Instinct to Play: Thollem McDonas at Kerrytown Concert House


Thollem McDonas might be a compulsive collaborator. The American pianist, composer, keyboardist, songwriter, activist, teacher, and author's many projects have included several renowned, and lesser known, players over the years, and he doesn't seem to be slowing.

From improvisations with perennial experimental music headliners -- guitarist Nels Cline; double bassist William Parker; the late composer, accordionist, and electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros -- to his Italian agit-punk unit Tsigoti and the art-damaged spiel of the Hand to Man Band (also featuring American punk icon Mike Watt on bass and Deerhoof's John Dietrich on guitar), there's little ground McDonas hasn't covered or isn't covering. He might just be the ideal "six-degrees-of" candidate for people into that particular Venn diagram of weird improv, challenging chamber music, and thinking-people's punk rock.

McDonas plays Kerrytown Concert House on Friday, June 30, with a trio completed by two accomplished locals: reedman Piotr Michalowski and cellist Abby Alwin. We talked with the restless, and very thoughtful, pianist by email about his many collaborations, balancing political action with music, and sitting down at Claude Debussy's piano.

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Elly Griffiths' "The Chalk Pit" continues one mystery's best current series


Elly Griffiths, The Chalk Pit

Deep inside The Chalk Pit is a strong female lead who is written so well that she feels real.

Secret societies, cannibalism, and ritual killings? Bones found in an old chalk-mining pit? Labyrinths and tunnels and a forensic specialist who keeps finding herself embroiled in murders?

Where do we find all of this?

Deep inside The Chalk Pit, the ninth book in the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths.

The novel finds our intrepid forensic archeologist far beneath the streets of Norwich, England. The seed for the setting of this book was planted when Griffiths gave a talk at an independent bookstore in Norwich.

“The manager happened to mention that there was a tunnel under the store and asked if I wanted to see it,” Griffiths says. “(The chalk tunnel) was low-ceilinged and damp and led off into darkness. (My research) found that you can walk the length of Norwich underground because there are so many old chalk-mining tunnels, crypts, and undercrofts.”

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Off-the-Cuff Comedy: Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie


Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie

Hand jive: Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie are always trying to crack each other up.

Whose Line is It Anyway? stars Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie -- appearing Saturday night at the Power Center as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival -- have been doing improv comedy together since they met in the early '90s, so they have a long-established, familiar rapport with each other.

“There’s almost a sibling rivalry that happens backstage and on stage, and that becomes part of the show, watching us try to outdo each other,” said Mochrie.

Sherwood, meanwhile, confessed that he’s always looking for the chance to make his improv partner laugh on-stage. “It’s hard, because (Mochrie’s) the most stoic of all of us,” said Sherwood. “He’s granite. … If I actually say something that makes him laugh, I’ll hear, under his breath, an involuntary spasm for half a second. But that’s about it.”

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Virtuoso Vibes: Gwilym Simcock at Kerrytown Concert House


Ever since Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the piano in 1700, virtuosos have found ways to leave distinctive marks on the instrument's 88 keys. Over the past 15 years, Gwilym Simcock has earned the virtuoso description through a series of recordings, concerts, and compositions that explore the full harmonic and percussive spectrum of the piano.

Simcock blends classical elements that can be traced to the instrument's inception alongside modern improvisational acumen that recalls the harmonically dense but intensely lyrical jazz of Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau. It's an intensely personal but inviting sound: Even as your brain does flips trying to figure out what Simcock's playing as his hands blaze over the keys, your toes still tap in time to his undeniable grooves.

The pianist is an important part of working bands led by guitarists Pat Metheny and Wolfgang Muthspiel, but it's Simcock's solo performances that have brought him the greatest acclaim, including being nominated for the UK's most prestigious music award, the Mercury Prize, in 2011 for the Good Days at Schloss Elmau album.

Simcock will play solo at Kerrytown Concert House on Saturday, June 24, and we talked to the British pianist about his work with major guitarists, the way he connects to audiences, how he discovered jazz, and what he teaches classical pianist students about improvisation.

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Red Scare: Glenn Frankel's "High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic"

Glenn Frankel, High Noon

Glenn Frankel's book recounts the Red Scare surrounding High Noon.

Each year we hear about how political the Oscars are, but this may have never been truer than in 1953 when High Noon scored big with critics and moviegoers the year before (and earned seven nominations), but also found itself in the crosshairs of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

“There was a campaign to make sure (High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman) didn’t win, because that would be too embarrassing,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel, who just published High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.

Frankel will talk about his latest book at the Westgate branch of the Ann Arbor District Library on Friday, June 23 from 7-8:30 pm.

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When Hitsville Hit Zimbabwe: Music scholar Joyce Jenje Makwenda


Joyce Jenje Makwenda

Music scholar Joyce Jenje Makwenda is studying Motown's influence on Zimbabwean music.

It’s approximately 8,000 miles from Harare, Zimbabwe, to Detroit, Michigan. But music and culture scholar Joyce Jenje Makwenda feels like Motown’s daughter.

“Motown raised me,” she said. “I’m a child of Motown music.”

Makwenda owns one of Zimbabwe's largest archives of music-related documents, from newspapers and photos to vinyl records and instruments. The Joyce Jenje Makwenda Collection Archives allows scholars to research the rich history of Zimbabwean music, from folk music played on the mbira (thumb piano) and the township jazz that dominated much of the mid-20th century, to the modern protest sounds of Thomas Mapfumo’s chimurenga music.

She's also the 2017 Zimbabwe Cultural Centre of Detroit research resident -- in partnership with U-M's Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series and Harare's Njelele Art Station -- which is why she's in Michigan this summer investigating the influence of Motown music on her home country.

Makwenda will discuss her research with EMU’s Dr. Melvin Peters on Thursday, June 22, at 6 pm at Cultivate Coffee & Tap House, 307 N. River St., Ypsilanti.

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From "Lumberjanes" to Chad's Mom: Carolyn Nowak | A2CAF


Carolyn

Carolyn Nowak sits at the desk where all the magic happens.

Ann Arbor-based cartoonist Carolyn Nowak may have reached a larger audience with her work in 2015 on the critically acclaimed and award-winning comic series Lumberjanes, but it’s her funny, introspective self-published comics, such as Lazy and Girl Town, where Nowak truly shines.

Last year, one of those works, Radishes, received the Ignatz Award (named for the character in George Herriman’s classic Krazy Kat comic strip) at the Small Press Expo for Outstanding Minicomic, and Nowak herself was nominated for Promising New Talent. Radishes was a shift for Nowak into fantasy comics and tells the story of two teenagers, Kelly and Beth, who play hooky from school to visit a wondrous market filled with mysterious shops and a tiger hairstylist. Nowak’s follow-up from late last year, Diana’s Electric Tongue, is set in a futuristic society where people purchase androids for companionship, is her most mature work to date, and possibly her best.

Nowak will be joining over 50 other comic creators who are displaying, selling, and signing their work on Artist’s Alley at this weekend’s Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival (A2CAF). The A2CAF is a free event starting on Friday, June 17, and running through Sunday, June 19, at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch. Nowak partnered with AADL to create the all-ages comic Chad Agamemnon for the recent Free Comic Book Day, and you'll also be able to get a gratis copy at A2CAF.

Nowak was kind enough to answer a few questions via e-mail for Pulp ahead of the festival.

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From Lunch Ladies to Wookies: Jarrett J. Krosoczka | A2CAF


Jarrett

Jarrett J. Krosoczka sits at the desk where all the magic happens.

Like many illustrators, Jarrett J. Krosoczka set course on making his dreams come true at a very young age. His maternal grandparents, who had been raising Krosoczka since he was three, saw a desire in him to create, so they enrolled him in art classes at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. In elementary school he wrote his first books, and as he got older his work began to be influenced by comic books, leading to him writing a comic strip for the school newspaper, and eventually being accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design after graduation.

While still working on his degree at RISD, Krosoczka started submitting picture books to publishers, and after two years of rejection letters, Random House published Good Night, Monkey Boy in 2001. Over the past 16 years, Krosoczka has published numerous picture books, created the Lunch Lady and Platypus Police Squad comic series, and was recently tapped to replace Jeffrey Brown on Star Wars: Jedi Academy with his second book in that series, The Force Oversleeps, set to be released next month.

Krosoczka’s plate always seems to be full, but he still finds time to visit schools to promote literacy and creativity. He has also established the School Lunch Hero Day, which annually asks students to recognize the work done by their school’s nutrition staff, and the Platypus Police Academy, a community read-aloud program for police officers at their local libraries.

As the keynote presenter for this weekend’s Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival (A2CAF) at the Ann Arbor District Library downtown, Krosoczka will continue to be busy. On Saturday, June 17, from 3-4 pm he’ll demonstrate his story-making process, followed by a Lunch Lady event and signing. On Sunday, June 18, he’ll be making an appearance from 12:30-1:30 pm at Vault of Midnight on Main Street, and will have a signing later at 4 pm at the downtown library.

Krosoczka was nice enough to answer some questions via e-mail for Pulp before this weekend’s A2CAF.

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Double, Double, Fun and Trouble: Penny Seats Theatre Company's "The Renaissance Man"


Penny Seats Theatre Company, The Renaissance Man

Penny Seats Theatre Company's The Renaissance Man is modern rewrite of Macbeth.

Penny Seats Theatre Company's The Renaissance Man is a lot of fun, but that’s to be expected. After all, this is a play about a Renaissance festival, with actors traipsing about Ann Arbor's West Park dressed as pirate knights and gypsy elves. And if you’ve ever seen any Penny Seats show, you know before reading this that you’re in for a good time.

“First and foremost, I want people to walk away having had fun,” said Joseph Zettelmaier, playwright and director of The Renaissance Man, which is a modern comedy based on Macbeth. “I said from the jump that I want people to watch the play, and even if a Renaissance faire isn't their thing, I want them to get why people would want to do it. There are other themes throughout, but I'd rather people see it and decide what they are for themselves.”

What comes as a bit of a surprise, though, is that The Renaissance Man is overtly a play about the importance of fun. It bounces nimbly between wit and philosophy, but that fun is tempered just a touch by something more melancholy and far more beautiful. (Full disclosure: I have worked with the Penny Seats on its past couple of shows, including The Renaissance Man, in minor capacities.)

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Clutch of Grit: Keith Lesmeister reads from "We Could Have Been Happy Here" at Literati

Keith

In We Could Have Been Happy Here, Keith Lesmeister puts characters in impossible situations to see how they react.

Keith Lesmeister's debut collection, We Could Have Been Happy Here, features a "gritty, emotionally sensitive clutch” of short stories, according to Kirkus Reviews.

That description that can be applied to a lot of Midwestern writers and Lesmeister fits the bill. He grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and currently lives in Decorah, which he describes as “much smaller -- a rural community located in the far northeast corner of the state.” The author's life experiences hum in the background of this collection, but the stories aren't autobiographical. What he learned from diving deeply into Iowa, he said, is how to better connect with people whose experiences are immensely different than his: “I spent a lot of time with characters whose lives are unlike mine in many ways -- I’ve never driven around with my suicidal grandmother; I’ve never experienced a deployed parent; I’ve never felt betrayed by a twin brother; and so on and so forth.”

On June 16, Lesmeister reads from We Could Have Been Happy Here at Literati. We chatted with him about Iowa, what makes a good short story, and more. Spoiler: Lesmeister’s so excited to read in Ann Arbor that he might even bake a cake.

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