attempting to cook her way into her mother-in-law’s good graces.” Guitarist Fritz Myers’ elegant, incisive compositions don’t seem to reference any specific kind of cuisine, or ingredients: you won’t hear anything that sounds remotely like Back at the Chicken Shack, or Rev. Vince Anderson’s tribute to fried lettuce, or the Cramps’ Don’t Eat Stuff Off the Sidewalk here. Clare Drobot’s lyrics are very straightforward, with surprisingly subtle humor.

The album begins with an austerely circling art-song in 6/8 time, Myers’ steady fingerpicking over Andie Tanning’s resonant violin. It’s probably the only song in history to have a lyric soprano (Samantha Britt, in an impressively focused, dramatic role) singing “chicken paillard.” Jay Vilnai‘s work for small ensemble comes to mind in places here.

Tanning’s violin sails on a sea of reverb in A Caloric Devotion, which is even more hypnotic and psychedelic beneath Britt’s unshakeable optimism and spine-tingling upper register: come hell or high water, she’s going to get this recipe right. Track three, Dumplings has even greater determination, if that’s possible.

Britt’s angst reaches fever pitch over contrastingly muted guitar and violin in Moral Obligation. The final track is I Float, a bittersweet, lemon-and-herb-flavored waltz of sorts.

2012: those were the days, weren’t they? Funny how the global death rate that year was practically identical to what it was in 2020. Yet back then, for some mysterious reason, we thought people who walked around wearing surgical masks were paranoid and creepy. And there were black-box theatres like the Tank where crowds of people would squeeze in to see strange, individualistic performances like this, and if anybody asked you for your phone number, you told them to go to hell. Freedom was so much fun!

May 26, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Angela Hewitt Playfully and Insightfully Resurrects Beethoven Piano Obscurities

“The fourth pedal on my Fazioli, which raises the action and cuts the hammer strike by half, helped enormously here,” pianist Angela Hewitt explains in the liner notes to her new Beethoven Variations album, which hasn’t the web yet. She’s discussing her approach to the faster, more staccato passages in a relatively early work, the 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor.

And yet, she brings a heartfelt neoromantic tinge to the quieter passages. As she explains in the album’s very detailed booklet, Beethoven basically wrote this and abandoned it. Still, it’s a colorful and not always predictable piece of music, and it gives Hewitt, who’s revered for playing Bach on the piano, a chance to explore dynamics that are less present in baroque music. As usual, she takes a painterly approach to this along with some other lesser-known Beethoven works.

The 6 Variations on an Original Theme in F Major are more relaxed and playful, the subtle humor echoing Haydn, whose shadow the composer had not yet escaped. Hewitt has a particularly good, emphatic time with the stern proto-Chopin march midway through, a far cry from the casual feel of most of what surrounds it.

Hewitt takes a very straightforward, calmly dancing, occasionally puckish approach early in the 15 Variations and a Fugue, best known as Beethoven’s early study for the Finale of his Eroica Symphony. That hardly signals how regal this music will eventually grow and how much more joyously pouncing her attack becomes.

The rest of the material here is much more obscure, and understandably so. There are two series of variations on themes by Guiseppe Paisiello, a popular late 18th century opera composer. The first is a lightweight love song, the second a folksy little tune. Neither sounds anything like Beethoven.

The final two cuts remind how little life has changed for musicians over the past couple of centuries: sometimes you have to take whatever work is available. In this case, Beethoven sat down at the piano in 1803 and fulfilled the terms of a commission from a fan in Scotland who’d asked him to come up with variations on God Save the King and Rule Brittania. Spin this at your New Years Eve party and see if anybody in the crowd gets the joke.

December 29, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sly Christmukah Ballad From Jazz Guitarist Peter Curtis

A couple of years back jazz guitarist Peter Curtis put out the album Christmas With Your Jewish Boyfriend, a competently played collection of Xmas songs written by Jews. And there’s historical context for that. More than a century ago, for example, it wasn’t uncommon for Jews in Russia and the Pale to celebrate the Christian holiday. What’s somebody else’s simcha, anyway, when it all used to be Saturnalia?

The album’s title track is the real piece de resistance, and Curtis’ only original on it. And it’s a hoot, Curtis crooning to his shiksa GF about all the ways they can have Christmukah fun. No spoilers!

December 24, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moppa Elliott Brings His Twisted, Hilarious Parodies to Gowanus

Is Moppa Elliott this era’s Frank Zappa? Elliott is funnier, and his jokes are musical rather than lyrical, but there are similarities. Each began his career playing parodies – Zappa with the Mothers of Invention and Elliott with Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Their bodies of work are distinguished by an equally broad and spot-on sense of humor, with a cruel streak. With Mostly Other People Do the Killing – the world’s funniest jazz group – seemingly in mothballs at the moment, Elliott has gone out and made a lavish triple album with three separate, closely related ensembles. The world’s funniest jazz bassist is playing a tripleheader, with sets by each of them tomorrow, Feb 15 at Shapeshifter Lab starting at 7 PM with the jazz octet Advancing on a Wild Pitch, following at 8 with quasi-soul band Acceleration Due to Gravity and then at 9 with instrumental 80s rock act Unspeakable Garbage. Cover is $10.

Where MOPDtK savaged Ornette Coleman imitators, fusion jazz and hot 20s swing, among many other styles, the new record Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band gives the bozack to New Orleans shuffles, Kansas City swing and retro 60s soul music, and attempts to do the same to 80s rock. It hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, although there are three tracks up at Soundcloud. Throughout the record, Elliott is more chill than ever, letting his twisted compositions speak for themselves.

It’s redemptive to hear how deliciously Elliott and the “dance band” mock the hordes of white kids aping 60s funk and soul music. This sounds like the Dap-Kings on a cruel overdose of liquid acid, trying desperately to hold it together. Without giving away all the jokes, let’s say that drummer Mike Pride’s rhythm is a persistent punchline. And yet, as relentless as the satire here is, there are genuinely – dare we say – beautiful moments here, notably guitarist Ava Mendoza’s savage roar and tuneful erudition: she really knows her source material.

The horns – trumpeter Nate Wooley, trombonist Dave Taylor, saxophonists Matt Nelson and Bryan Murray – squall when they’re not getting completely self-indulgent, Mendoza serving as good cop. Guitarist Kyle Saulnier and pianist George Burton fall somewhere in the middle along with Elliott. As an imitation of an imitation, several generations removed from James Brown, Isaac Hayes and Louis Jordan, this is hilarious stuff. The arguably most vicious payoff of all is when they swing that unctuous King Crimson tune by the tail until it breaks: it’s about time somebody did that.

Advancing on a Wild Pitch – with trombonist Sam Kulik, baritone saxophonist Charles Evans, pianist Danny Fox and drummer Christian Coleman – is the jazz group here, akin to a less ridiculous MOPDtK. As with that band, quotes and rhythmic japes factor heavily into the sarcasm, but you have to listen more closely than Elliott’s music usually demands to pick up on the snarky pokes. This is also his chance to remind the world that if he really wanted to write slightly above-average, derivative postbop jazz without much in the way of humor to score a record deal, he could do it in his sleep. But this is so much more fun!

Again, without giving away any punchlines, the length of the pieces and also the solos weighs in heavily. Oh baby, do they ever. They savage second-line shuffles, the Basie band, early Ellington, 30s swing and doofy gospel-inspired balladry, among other things. If you really want a laugh and can only listen to one tune here, try St. Marys: the most irresistible bit is about midway through. Even so, there are long, unselfconsciously engaging solos by Fox and Kulik in the two final numbers, Ship and Slab, which don’t seem like parodies at all. If Elliott has a dozen more of these kicking around, he could blend right in at Jazz at Lincoln Center – and maybe sneak in some of the really fun stuff too.

Unspeakable Garbage’s honking instrumental approach to cheesy 80s radio rock is too close to its endless litany of sources to really count as parody. With blaring guitar, a leaden beat and trebly synth, they devise mashups from a list including but not limited to Huey Lewis, Van Halen, Pat Benatar and Grover Washington Jr. This predictable shtick gets old fast: Spinal Tap it’s not. You’d do better with Murray and his band Bryan & the Haggards, who have put out three surprisingly amusing albums of instrumental Merle Haggard covers.

February 14, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Musical Tribute to America’s Best-Loved Supreme Court Justice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. The Notorious RBG is not the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, but her contributions to American jurisprudence arguably surpass those of any other female member and most of its men as well. With that in mind, let’s wish an equally long and influential career to Sonia Sotomayor – she and Ginsburg are needed there more than ever. Beyond RBG’s acerbity and ever-increasing value as a rare voice of reason, she’s beloved for her sense of humor. And like many jurists, she’s not averse to the spotlight, whether on or off the bench. For example, she’s performed in an opera, which makes more sense considering that her daughter-in-law is soprano Patrice Michaels.

While best known as an opera singer, Michaels is also a composer. Her suite The Long View:  A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs is the centerpiece of the album Notorious RBG in Song, streaming at Spotify. Backed by eclectic pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, Michaels traces the career of her mother-in-law through music as diverse as the cases RBG has had to hear. All the songs here are distinctly 21st century: the cellular phrasing of Philip Glass seem an obvious influence, along with jazz and the early, quasi-neoromantic Schoenberg. Michaels’ tendency here to shift between a bel canto delivery and sprechstimme also brings to mind Schoenberg’s art-songs as well as the operas of Missy Mazzoli.

Michaels’ song cycle begins with the brief, incisively insistent foreshadowing of Foresight, based on a 1943 letter from Justice William O. Douglas contemplating when the time might come to allow women to serve as clerks on the court – talk about low aspirations! Celia: An Imagined Letter from 1949, an uneasily circling, spacious ballad, offers insight into how Ginsburg’s mom encouraged her aspirations while holding fast to tradition.

RBG’s father-in-law, Morris Ginsburg, gets a shout in Advice from Morris, balancing the neoromantic with hints of boogie-woogie. Michaels gives voice to RGB’s late husband, Martin D. Ginsburg in the wry lawyers-in-love anecdote On Working Together. Anita’s Story, an 80th birthday present for RBG is a much funnier narrative, colorfully illustrating a political awakening the jurist jumpstarted in one of her clerks.

The brief, Debussy-esque New York, 1961 offers insight into her daughter’s early years as a latchkey kid. The Elevator Thief is a more lighthearted, vividly imagistic picture of innocuous mischief from an era when kids had to come up with ways to entertain themselves instead of relying on their phones.

Dissenter of de Universe: Five Opinions and a Comment is a pastiche of quotable RGB statements on affirmative action, women’s and voting rights (the infamous Shelby v. Holder case), and a mouthful for Michaels to sing, but she’s game all the way through. In the suite’s scampering coda The Long View, Questions Answered, Michaels channels RBG’s tirelessness (more or less, anyway), irrepressible wit and gravitas: it’s the album’s most dramatic moment.

The album contains four more songs. Lori Laitman’s miniature Wider than the Sky is a gently pastoral setting of an Emily Dickinson poem. Vivian Fung’s Pot Roast à La RBG captures a sardonic, unexpectedly acidic kitchen scenario. Stacy Garrop’s poignant aria My Dearest Ruth employs one of RBG’s husband’s final love letters. The final track is Derrick Wang’s You Are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution, from his comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg. Like the other songs here, it’s a challenge to make music out of prose that, while entertaining. was hardly written to be sung. That’s where the comedy comes in; one suspects that the Notorious RBG would approve.

December 25, 2018 Posted by | Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment