I know its been a while, but allow me a brief political post today, friends. I just read this brilliant Washington Post piece and felt compelled to offer some thoughts.

One hundred years ago today, 136 NYC factory workers, mostly young women, were forced to leap to their deaths from the 9th floor of a building in flames. In the absence of enforced government regulation, the factory owners denied union demands for sprinklers, hired goons to beat up organizers, and locked the only exit that might have let the workers out. Since that time, laws have been enacted which protect workers’ rights, and it is THESE laws which are currently being threatened by the willfully-ignorant-of-history, “every-man-for-himself-but-put-CEOs-first” charade which so-called “Libertarians” continually defend. Bells will commemorate the victims all around the country at 4:41pm today, but let’s remember that they did NOT die in vain.

Incidentally, I’m on the list-serve of NYC-based singer/songwriter Allison Scola, and I thought I’d just copy and paste news of an event she’s participating in which is being held in NYC today to commemorate the victims. This strikes me as just one more example of how artists can (and should) connect to larger societal issues. Wish I could be there to show my solidarity!

I’ll be spending this day walking the paths of victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911.

The morning will begin early. I will be “chalking” the sidewalks of of victims Josephine Carlisi (31 years old) and Frieda Velakofsky (20 years old) both who lived around the corner from my old apartment in the East Village (a Sicilian enclave 100 years ago).

At 10:30 AM I will be part of a procession of ceremonial shirtwaists (blouses) in honor of victims. I will be carrying a shirtwaist representing Michelina Nicolosi (21 years old) who lived in a tenement directly behind my old building and next to the East Village’s Shrine to the Black Madonna on East 13th Street. Michelina was from a small town in the hills of Sicily, about 2 hours away from where my grandparents were born. She had been in the United States for just over two years before the fire.

The procession will make its way from Union Square down Broadway to the Brown Building, formally the Asch Building, at Greene Street and Washington Place, where at noon there will be a memorial ceremony and reading of the victims’ names.

At 4:41 PM bells will ring throughout the United States in recognition of the time the fire broke out and reminding all of us of the deep legacy left by this tragedy–safer working conditions, increased fire regulations, and so many other benefits to us in the workplace and beyond.

Saturday, March 26th, 2011
Labor of Love: A Story with Music Based on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 – 4:00 p.m.
Westchester Italian Cultural Center

One Generoso Pope Place
Tuckahoe, NY 10707
914-771-8700

Price: Members $25, Non-Members $30; Fa

LABOR OF LOVE
A story with music based on the Triangle Factory Fire of March 25, 1911
Presented by Ti Piace, Italian American Presentations, Inc.

A collaborative effort by and performed by the Ti Piace Performers featuring Tre Bella with Allison Scola, Anthony Tolve, Mary Ellen Toomey, Deborah Longino, and Dimitri Minucci

Good lord. I need to write about the Esperanza win before it gets passed over for other distractions. Generally I have little use for the annual music-industry-suits-patting-themselves-on-the-back-for-making-themselves-millions-of-dollars-while-limiting-the-scope-of-our-culture festival which is the Grammy Awards, but to deny what happened last night as a major public event within our relatively tiny jazz community would be an gigantic missed opportunity, and this was an upset exceeding even Hancockian proportions. All of us who love jazz understand and begrudgingly accept that we’re backing an art form which isn’t ever going to garner the kind of mainstream affection enjoyed by the Britneys and Kanyes. Yet I imagine that for many of us, that acceptance comes along with a fervent wish that we could share this dynamic, soul-enriching music with the masses, or at least pull that 2% of the American population who “gets” jazz up to, say, 10%? 30%? 90%? (I love this excerpt from conductor Ben Zander’s brilliant TED Talk, who works from the assumption that ALL people love classical music… they just don’t know it yet! The full version is well worth your time, arts advocates.)

All of us who are passionate about jazz LOVE that feeling when acquaintances come to us for music recommendations – a few of us obsess over yearly lists – and we want people to understand and get hooked by these sounds. And in a very real sense, Esperanza winning “Best New Artist” last night over the tween-phenomenon, multi-million selling, music industry-funded, now-starring-in-his-very-own-movie-so-apparently-he-can-act-too, Justin Bieber, gives me a glimmer of hope that artistically challenging music forms like jazz might have a slightly better shot at reaching people today than it did yesterday. It’s all about incremental progress, right? And it’s also, importantly, about not making this unfamiliar music come off as elitist or unapproachable, or gloating about Bieber’s loss (even though his fans vandalized our girl’s Wikipedia page within minutes after her upset, which if nothing else, points to the absolutely dictatorial vice grip of loyalty the music industry has managed to manufacture within their creation’s “fans.”) And I’m guilty of a bit gloating myself – it seems the most instinctive reaction is to make fun of the tweens (in the great post-Grammy Twitter-fallout last night, I called them “sheep”), rather than figure out a way to leverage a legitimate jazz artist’s newfound cred and name recognition into a greater awareness of this music we believe in. When you believe in something, you want to share it, and though we might not reach the angry Beliebers (yikes, can’t take credit), convinced that an eternal injustice has been perpetuated upon the universe, we could get quite a lot of the folks in the middle who might be curious about jazz but find the whole enterprise intimidating. And FWIW, for all of the hype placed on Bieber’s hair, I think we win that battle too.

And I think Esperanza’s music is positioned at the perfect nexus for this – it’s hip and funky enough to grab the people who “need a beat,” but challenging and complex enough to pull hardcore listeners up out of their chairs.

I mean, for Chrissake… on her debut record, this woman sings and scats over a pulsating, smooth-as-silk version of Body and Soul. In Spanish. While playing the bass. In freaking 5/4 time. If we can’t get behind this woman, jazz fans, there’s no hope and we should resign ourselves to decoding Anthony Braxton’s geometrical compositions amongst our dusty, out-of-print LPs down in the basement. Look, as much as I wish Keith Jarrett’s wishes would magically come true – that American audiences might simply wake up one day with high artistic expectations – I also know that’s not (and won’t ever be) realistic, and that if jazz is ever going to gain any traction in the mainstream, it’s almost certainly going to happen by way of a gateway figure.

In that light, a quick story. Over the course of a few semesters, I’ve played this video of Esperanza covering, no transforming, Stevie Wonder’s Overjoyed, recorded in front of the First Family (they’re big fans of her music) for my audio production classes, in front of kids who’s knowledge of music extended mostly to Top 40 and the “boxes” that the music industry had put them in based on race and socio-economic factors. (Meaning: for the most part, the white kids liked punk and metal, the black kids R&B and rap. The very rare mention of jazz as a “like” usually came from the influence of a parent who played it in the house.)

But everybody dug Esperanza (just like they dig Bach, incidentally); after I played the video, most students reached for pen and paper and wrote down her name. But why, I asked, why doesn’t this music receive airplay on mainstream commercial radio? I mean, clearly, everyone was into it! Most seemed to think that though they liked it, it was either too complex for the masses (as if somehow they weren’t an accurate sample?), or, importantly, it didn’t sell sex and image in the way that popular black female artists are expected to. (Love ya, Beyonce, but it ain’t just your voice selling those records.) Esperanza has stated outright that she wants her music to speak for itself; although she presents a fashionable and distinctive “look,” it’s ultimately her musical voice which makes her such a compelling figure.

So as advocates for this music, how do we leverage this rare mainstream recognition into a safe space where the other infinite varieties of jazz might be explored by more people? Cuz if you can hook people up with Esperanza, then other fascinating jazz-based modern singers are a very short step away: Gretchen Parlato, Jo Lawry, Madeleine Peyroux, Melody Gardot, Diana Krall, local gems on-the-rise like Lena Seikaly, and many, many more. And another thing: it’s been my experience that after proper exposure, most college students absolutely adore Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong; after our section on Billie (and Ella too!), I often hear students sound annoyed and confused that no one has ever taken the time to introduce them to this music. My response is that the industry has absolutely zero interest in exposing them to anything outside of what the latest hit record is, and sadly because the industry has such unchecked, unprecedented control over American culture, these are the only messages they’re receiving. (The industry’s entire musical philosophy might be summarized in the following two words: KEEP CONSUMING!) Though perhaps our community is guilty of missed opportunities in other areas? I mean, does anyone know what the hell goes on in high school music classes? I took an informal poll of 60 students last week, asking how many people could tell me what instrument either Miles Davis or John Coltrane played. (Not tell me about their style, or what their best album is… just what instrument did they play?) Miles and Coltrane are unarguably two of the most important musicians in American history. Out of 60, exactly one person knew. Exactly one person had even heard of them. So, my friends, this is what we’re up against. And though my heart sank, I wasn’t terribly surprised; young people today are absolutely drowning in advertising and corporate-sponsored pop culture, but my experience tells me that many long for something richer. And I understand that arts classes are shamefully being slashed in every direction, but if the teachers we do have aren’t teaching the basic figures of American art music, it’s no wonder there’s such a lack of awareness and appreciation.

But I digress. Perhaps there’s unrealized synchronicity in the fact that “esperanza” means “hope” in Spanish. So I’m happy this morning, and yes, hopeful: hopeful for our community, happy for the listeners who will now get turned on to these exciting, new sounds, and maybe most of all excited for a girl who has worked her tail off not on her image, but on creating and developing a very original, very fun musical voice. What a thrill to see that rewarded in the mainstream. (And y’all know, by the way, that the jazz savvy Q-Tip is producing her next record, right? I thought you did.) Obviously, I’d love to hear what readers think about any of this dynamic, or about how we can help jazz reach more ears, so comment away. Cheers and congrats to Esperanza, to whom I wish all the esperanza I can muster!

Thanks for visiting and happy new year, friends and blog-readers! For years I’ve been intending to make a “best musical finds of the year” CD to give out, and I’m happy to have realized the first actualization of what I hope will be an annual tradition. Please note that this is not necessarily a wrap-up of songs coming from albums released in 2010 – as I’m not a credentialed reviewer I don’t get boxloads of free samples – but something a bit more individually crafted: a wide-ranging, genre-crossing compendium of recorded music, most of it unfamiliar to mainstream channels, all of which came across my radar over this past year. 2010 was one of the most fulfilling years of my life, loaded with thrilling travel, new friends and experiences, and in tribute to it I’m quite jazzed to present…

2010: THE YEAR IN MUSICAL FINDS
(the inaugural edition of a yearly tradition!)

Track 1: Jo Lawry – Lôro
I first saw rising Australian jazz singer Jo Lawry’s name on Fred Hersch’s wonderful record Live at the Jazz Standard, an album which also featured my former trumpet teacher Ralph Alessi, mentioned below. Browsing in one of my favorite crackdens used CD haunts, Academy Records in NYC, earlier in the year, I happened upon a copy of Lawry’s debut CD, and it’s a really well-put-together string of jazz-inflected singing with an easy virtuosity that just makes me… happy? (Considering the title, this seems appropriate.) In this track, Lawry’s band submits a rather mind-bending performance of Egberto Gismonti’s makes-you-glad-to-be-alive melody – and if you don’t know the brilliance of the Brazilian guitarist/pianist/genius Gismonti, you’re missing out. This record makes me want to dance til the sun comes down. And maybe even after.

Track 2: Deep River – Hudson River Ohboywhattafind. Being involved in the arts sometimes means that your friends are your creative inspiration, and this is certainly this case with my soon-to-be-rehearsing-and-traveling-through-Ireland buddy Rachel, whose DC-based roots band, together for a mere six months (!), is growing a fan base exponentially in this area. Super catchy stuff which runs the gamut from raise-the roof singalongs to poignant ballads with gorgeous Americana-inspired harmony vocals. (I was torn between this track and the gorgeous Virginia. I saved 26 seconds in the choice.) Click here for a few videos of them I shot at a wonderfully intimate house concert in Capitol Hill in early December. Paste Magazine has already called them “the best of what’s next” in their list of Top 20 new American bands. Get on the ground floor for this one, folks.

Track 3: Iarla Ó Lionáird – Cu-Cu-In
This wins my unexpected, voice-from-above award find of the year. This past summer I took a fascinating 6-week crash course in Gaelic through Solas Nua, the wonderful DC-based Irish arts organization I’m proud to be a company member with, and I learned how difficult the Irish language can be to someone with no background. Yet when Irish is sung, I find the common language of my ancestors (on both sides of my family!) absolutely mesmerizing, and have been spending time schooling myself on clips of great trad singers like Nioclás Tóibín, Darach Ó Catháin, and Joe Heaney. I took a chance on my first Iarla Ó Lionáird CD, released under Peter Gabriel’s “Real World” label, in a clearance bin at Newbury Comics, and boy was that a winning gambit. From West Cork, Iarla is known as one of the best modern practitioners of the traditional Sean nós style, and I’d describe his records as being a cross between powerful vocals, completely (and unapologetically!) in Irish, and the soothing, electro side of Radiohead. I’m enamored with his music and I hope you will be too.

Track 4: Pietro Tonolo – Your Song
I’d been intrigued by this record for a while, and really, who wouldn’t be? European jazz musicians playing an entire album of Elton John covers? (Okay, maybe just me.) It’s a bold move which could easily have failed miserably but I think quite the opposite is true. I don’t know much about the saxophonist leader of the session, but with the always compelling Steve Swallow on bass, jazz legend Paul Motian on drums, and the smooth Gil Goldstein on piano, you’re talking about a terrific lineup of players. Given its fairly simple harmonic foundations, Elton’s music lends itself surprisingly well to improvisation, and I find their take on this classic 70s ballad just stunning. And heck, it’s my parents wedding song, and with their 40th anniversary coming up, how could I not include it?

Track 5: Sarah Siskind – Say It Louder
I discovered this Nashville-based country singer-songwriter by way of the excellent newsletter of fellow “Americana” songwriter Jennifer Kimball, discussed below. Now. Listen to this song, and ask yourself the following question: Why in God’s name is Taylor Swift famous when talent like this exists and goes under-recognized?! Kill corporate radio! And buy Sarah’s records, they’re terrific; her songwriting belies the myth that country-folk songwriting can’t be harmonically daring and catchy. And absolutely no one sounds like her. Thankfully a few Nashville insiders like Alison Krauss realize this woman’s abilities (she recorded Sarah’s song Goodbye Is All We Have), but to the mainstream she seems completely unknown. Let’s change this, hmm’kay?

Track 6: Session Americana (feat. Ry Cavanaugh & Jennifer Kimball) – Lighthouse Light
Those who know my musical tastes well know I’ve been following the career of Boston-based singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball for years. Formerly of the terrific 1990s duo The Story with Jonatha Brooke, Jennifer is one of those hidden gems in the American musical landscape who humbly goes about her business just happening to own an extraordinary gift for singing, and seems content to perform for her regular fans at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. I originally heard this track when it was used as a very brief tag on the end of a song on Jenn’s brilliant, must-own, stupid-music-industry-slept-on-it, 1998 debut Veering From The Wave, and the simple melody always intrigued me, as did the distinctive, cottony voice of Ry Cavanaugh, now otherwise known as “Mr. Jennifer Kimball.” A recent stroke of luck took me to a YouTube clip of Ry singing this song in its entirety in someone’s living room (!), so I researched further and ended up finding the original recording of Ry and Jennifer singing what sounds for all the world like an old, melancholy sea chanty. I think it takes a special gift to write a song this direct, and by including it, I wish everyone could appreciate the thrill of great, simple harmony singing.

Track 7: Ralph Alessi – Buying, Selling
It’s great to see my former Eastman trumpet mentor Ralph finally getting some props within the jazz community, though overall his music is still shockingly overlooked by most mainstream critic’s polls. This is demanding modern jazz, to be sure, but there’s something in his approach which is so off-the-cuff, freewheeling, and fun, and in an art form which sometimes takes itself way too seriously, I think these are much desired qualities. Excellent band as well, including the prolific Jason Moran on piano. Ralph’s virtuosity is never used for empty showboating, but always serves to supplant his highly original, highly dedicated musical voice. And unlike so many retread, heard-it-all-before artists in modern jazz, he always has something to say.

Track 8: Laura Veirs – Freight Train
Laura comes out of Portland, OR, that hotbed of great coffee, smooth wine, and folky hipsters. Something about that town aligns itself with beautiful, simple music – the late, lamented Elliott Smith comes quickly to mind. I kept hearing Laura’s name and downloaded the 5-song EP Two Beers Veirs which contained this song. (And really, with a title like that, how could you not love the music inside?) This is an unadorned, emotionally direct cover of an old and once popular folk song by the great American roots artist Elizabeth Cotton, whose music I also happily discovered this year.

Track 9: Eef Barzelay – Take Me
I discovered this unorthodox, goes-down-easy artist while surfing through video podcasts presented on the NPR Tiny Desk Concerts. (The Tiny Desk is a terrific showcase for emerging artists, and all the shows are available as free podcasts. What’s that, you don’t know what a podcast is? Aw, don’t tell me that!) Barzelay is a quirky singer-songwriter with a voice like a thin sprinkle of sawdust, and he’s branching out from the equally intriguing alt-country band Clem Snide which he formally headed.

Track 10: Scala and Kolacny Brothers – Colorblind
Weird name + unorthodox group (a Belgian girl’s choir?) + consistently chill-inducing sound = major find for me. And I know, I know, they sung Radiohead’s Creep on the trailor for The Social Network, but I still haven’t seen that movie and I knew about them before anyway. If you can get past the borderline schmaltz factor, I think the pop arrangements these guys sing are really soothing and beautiful; this Counting Crows song (doesn’t it sound like Philip Glass?) was also a discovery for me, and it sounds quite nice on my bedroom piano.

Track 11: Luke Kelly – Raglan Road
This song wasn’t exactly a discovery of this year, as I remember hearing numerous singers tackle it in pubs on my first trip to Ireland in the summer of 2008, but it was only this year I got around to tracking down the song and the man who made it famous. Although he’s well known to many Irish trad fans, Luke Kelly was a major find for me, as was the music of his band, The Dubliners; go watch his live version of this song on YouTube (it’s after the poet Patrick Kavanaugh’s recitation) and I bet you’ll be as mesmerized as I was by the power of his voice and performance aesthetic. I’m happy to report I crossed off a “bucket list” item this year when I learned this song and sang it myself at the Monday night Irish session at Nanny O’Brien’s in DC, to the accompaniment of a few of the players who joined in. And now that I have one legitimate Irish pub song under my belt (sorry, lovely as it is, singing Danny Boy will get you instantly branded a tourist at most genuine Irish pubs), I’ll hopefully be on my way to learning a few more in 2011? IN ENGLISH.

Track 12: Yaron Herman – And the Rain
There’s a pretty terrific record store down the street from me in Silver Spring who gets a holy ton of new, hot-off-the-presses-from-NYC jazz CDs in for cheap. I’d heard Israeli pianist Yaron Herman’s name as a rising star in the jazz world so took a chance, and very much enjoy his approach. Obviously one of the countless young pianists influenced by Keith Jarrett – check out Baptiste Trotignon for another – I dig Herman’s easy virtuosity and catchy compositions.

Track 13: Caoimhín O’Raghallaigh – It’s All About the Rhythm of Her Toes
In addition to the theater work I get to be involved with while working with Solas Nua, I’ve found more than a few opportunities for musical discoveries via their concerts and podcasts. I originally heard this 26-year old star of the Irish fiddle world interviewed by Ronan Connolly on Solas’s wonderful Eist podcast, and earlier last fall I had the chance to hear him play live at a terrific duo concert with accordionist/vocalist Brendan Begley in Rockville, MD. After the show, I tipped Caoimhín (pronounced (“Kway-veen”) that the weekly Monday night Irish session at Nanny’s was taking place that night, and I was thrilled to be there later when he stopped by, borrowed someone’s fiddle, and played a few rousing impromptu pieces for the gaping-mouthed fans in the back room. Solas will be presenting him locally next March, so I look forward to hearing his music again.

Track 14: Sam Sadigursky – Love
This track was hands down one of my favorite finds of the year. Using the text of a poem by one of my favorite modern poets, Czesław Miłosz (and here’s why), NYC-based saxophonist/composer Sadigursky manages to write a melody both simple and flexible, and his band of young (and relatively unsung) NYC players and singers interact with inspiring improvisational chemistry. This track can be found on Vol. 1 of Sadigursky’s “Words Project,” a remarkably ambitious 3-CD undertaking, giving ample evidence that the NYC scene is still churning out relevant modern jazz. The way this piece builds I feel demonstrates the potential that “free” forms of modern jazz can offer which, at least to my ears, is much more rewarding than the heard-it-done-better-in-1957 retreads which clog up too much of the contemporary jazz scene. If it doesn’t stick the first time, relax into it and keep listening.

Track 15: Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden – Don’t Ever Leave Me
When two of my all-time musical heroes get together on one record, you know I’m going to include something from their collaboration. There are some lovely tracks on this album, including the rarely played standards One Day I’ll Fly Away (perhaps familiar to Moulin Rouge fans) and Nat King Cole’s Where Can I Go Without You?, but this song has been one of my favorite under-recognized standards for a long time. (Keith’s too, as he’s recorded it more than a few times.) Keith and Charlie of course played together in Jarrett’s so-called “American Quartet” in the 1970s, but they haven’t recorded together since, so the release of this record was about as close to an event as the jazz world allows itself. This album is a master class for all jazz musicians – to all musicians, period – saying much about the subtle ways a life spent living in music can raise mere competence to the level of transcendence.

Track 16: David Lang – Have Mercy, My God (from “The Little Match Girl Passion”)
NYC-based composer (and Bang on a Can co-founder) David Lang won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for this brilliant, ambitious work for choir and percussion, based on a Hans Christian Andersen story about a poor match girl dying of hunger on the street, so although the contemporary classical music world might be familiar with his output, I’m guessing most listeners aren’t. Although the whole piece is quite moving, something about this particular movement struck me as particularly simple and profound. I suppose the highest compliment I can pay it is that I want to write music like this.

Track 17: Fred Hersch – A Wish (Valentine)
I might be cheating by including the singing of Jo Lawry twice in this list, but since this record is released under pianist Hersch’s name, I’m going to let myself off. I love just about everything about this gorgeous tune, composed by one of the great artists of modern jazz piano. If the musical theater and cabaret worlds allowed itself to incorporate more harmonic influences from the world of modern jazz, we might get more music which sounded this good.

Track 18: Patty Griffin (with Buddy Miller) – Never Grow Old
Patty Griffin’s music was a major discovery for me this year, and I now count her as one of my very favorite artists making music in America. She could sing a phone book and I’d be enraptured. This song, from her recent album Downtown Church, sounded familiar to me, and after looking it up I realized its because it’s the song which plays over the end credits of the film Brokeback Mountain. The day I first heard this version, I was shooting a short film in which I was playing a man who has only a few weeks to live, and the very first scene we shot was with me holding a delivering a monologue to a 4-month old baby. Couldn’t get this song out of my head. What’s also astonishing about it is that like Ry Cavanaugh’s song, it “feels” like an old American folk song, yet the composer is Gustavo Santaolalla, an Argentinian film composer! I love implausible backstories like that, and it speaks yet again to the international appeal of the American folk sound. and in fact it is one. (Check out Aretha!) Thanks to commenter Mark (see below) for the fix.

Track 19: Stefano Bollani – Maple Leaf Rag
On principle I try to buy every piano album that comes out on ECM Records, the German label most famous for presenting Keith Jarrett (my primary musical idol) to the world. I don’t know much about Bollani except that he’s young and Italian, and boy can he swing. I love how he stays far enough away from the famous Scott Joplin ragtime melody that you don’t really know what it is you’re hearing until he drops the melody clear as a bell about halfway through, then just as quickly runs away from it. The world needs more great improvisers like this, I think. And it’s one more example of the international reach of America’s greatest art form. That musical button at the end? I’m reminded of what the great Sinatra said after hearing the Basie band wrap up a particularly knotty swing piece: “Nothin’ to it, folks.”

Track 20: Stile Antico – Ave Maria (William Byrd)
Those who followed my Europe travel blog from last summer will recall my elation at hearing, befriending, and closing down a British pub with the great singers of the Grammy-nominated early music choir Stile Antico. I passed on their info to a friend of mine at NPR, and was thrilled to watch as my idea to have them perform on NPR’s terrific Tiny Desk came to fruition, and even more thrilled that I had the chance to go and watch them sing live in the corner of the NPR music office in DC! (They even made NPR’s Best New Music of 2010, available as a free download!) I strongly feel that the only thing limiting anyone living on Planet Earth from falling in love with the eternal sounds of Renaissance choral music is lack of exposure and silly socio-economic boxes. Listen and be transported. Then go buy their stunningly good records! These guys are also loads of fun and I’m happy to call them my friends.

Track 21: Kennedy Center Honors (with James Taylor & Mavis Staples) – Let It Be/Hey Jude
There’s only one track I could have picked to complete the inaugural edition of year-end finds. And when I say “I can hear myself” on this track, I mean that quite literally. Those who know me well heard plenty about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which was singing background at the Kennedy Center Honors in December, and having the chance to watch it live on television with my family was almost as moving as being there in person. Hey Jude was my high school jazz band’s theme song, so of course that was on my mind as the curtain came up and we sang out hearts out to the Obamas, Oprah, and Mr. Paul McCartney himself, fighting back tears as much as we were onstage. Being a part of this event reminded me how music can bring us together, and in a splintered, sectarian world, we need the healing power of music more than ever. What a way to end the year.

Honorable mentions:
It was a gargantuan task trimming this list down to fit onto an 80-minute CD, and a few contenders got left off. I’m pretty sure I first heard Gretchen Parlato and Darrell Scott in the last days of 2009, so sadly, that gave me justification for slicing them off. Also, quick plug for this new record which I just heard the other day, available to YOU as a free download, and it most likely represents everything you hate about pop music of the past five years getting beat up by everything you love about it times a thousand. And finally, this was very much a Mahler year for me; hearing the barnburning 5th Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach in Prague last summer, and hearing the majestic, life-affirming 2nd Symphony in October (James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra) with friends and family, were without question two of the most profound live musical experiences of my life. As was going way out of my way to sit unaccompanied at his grave outside Vienna in July, pondering how one man and his obsession with music might have such an enormous impact on the world.

Hope you enjoyed. Here’s to 2011 and all its yet-unheard music which through the eternal laws of happenstance, will make itself known!

These thoughts developed as a response to a great post by Robyn Linden of 11:11 Theatre Company in Boston, dealing with engaging audiences. I’ll be home in October and am looking forward to catching their upcoming Poe project!

My two cents, or twenty-five cents, starts here: I think artists of the future will have to wear multiple hats in order to remain successful and relevant – the art of promoting art is a tricky one, and generally isn’t something taught in art, theater, or music school. Yet let’s consider the possibility that confronting these issues is in itself a fundamental part of what it means to be an artist in the world, ca. 2010! Where I went to school (Eastman), this notion that we might actually have to worry that audiences wouldn’t automatically fall into our laps was just starting to catch steam when I graduated, and thankfully art schools seem to be tackling this problem more and more within curricula. Due in part to the pervasiveness of mass-mediated culture, it now seems there’s a full-on crisis in terms of reaching out to audiences – especially younger folks – and getting them involved and engaged. So how must an artist operate within that system?

I’m of the mindset that if we want our audiences to come in and stay engaged, we first and foremost MUST be making relevant work. Apart from producing rather bland art, the old paradigm of “appreciate art because it’s good for you” isn’t cutting it in the marketplace anymore – we have to be able to demonstrate and articulate to audiences WHY our work is relevant to their lives. Many young people don’t attend theatre because they don’t feel connected to the world of artists and the creative process – I think that “cliquey-ness” can be a big turnoff – so we need to find new ways to MAKE them feel welcome and involved in the process. So I don’t think a passive audience who just sits and “receives” art – the paradigm of the past – is the way to go. Shouldn’t being in the theatre feel like a truer, richer experience than lining up for the latest Hollywood blockbuster? Sadly, often times it just isn’t, and we can’t blame audiences for that. Mass-mediated culture succeeds partially due to mega-advertising budgets, certainly, yet it also provide a sense of shared community and currency that I think we lust for in the theater. How do we create that within our local communities? We want our work and our ideas to be discussed at that proverbial water cooler, and I think presentational ideas which challenge standard forms (flashmobs come to mind, even if they can get gimmicky) might open some of these avenues.

Ultimately we need to be willing to ask ourselves the tough questions about what it means to make art amidst what might appear to be an unconcerned citizenry. Yet as artists we must believe we’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to tell the stories and weave the myths of our generation. It’s a tough position, yet therein lies the challenge.

Some fairly random thoughts, sure. Anyone have further ideas they’d like to share?

Dear readers: this post is one of many which grew out of Facebook conversations, one in this case which was actually about something else. I was asked for my opinion about this hot-topic issue and this slew of writing poured out. I think the stuff that needs to come out is always the best stuff, anyway, right? Let’s hope that’s true.

And let’s talk about this so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” shall we?

FREEDOM AND OTHER LOOSE NOTIONS
I think first off, we need to ask ourselves whether all these slogans and cliches we’re always hearing about our country actually mean anything. Like, do we “actually” have freedom of religion in the US? ‘Cause if we did, that would mean that any religion could be practiced by anyone, at any time, anywhere, so long as laws weren’t being broken. And to their credit, I think most of the conservative commentators have admitted this – Sarah Palin isn’t going around trying to say that its “illegal” or “unconstitutional” to build a mosque close to the towers, only that she finds it “distasteful.” Yet aren’t there also fast food joints, bars, and even strip clubs (!) that are closer to the site than this proposed center would be? Would she find the World Trade Center Memorial Strip Club “tasteful?” (It’s not really called that, but it is closer to Ground Zero than this proposed center would be.) I think more accurately, she – and other conservative politicians gearing up for the upcoming elections – are using this as a wedge issue to mobilize voters to get to the polls. We’ve seen this happen in the past (gay marriage, abortion, gun rights, to name but a few), and it’s really scary.

THE ‘RELIGION’ THING
But why would this issue be so important, so emotionally compelling for people? Clearly it touches a nerve and re-opens a nine-year old wound that won’t ever quite heal, but what is it specifically about the issue that irks people? Without question, it’s the religious element, more specifically the fear of the unfamiliar. (Isn’t it always?) It’s the assumption that somehow this “mosque” would be a tribute to the evil, fundamentalist lunatics who commandeered those planes, and that the families of people who died that day who visit the site might have some strange, foreign religious clerics wearing turbans celebrating behind them as they mourn. Nothing could be further from the truth. The man who is proposing this center, blocks away from Ground Zero, has repeatedly denounced the tactics of the fundamentalist terrorists, and wants to set up this center as a reminder that real Islam is a peaceful religion, and that Muslims who seek to kill “in the name of Allah” are blaspheming the Koran. Which is a claim made by none other than George W. Bush (to his credit!), who repeated it numerous times after 9/11. Sadly, we’ve barely heard anything along those lines from Republicans since those days. Why? It’s simple: because it might cost them votes.

THE TRUE DANGER: FUNDAMENTALISM IN ANY FORM
And it’s worth repeating: what the 9/11 terrorists were to the Muslim faith are equivalent to what the KKK is to Christianity – a tiny, extreme, whacko-fundamentalist, fringe minority who happen to shout very loudly and use violence to achieve their goals. And sadly, because of how the media tends to present only the loudest voices, what many Americans who might not know any Muslims personally believe is that 9/11 was caused by “the Islamic faith.” (I have Muslim friends and have worked alongside Muslims, and the shocking revelation I’ve come to is that they’re just as boring as the rest of us!) Psychologists and sociologists have proven many times – as human beings we fear the “unknown,” and to millions of people who don’t live in cities where multi-culturalism is an expectation of daily life, the “unknown” poses a major psychological threat. But the reality is that the vast, vast majority of Muslims want the same things Christians want – to provide for their families, the ability to worship in peace, and to maintain their traditions. But again, because most images which the media presents of Muslims amount to scary terrorists hiding in mountain caves with automatic weapons, many Americans who don’t personally know any Muslims take these images and use them to fill in the empty image spaces for that “Muslim other” in their minds. It’s an entirely mistaken, “straw man” assumption. Not surprisingly, American history reveals this very same “image plug-in” has occurred in many manifestations: the struggles of both African-Americans and gay Americans, and the battle over Latin-American immigration all offer strikingly parallel examples.

What is a danger, and one which extends across cultural and geographical boundaries, however, is fundamentalism. Timothy McVeigh was “supposedly” a Christian, yet did anyone “blame Christianity” for this so-called “Christian’s” heinous acts in blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City? (No, in fact thousands of people prayed to their Christian God immediately after!) The vast majority of Christians would respond by saying that McVeigh wasn’t a very good Christian, right? Just as the vast majority of Muslims would (and have) denounced the September 11 attacks. So the more accurate issue at hand is the dangers of fundamentalism, be it Christian OR Islamic, and the insistence that “my way is the ONLY way”… which in fact, is not very far from Sarah Palin’s way of thinking. So if you’re going on the assumption that “Islam” caused 9/11, the protesters might have a point, but that’s not only an entirely mistaken assumption, but also playing directly into what the terrorists (who sought holy war against the West) wanted! Fundamentalism caused 9/11, just like fundamentalism caused the Oklahoma City bombing. Yet in that case no one started protesting Timothy McVeigh’s Christian church, because Christianity is infinitely more familiar to Americans, and somehow Christian fundamentalism is seen as “safer” than Islamic fundamentalism, which is patently ridiculous. Either way, innocent people died, and I bet the innocent victims of the Oklahoma City bombing could care less which brand of religious fundamentalism ended their lives.

THE ‘ACTUAL’ MOSQUE
And let’s talk about this “mosque” a bit. In fact, let’s stop calling it that! What is actually proposed is closer in intention to a YMCA, to a community center (remember, language matters!) with a basketball court and swimming pool, than some sort of terrorist training camp. This center is no more a “mosque” than a YMCA is a “church,” even if both are affiliated with religious faiths. One of the intentions of this center is to foster positive dialogue and peaceful discussion between Muslims and non-Muslims. Seems to me that’s a GOOD thing, right? What’s more, if the center gets nixed on the grounds that its “offensive,” imagine what an incredible recruiting tool that becomes for the actual fundamentalist terrorists, who are convinced that they’re fighting a holy war with the West, and that America at best finds Islam “offensive,” and at worst hates the entire religion and its followers. Let’s not hand them that easy ammunition.

WHAT SAY YE, NEW YORK?
Yet another angle, and one which I remember well from my days living in the world’s craziest, most intense city. I experienced 9/11 on the island of Manhattan, scared out of my wits, not sure if we were all going to be blown to bits or going to trample each other in a rush to the bridges. I turned down a temp job which would have put me in the tower that day. And I’ve seen the bumper stickers on vehicles (mainly large trucks with plates far from New York) driven by people who I’m guessing weren’t there. (Obviously 9/11 was a national event, yet I think the major reason it gets “claimed” by folks who live outside of New York is that it allowed people to have a concrete event on which to pin their confusion and mistrust over a world spinning out of control. But that’s another blog post.) Look, no one needs to “remind” me to “remember” that day; it is seared into my memory, as it is in the memories of millions of New Yorkers. Yet in all of this discussion over the Islamic center, no one – least of all Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck – seems very concerned about what New Yorkers themselves (and their leaders) think – the people who actually experienced this tragedy quite literally in their own backyards! Shouldn’t their voices count at least as much, if not more, than those of the Kansas housewives? After all, it’s THEIR city? (How much say do New Yorkers have over monuments in Topeka? Very little, and frankly, they don’t make monuments in Kansas their business!) And of course, the reason why Palin and Beck don’t touch this is that many New Yorkers are in favor of the center. Which isn’t surprising, given the open-minded and tolerant nature of the world’s most multi-cultural city.

THE ‘RESPECT’ THING
So ultimately it comes down to a question of taste, or “respect,” right? I don’t think it’s being “disrespectful” for people to want to practice their faiths in a peaceful manner, and to demonstrate to people that Islam is in fact a peaceful religion. (In fact, what could be MORE respectful?) As Americans, what could be more “tasteful” than demonstrating to the terrorists and to the rest of the world that ours is a loving nation, one borne of acceptance and not hatred, of true freedom, not popularity contests, of multi-culturalism and acceptance of foreign cultures, not fear of the unknown, and that the very things which these fundamentalists fight to death to end are the very things which we embrace. Let us never underestimate the power that symbolic gestures carry. After the calamities of the Bush years, we certainly have some damage control to do to restore our standing in the world, and I can’t imagine a more “tasteful” tribute to the thousands who lost their lives on that day than erecting a purposeful, living monument to religious tolerance and peace.

Also, here’s a terrific piece by Nick Kristof in the New York Times discussing how the anti-mosque protesters are in fact ‘taking bin Laden’s side’ which underscores a lot of what I’ve said. So… enough for now. Thanks for keepin’ tabs, campers.

Hello folks!

My apologies for not posting for so very long. Not that I haven’t been writing, however – I’ve been on a whirlwind 2-week adventure through Europe, almost at its end, and have been posting about it at this site. I’ve been to London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Paris, and am back in London again. Please check in! Cheers!

I offer this brief post partially for the benefit of my students – and for my own interest in copying out some succinct, succulent writing on music. Last year I read the fascinating book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by music journalist Carl Wilson. (I hope Mr. Wilson doesn’t mind me copying out a few of his words – strictly for educational purposes!) A book, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, centered on that bloviated mistress of ersatz emotion-pop, Celine Dion. Erm… did I just lose all my hard-earned “jazz blogger” cred?

In a desire to discover what goes into the construction of our personal “tastes,” Wilson took it upon himself to spend a year with the very music he found the most “tasteless” (namely, Dion and her legions of fans), and the results are both hysterical and illuminating. I haven’t come across a more entertaining explication of the socially constructed nature of “taste,” and Wilson’s tone combines a taut mixture of academic analysis and journalistic page-turning. For a further goof, click here to view Wilson’s equally funny public dismemberment by that acute social critic Stephen Colbert.

One afternoon early in our relationship, my future ex-wife and I were lazing around her small apartment, listening to music. Testing boundaries, I began teasing her a bit about her music collection, mostly thrift-shop copies of 50s crooner and rock’n’roll records, a quaint-seeming fixation for a twenty-four-year-old downtown novelist. She went over to the suitcase record player and put “Oh Boy” by Buddy Holly under the worn-out needle:

“All of my life I’ve been a-waitin’
Tonight there’ll be no hesitatin’–oh boy!
When you’re with me…”

And she sang along:

“Stars appear and shadows are fallin
You can hear my heart a–calling
A little bit of lovin’ makes everything right
I’m gonna see my baby tonight!”

She loved it, she said, because it was the truth. There was nothing more layered or contradictory to say. “Oh boy!” expressed exactly how she felt, right there and then, about me.

I don’t think I have ever been more moved, even in our wedding vows, by a profession of love. I’ve seldom felt so honored, so human, so sure that merely human was enough. That it did not remain enough, that there would be a sadder side to the story, does nothing to mar it, nor to diminish one watt in my memory the soft autumn light that fell across her face as she sang Buddy Holly’s words to me.

What do I love about this passage? For starters, its simplicity. His use of imagery. Specificity of language. But mostly, the way Wilson uses storytelling to illuminate a major analytical point – that music has the potential to cut through to a core of emotion like few things in our lives can. In class, I often bring up that oft-cited writing rule “show, don’t tell,” and I still don’t know of a better way to connect emotionally with readers, regardless of the nature of your audience. The mild, sad snark of “my future ex-wife” – I love how Wilson’s mastery of language allows him such a wide range of tone and subtext, while expending a mere 3.5 words. And that deft, poignant turn at “that it did not remain enough” – a subtle nod toward the universality of love and loss.

One of the points I attempt to impress upon students – and continually remind myself – is that pop music can color the context of our lives as much any other cultural influence, and that writing about music from this perspective is far more interesting than dry biography. It’s about relevance, and I think relevance comes most directly from a) lived experience and b) speaking honestly about that experience. Without that thrift store-bought Buddy Holly record, Wilson’s bittersweet story loses its meaning and impact, and ultimately this is one of music’s great gifts to us: its ability to penetrate layers of emotion, experience, and memory which might otherwise remain unpassable.

Cheers, all.

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