The Independent Ear

Artists’ responsibilities: notes from a keen observer

My WPFW colleague, scholar, educator and all-around jazz stalwart around town, Rusty Hassan recently posted an interesting post-concert observation in Facebook that struck a chord. Anyone who has read the Independent Ear knows that as a frequent jazz performance audience member, as well as a presenter of the music, I’ve often written on the seemingly lost art of jazz artists connecting with their audience – many failing to make even minimal efforts at doing so. These attitudes do little to build the audience for the music, as Rusty has keenly observed. Musicians: don’t sleep this responsibility, lest you some day find yourselves only playing for your peers, and that ain’t no way to make a living!

Rusty Hassan
RUSTY HASSAN AMIDST SOME OF HIS TREASURES

The Artists’ Responsibility
by Rusty Hassan

The Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival had a panel discussion moderated by your partner, Suzan Jenkins, that intrigued me. It was titled “Is Jazz Education Killing The Jazz Audience” and featured prominent musicians who were also educators, Paul Carr, Delfeayo Marsalis, Connaitre Miller and Rufus Reid. As often happens at festivals with overlapping performances and and the opportunity to engage musicians in conversations, I missed the beginning of the session. I had been talking with James Carter about Leo Parker and Art Blakey–great excuse! When I entered the room it was evident that the provocative title related to a topic I had been concerned about for years, musicians relating to their audiences.

Each of the panelists related instances of young musicians, products of some of the best jazz education programs, giving performances where they had little or nothing to say to the audience.
The point of the forum was to emphasize how jazz education programs are producing musicians who are talented and proficient on their instruments but are unwilling to relate to their audiences beyond the performance. The attitude among younger artists coming out of the programs seems to be the performance should speak for itself and if Miles, Monk and Trane didn’t talk from the stage, why should I. The panelists all stressed that at a time when audience development is imperative for the music, musicians should communicate something about their music to the audience.

A couple of weeks after the Festival I attended a concert at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. It featured Tigran Hamasyan on piano with Sam Minaie on electric bass and Arthur Hnatek on drums. I took a friend who was visiting from out of town and is a casual jazz fan. Shortly after the performance I posted the following on Facebook: “A few weeks ago at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival Suzan Jenkins conducted a forum with Paul Carr, Delfeayo Marsalis, Rufus Reid and Connaitre Miller about the importance of younger musicians connecting with their audience.

Tigran
TIGRAN HAMASYAN

On Friday I saw Tigran Hamasyan give a fascinating performance at the Clarice Smith Center. Tigran, originally from Armenia and a winner of the Monk Competition, obviously drew upon his Armenian musical heritage in his performance. Halfway through the concert he said something like, “Yo Maryland, was up? On bass, Sam Minaie. Arthur Hnatek on drums. I’ll now play one of my compositions, Out of the Grid.” That was all he said to the audience.

The program for the concert included a bio by Guardian writer John Lewis which includes a discussion of how Tigran incorporates Armenian themes in his music and Tigran’s liner notes to his album
MOCKROOT. It would have been helpful if Tigran told us the names of the compositions he was performing and a little bit about his music. When you are incorporating Armenian and classical themes into original compositions, the music doesn’t necessarily speak for itself. An object lesson of what Jenkins, Carr, Reid, Miller and Marsalis were emphasizing about connecting to the audience. I did enjoy the performance.”

That FB post generated considerable discussion with insightful comments from Paul Carr and Larry Appelbaum. My favorite was a brief one from Bobby Watsond. He said, “People like to hear the artist speak. Not my idea. This was told to me.” I saw Bobby perform a number of times with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in the 1970s where he would
announce the tunes for the band. But at some point before the end of the set Art would always get up from behind the drum set and address the audience. I suspect it was Mr. Blakey who told Bobby Watson that people like to hear the artist speak.

Tigran’s performance was in the smaller cafe style auditorium at the center. The audience consisted mostly of students with a few of us older folks in the mix. I imagine there were a number of music students who had participated in his workshop. Perhaps he felt that he had talked with most of the audience already. The program notes contained his illuminating discussion of the tracks
on his latest album which I presume were among the compositions he played. I’m perplexed as to why he didn’t convey some of this information to the audience without assuming everyone would read the entire program. At least he could have told us the names of the compositions so that we could read about them later. My friend who accompanied me to the concert commented that he felt Tigran’s performance lacked soul. Perhaps some explanation to the audience along the lines of what he wrote would have given my friend some insight into his Armenian soul.

I saw another pianist a few weeks later that was very much in contrast to Tigran in how he related to the audience. Wade Beach is a Washington area pianist who spent twenty years with the Airmen of Note. He currently performs with Andrew White. That particular evening he performed as part of a series of solo piano recitals at the Arts Club of Washington. The series features area pianists such as Allyn Johnson, Lafayette Gilchrest and Janelle Gill performing original material.
Wade Beach
WADE BEACH

Wade seems to be somewhat shy and humble but is an incredible pianist. He mixed in a few standards with his original compositions. He announced each tune with a few words of explanation about what went into the composition. He joked about academic jargon while explaining what a contrafact is musically, mentioning that Ornithology is based on the chords of How High The Moon. He related to the audience members so that they could relate to the complexity of his music. The audience at the Arts Club skewed older than that at Clarice Smith, probably mostly casual jazz fans like
my friend who had gone to see Tigarn with me or members of the Club.

In my conversations afterward folks told me they not only enjoyed the performance but they appreciated Wade’s commentary. This is not to say the audience did not appreciate Tigran’s performance; they obviously did, applauding for an encore. But I think Tigran may have lost one potential fan by not relating verbally to the audience.

Artists who feel that their artistry is such that they don’t have to talk to their audience often cite Miles Davis as someone who felt that the music should speak for itself. Well, he was Miles Davis. I’ll never forget taking my daughter Kenja to see Miles at Constitution Hall when she was in high school in 1985. He had large signs made up with the names of the musicians in his band. When Kenny Garrett soloed Miles would hold up the sign with Kenny’s name on it.

Miles related to the audience while demonstrating a sense of humor mocking his reputation as someone who would not communicate to his fans. My daughter got the joke. A few years later I took her and a Princeton classmate to hear Dizzy Gillespie at Blues Alley. While I was groaning at the jokes I had heard countless times, the audience was cracking up. They, of course, hadn’t heard those jokes before. Dizzy drew them into his music and made them fans.

Miles & Kenny
MILES & KENNY GARRETT DURING THE ERA OF MD’S BAND INTRO PLACARDS

Jazz has always had a “hipper than thou” syndrome. It’s part of the culture and most of of us who are part of the music revel in it. I certainly do. We love a genre that’s not the popular music of mass consumption. We’ll dis an artist who becomes popular as a sellout. If we love a particular artist, it is frequently at the expense of another. Jazz musicians are, of course, fans of the music as well as performers and have been the essential participants in this culture of cool from the beginning. This has certainly impacted the size of the audienceBut now the music needs listeners more than ever. I’m not talking about the death of jazz here. It will certainly survive. But musicians should be more inclusive in reaching out to the folks who come out to their performances.

I’m also not advocating the watering down of the artistry of the music. I’ve been to concerts by artists such as Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor where they have talked with the audience about the titles of their compositions and thanked them for coming out. On a positive note with the younger musicians, I saw Braxton Cook, a young saxophonist who studied with Paul Carr before going on to Julliard, relate very well to those who came out to the Bohemian Caverns to hear his group. He clearly absorbed the lessons Paul Carr imparted about stage presence. If only his young peers would do the same. Jazz is indeed a bit of a mystery to many who come out to hear the music and you want those who feel that way to feel welcomed, ultimately to come back and hear more.

Braxton Cook
BRAXTON COOK

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Jazz Takes a Stand

Black Lives Matter
JAZZ TAKES A STAND
By Ron Scott
Regardless of America’s ever-changing situation black music has always been its soundtrack depicting the mood of the times from war to peace, lynchings to chain gangs, segregation, civil disobedience, integration, to police brutality, and nonviolent resistance.

Jazz musicians may not always be directly involved in protest marches, or on picket lines but their music has always been heard loud and clear. It’s the soul of black folks like the deep blues from the emotional river of Billie Holiday every time one hears her sing “Strange Fruit”. No the song isn’t about police brutality but it has everything to do with the killings of innocent unarmed black men, racism at its most sinister peak, and man’s inhumanity to man. Even today when folks hear “Strange Fruit” they get a chill visualizing the bodies hanging from those trees and the thought is this should never happen again.

The protesters in New York City, California, Cleveland, Ferguson and throughout America are saying the same thing “We do not want to see this again; unarmed young black men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Timar Rice and many others being killed at the hands of police officers.” The song “Stand” by Sly and the Family Stone is an anthem for any protesters march. “Stand for the things you know are right/it’s the truth that makes them so uptight/Stand there is a midget standing tall and a giant beside him about to fall” for these purposes the giant is the system. These young men were “Young, Gifted and Black” as was the great poet Henry Dumas whose life was taken in 1968 by a Transit Policeman in a case of mistaken identity, he was 33 years-old just beginning a successful career.

I Can't Breathe

Young, Gifted, and Black” was sung by Nina Simone: “To be young gifted and black/ yours is the quest just begun. To be young gifted and black is where it is at.” When they are so quickly taken away as in the cases of Brown, Garner, and Rice then for the parents these are “Stolen Moments” (Oliver Nelson). The dreams, aspirations, and hopes are gone and all that remains are memories.
In Her song “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” she notes “Is it too late for us, and did he die in vain.”

Simone’s song “Four Women” depicts four black women whose lives are based on their skin color; Aunt Sara probably a slave as she says “my skin is black/my back is strong/strong enough to take the pain inflicted again and again.” The pain crying out in black America started with Aunt Sara, and travelled through Simone’s characters “Safronia” and “Sweet Thing” both misused and disenchanted by society. Simone finishes on a high note with Peaches. “My skin is brown/my matter is tough/I’m bitter because my parents were slaves/I’ll kill the first mother I see.” When equality doesn’t work for the masses and the same deadly situations become a hideous habit in black communities then “Peaches” appears wanting action.

They call it civil unrest or “riots” But riots wouldn’t occur if the problems were met with viable plans and solutions rather than politicians, commissioners, and others constantly living in the American tradition of reactionary mode. Let’s talk about Rodney King in 1991, and deal with those issues so it won’t happen again but here it is again. Dr. Billy Taylor wrote “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free,” and today many are still wondering.

In 1960 Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite was released on the Candid Records label. The cover reflects a sit-in of the Civil Rights Movement. The recording features five selections on protests, slavery, and the growing African independence movements of the 1950s. Only Roach and vocalist Abbey Lincoln perform on all five tracks, and one track features a guest appearance by saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.
Unite for Justice

John Coltrane’s “Alabama” appears on his album Live at Birdland (Impulse 1963). It was written in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, an attack by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young black girls.

In 2012 Trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith recorded his 4/CD set Ten Freedom Summers that included “Emmett Till: Defiant Fearless” a tribute to the 14 year-old who was hideously killed in Mississippi, in 1955. Other titles in this collection include “Dred Scott, 1857″, “The Freedom Riders Ride,” Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381Days”.
In the 1970s Chicago (Columbia Records) recorded their four-movement composition “Better End Soon.” The song reflects the tragedy of wars, and inequality, “people hating and hurting their brothers/they can’t understand/better end soon we can make it happen/we can change the world.”

The O’Jays say there is a “Message in Our Music.” “There is a message in our song/we are going to talk about all the things that’s been going down/so understand while you dance/trying to make you see things aren’t the way they’re suppose to be.”

Whether people are marching, dying, demonstrating, or crying there will be jazz warriors playing rhythmic sighs and bold tones of injustice and pain, and the hipness of the swing as it relates to blacks and every one of America’s freedom & justice movements.

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Jazz @ the Kennedy Center 2015/2016 season

Kennedy Center
The Kennedy Center, outside of Lincoln Center, offers the most extensive jazz programming of any of the major arts centers in this country. We owe that in part to the stewardship of the late, great jazz renaissance man Dr. Billy Taylor, who did so much during his storied tenure as Artistic Director for Jazz at the KC to not only provide the music with a prestigious platform, but also to dismiss the barriers and perceived boundaries between jazz and other classic art forms. Countless now-dedicated jazz enthusiasts mark one or a series of Billy Taylor presentations at the Kennedy Center as the turning point in their personal evolution through the music as consumers and lovers of the sounds, citing Billy as their virtual tour guide who demystified the music for them.

Working alongside Dr. Taylor for much of his tenure, steadily building the music’s significant Kennedy Center profile was the witty and erudite KC administrator Kevin Struthers, who has now been in place for over 20 years. It was largely Kevin Struthers who, upon the passing of Billy Taylor, had the prescience to engage a younger artist, pianist-composer Jason Moran, to take Jazz at the Kennedy Center to the next level. And when I speak next level, I’m also considering the fact that not only have Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Wayne Shorter with the National Symphony, Charles Lloyd, and Robert Glasper found welcoming stages at the Kennedy Center in recent times, so have Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, the group Yard Byard, and Maceo Parker during Moran’s tenure. Along the way not only has the Terrace Theatre (gotta say, after years of descending stairs to lower level jazz haunts, I’ve always loved the idea of jazz being presented on the penthouse level at the KC!) been a welcome home to the music, but the music has also seen the altering of Kennedy Center’s physical plant in the morphing of a multi-purpose room into the Kennedy Center Jazz Club, and a huge, yawning atrium into the Crossroads Club. The latter, primarily under Moran’s keen programming, is a standing club, with bar, geared towards attracting younger audiences for dance-worthy presentations like Glasper’s Experiment, Soulive, Maceo, Roy Hargrove‘s RH Factor and others. Not only does the Crossroads Club lend itself to the dance impulse, its also friendly towards those who love nothing better than hitting up their devices during a performance to inform their social media contacts of the haps.

(Here’s a link to an interview I did with Jason Moran last spring.)

http://www.kennedy-center.org/explorer/videos/?id=A79419

Earlier this week the Kennedy Center held its 2015/2016 season press announcement event, which covered its symphonic, dance, ballet, chamber music, opera, and jazz presentations, including several crossover efforts between KC constituent forms. In addition to Moran and artists representing the various forms, KC Composer-in-Residence Mason Bates introduced his new curated contemporary music series KC Jukebox, which among other programs on November 9 will present Lounge Regime: 100 Years of Ambient Music, which promises to take listeners on “an immersive journey through a century of ambient music, from today’s electronica to 1970s minimal is, to the “furniture music” of 1930s Paris.” This is decidedly not your grandmother’s Kennedy Center anymore! Bates will also collaborate with Moran next March in Jason + Mason at the Crossroads Club, on an evening of electric jazz that will include a DJ set by Bates alter persona, DJ Masonic.

This artist-curated crossing genres series will include several additional Moran collaborations, with classical pianist Jeremy Denk, choreographer Ronald K. Brown, a duo concert with Charles Lloyd, and a Gershwin program that will include his wife Alicia Hall Moran, an opera contralto. The Moran series bound to generate the most buzz – details of which led off Wednesday’s Washington Post account of the KC’s ’15/’16 season – is Jason + Skateboarding, a reprise of sorts of a fresh program Moran premiered at SF Jazz. Finding a Line: Skateboarding, Music, and Media will run September 11-12, 2015. The Kennedy Center will build a skateboarding venue and Jason Moran and the Bandwagon will perform in interaction with the skateboarders.

In addition to the usual raft of Kennedy Center jazz presentations at the Terrace Theatre and the KC Jazz Club, other highlights of the ’15/’16 jazz season include presentations of NEA Jazz Masters Jimmy Cobb, Jimmy Heath, and Charles Lloyd; Joe Lovano‘s new Village Rhythms Band (with Liberty Ellman, Michael Olatuja, Abdou Mboup, and Otis Brown lll) a world premiere commissioned work by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and the Discovery Artists series at the KC Jazz Club. Vijay Iyer will partner with the Brentano String Quartet on an evening October 15, and A Family Affair series will feature twins EJ and Marcus Strickland, The Whitfield Family Band (dad Mark on guitar and sons Mark Jr. on drums and Davis on piano), and twins Peter and Will Anderson Quintet, the two sets of twin brothers evenings inspired by Moran’s own experience raising twin sons, as he remarked during the press event.

That’s only part of an auspicious 2015/2016 Kennedy Center Jazz season; for complete details visit www.kennedy-center.org or Google Kennedy Center jazz.

Jason Moran

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One jazz musicians’ response to a societal challenge

Mike LeDonne 1
Mike LeDonne

This is a story of one jazz musician’s sense of humanity that has been deeply touched by personal experience. While perusing the myriad possibilities offered by the annual Winterjazzfest (January 9-10), conspicuously tagged onto many of the releases about that mid-winter NYC delight was a January 8 event with the curious title Jazz Legends Play for Disability Pride. That benefit, organized by the soulful organist-pianist Mike LeDonne, was held at the Quaker’s Friends Meeting House in Manhattan, and was scheduled to feature such greats as NEA Jazz Masters Ron Carter, George Coleman, Benny Golson, and Jimmy Cobb, along with Renee Rosnes, Russell Malone, Brad Mehldau, Peter Bernstein and a cast of dozens. A subsequent post from Jim Eigo’s Jazz Promo Services detailed LeDonne’s touching motivation behind producing this event; touched to his core by his daughter’s disability, he aimed to generate a disability pride parade that he hoped would have a similar impact on public consciousness as the gay pride parades held around the world.

We caught up to Mike LeDonne recently, after he disembarked from a jazz cruise, for further details on what has so energized him to address the plight of the disabled.

Please talk about your family experience that has motivated your increased interest in the plight of the disabled.
On Valentine’s Day 2004 my daughter Mary was born very premature and had to finish baking in an incubator for almost 3 months. Covered in wires and attached to machines that had alarms going off all the time she fought through and thrived. We were told that she would be morbidly obese, severely mentally retarded and have behavioral problems. This was because they found she had a syndrome called Prader Willi. To us, all we saw was someone severely cute and sweet. She made it home and had to eventually have a shunt put in her tiny head that drained the fluid from her brain down to her stomach because besides Prader Willi Syndrome she also had hydrocephalus. She fought through many brain surgeries as the shunt kept failing and once again we were in the hospital for 3 months. She’d come back from having an old tube taken out and a new tube drilled into a new place in her skull, with her head all bandaged, sit up and smile and start playing with her toys. Today she is not morbidly obese and, although she is non verbal, has blossomed into quite a character.

Having Mary in our lives has been the greatest experience my wife and I could have imagined and we could not be prouder of her. We have seen a whole new dimension to humanity through her. Through my family’s experience I’ve learned that love is a very powerful force. Doctor’s and medicine are very necessary but Mary has taught us that love is truly a healing force and goes way beyond anything doctor or medicine can achieve.

My interest in getting involved with Disability rights is to try to change stereotypes and raise awareness about who and what the disabled truly are – just people like you and me. They are not “special” but people dealing, the best way they can, with a disability and trying to achieve and maintain the best and most independent lifestyle they can.

Ultimately what is your goal as far as putting your heightened awareness of disabled persons on the front burner of our collective consciousness?
To increase civil rights and try to bring the non-disabled public out of the dark ages and change the way they look at and define the disabled. To get them to give people with disabilities (PWD’s) equal respect and treat them as full fledged human beings. To realize that they have all the same wants, desires and problems we all face. To stop the pity and replace it with a sense of pride both in and out of the community.

Mike LeDonne
Mike LeDonne introducing Mary at the Jazz Legends Play for Disability Pride event, with George Coleman (left) and event MC Rob Crocker of WBGO

I would like to help the parents of the disabled come out of the closet, so to speak, as far as accepting that their child is disabled and feel proud of them for who and what they are. To love and care for them but not be overly protective and wind up smothering their ability to be independent.

For children like my daughter I would like to educate parents of the abled to teach their children to stop staring at disabled children like they have 2 heads just because they are in a wheelchair and may look different than they do. To take the opportunity to educate their children and to increase awareness that children with disabilities are not “weird” but simply another diverse and beautiful aspect of humanity. I would like them to see what I see when I look at Mary and know what I know.

To educate the medical community. Our experience was a typical one. From the moment you get pregnant you’re told to go through all these tests because, God forbid, the child you’re carrying might be disabled in some way. They tell you that if you find out that your child is likely to be disabled, you can simply end the pregnancy and try again. I was never an anti-abortion person, and I’m still not, but I now know that to end a pregnancy because the child is going to be different than other children is completely wrong and should never happen unless the child is going to go through some kind of horrible suffering. Thank God they didn’t have a test like that for my daughter’s rare syndrome because the thought that we might have ended that pregnancy and not have
Mary today sends a chill down my spine. This whole attitude about a disabled human being something you can simply get rid of just goes to reinforce all the horrible stereotypes to come. It’s all backwards and barbaric and needs to be brought out into the light and exposed.

And then there’s the scariest thought of all for any parent of a disabled child. What happens to my child when we’re gone? Right now the picture is far from rosy. State-run institutions make a lot of money housing the disabled and don’t support the idea of them achieving an independent lifestyle. They would rather keep the money flowing into their institutions where they too often simply drug the disabled, stick them in a wheelchair and shove them in a corner. Sounds horrible but this is what happens all too often and it has to stop.

Talk about your recent benefit concert on January 9; how that all came together and the ultimate results of the evening.
Jazz Legends For Disability Pride was an incredible and historic event. It brought together all my worlds under one roof where we were all equals and bonded together by a mutual love for this music. All my musical heroes and friends, Ron Carter, Benny Golson, Jimmy Cobb, George Coleman, Buster Williams, Brad Mehldau, Harold Mabern and many others were there playing jazz music of the highest level. Each band came out and played 2 tunes back to back for 2 hours. It’s impossible to describe the feeling in that place that night but it’s something I will never forget. At the end I brought my daughter Mary to the front of the place and introduced her to everyone and told them that I couldn’t be prouder that she is my child. A huge cheer went up from the crowd and all the musicians. That is a moment I will never forget.

It was a major undertaking for me and, just like forming my non profit, something I had no idea how to do or had ever done before. Thanks to some old friends, who helped me figure out where to get all the things in place that a concert like that needed, and to some new friends, like Winter Jazzfest who joined forces with me and helped me with promotion and selling tickets, I was able to put it all together. Even Steinway Piano, who I have endorsed since the 80’s, sponsored the piano which means they gave us a beautiful instrument that I picked out, delivered it, tuned and picked it up, for free. That is something they don’t normally do.

None of this has been easy. In fact it’s been more work and demanded more patience than I ever thought myself capable of. But the night was so unbelievable and beautiful and this cause is so huge and important it gives me the strength to persevere.

Where are you going from here, what are your next steps in these efforts?
The next step is also another huge one. We are now planning our first Disability Pride Parade set for July 12. The Mayor’s office has joined with us and is helping us but even with that there’s a ton of things we have to coordinate and get together. We have the route but we need to get all kinds of things for the event. We are planning a parade and then a celebration in the form of a big street party. We will have many entertainers, all from the disability community, along with guest speakers. We hope to have food and drink and basically a huge party. We raised a lot of money at the fund raiser but we need a lot more because having a parade in NYC is not cheap. We are hoping for some corporate backing if possible but we are also depending on the kindness of others in the form of tax deductible donations. All donations can be made out our website www.disabilitypridenyc.com.

How can people stay in touch with your activities on behalf of the disabled?
We are updating our website so it will be more accessible for people with disabilities. People should check it periodically as we will be using it to keep everyone up to date.

WWW.DISABILITYPRIDE.COM

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Achieving a successful East meets West

Ragamala
In recent times the term ‘fusion’ has become somewhat taboo. For some the idea of endeavoring to achieve a fusion comes with a red flag warning the participants that inevitably one form or entity is bound to dominate, or even take over the other. Such was hardly the case with a recent program that brought to the stage the Ragamala Dance Company’s East Indian dance conjoined with a jazz composer’s sensibility with jazz, and Carnatic music. As one of four commissioning organization partners, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (University of Maryland) helped foster the seamless synergy of the music of saxophonist-composer Rudresh Mahanthappa and the Ragamala Dance Company for a beautiful program titled “Song Of The Jasmine.”

Rudresh1

The 75-minute program featured the live, stage left music ensemble (no recordings) of Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, Rez Abbasi on guitar, Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam (a wooden double-headed drum of southern India origins), Raman Kalyan on Carnatic (wood) flute, and Anjna Swaminathan on Carnatic violin. Obviously Mahanthappa and Abbasi – Indian and Pakistani, born in the U.S. and though well-steeped in Carnatic music – were representative of the West. They achieved a very successful simpatico with the three Carnatic musicians; there were no lines of demarcation in this live music, an obvious testament to Rudresh and Rez’s ability to bring their Western instruments, ancestral/cultural memories, and improvisational skills to a Carnatic atmosphere, yet still maintain a strong sense of the art of jazz music. In keeping with jazz and Rudresh and Rez’s orientation, there were clearly large helpings of improvisation in his various saxophone passages and in Abbasi’s forays.

The exquisite elegance of East Indian dance was on vivid display in the marvelous turns of the five dancers of the Ragamala Dance Company. One of the key charms of East Indian dance is in the intricate hand movements and the stories they tell with the flick of an upturned wrist and the delicate movements of the fingers. The beauty of their finely detailed costuming is another essential element in Indian dance, including the expressive ankle bells; each detail conveying story and emotion. Their movement fusion with Mahanthappa’s composition and the expressions of the ensemble were exceptionally beautiful. Chief among the dancers, and Rudresh’s key collaborator, was Aparna Ramaswamy.

For novices to this dance form, like myself, the moderated post-concert Q&A with Rudresh, Aparna, and her mother, Ragamala co-director Ranee Ramaswamy was essential to gaining a greater understanding. This collaboration was owed in part to Aparna’s inquisitive imagination. She experienced a Rudresh Mahanthappa music performance at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, home base of Ragamala, and was so struck by the music that she sought this collaboration, which was then enabled in large part through the co-commissioning partnership of four prescient presenting organizations (The Walker, Clarice Smith, Krannert Center for the Arts (University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana), and Lincoln Center Out of Doors. The guiding literary force behind this collaboration was the writings of the 8th-century Tamil mystic poet Andal, whose writings it is said erase any dichotomy between the sacred and the personal through seamless inter weavings of both. Clearly this was a call to a higher consciousness.

No overnight undertaking, once their agreement was forged it took eight months of conversation, composition, choreography, and rehearsal to bring this work to the public stage. That evening at Clarice Smith we were transformed by the power of the perseverance of these artists to realize this work.

It should be mentioned here that both Rudresh Mahanthappa and Rez Abbasi have remarkable new albums in release, both pictured below.
Rudresh BIrd Calls

Rez Abbasi

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