The late drummer Paul Motian was an icon not only among his fellow percussionists, but as a composer in his own right. With credits ranging from the great pianist Bill Evans’ trio and the legendary Keith Jarrett led mid-70s small ensemble, Motian became important in many ways as a mentor and unique presence in modern jazz.
Ann Arbor-based jazz guitarist Carl Michel has recognized the contributions of Paul Motian to the extent he has re-created a complete repertoire of his music. Michel also has his own substantial set list of original music and interpretations of standards, including his favorite compositions written by Chick Corea and Antonio Carlos Jobim - plenty of material to present at his live performances.
In the interim of his research and recording of Motian’s music, he has recently discovered a blog of Cindy McGuirl, Paul Motian’s niece, who is self publishing a book of his compositions. Her blog is titled “Uncle Paul’s Jazz Closet” that has podcasts of radio shows that she curates featuring her uncle’s music. She is publishing a first volume, and if there is enough interest, there will be a follow-up compendium.
Carl Michel started playing electric guitar, switching from cornet, inspired by 1960s rock and blues guitarists. A student at the West Bank School Of Music in Minneapolis, then the Berklee College Of Music, Michel moved to Austin, Texas with his brother, percussionist Robert "Booka" Michel, and became a co-founder of the Creative Opportunity Orchestra, with the innovative lead vocalist Tina Marsh. In 1983, he lived Madison, Wisconsin for a decade, settled in Detroit and then Ann Arbor, where he teaches at the Ann Arbor Music Center, and formed the Carl Michel Group, performing in the Metro Detroit area since 1995.
He has received two Emmy awards in Music Composition and Arrangement based on his work during the 16-part documentary series about 1930s-2000s pioneering female journalist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer Doris O’Donnell Beaufait titled “Cleveland.” His music is featured on film soundtracks "The Fourteenth Victim - Eliot Ness & The Torso Murders,” and “Dusk & Shadow - The Mystery Of Beverly Potts.” He has five recordings as a leader that explores contemporary jazz stylings with either a straight ahead or funky side. The 1998 Carl Michel Group and 2000 Carl Michel Group + CDs received across the board critical review acclaim and nationwide radio airplay.
Those initial CDs are a source of pride for the guitarist in that he received much unexpected praise and attention. “I do want to mention my vinyl LP from the 1980s when I was living in Madison called Food Of Love. That was a trio record. I thought it was more adventurous. When you get your first recording out, it is a sense of accomplishment. It made Cadence Magazine’s Editors Picks. When I moved to Detroit and got to know some people, did some more writing and got to know (drummer) Gerald Cleaver, (bassist) Tim Flood and (saxophonist) Michael Graye, Alex Trajano did the recording, Then I wanted to do a larger ensemble for the Group + and had a good core. So in came (saxophonist) Andrew Bishop, (trumpeter) Paul Finkbeiner and (pianist) Ellen Rowe, and did more extensive writing with more orchestration and arrangement.”
The Creative Opportunity Orchestra led him to believe his arrangements were another valuable aspect of his talent, thus his involvement with film scores. “For ‘Cleveland,’ I had a vision of the Ken Burns documentaries, and I thought I needed more music that related to the period, and I thought more of that time period. There are some elements of darkness like her covering the Sam Shepherd story, and then Doris O’Donnell’s traveling with the Cleveland Indians, unheard of for a woman at that time. And there were stories of women working in factories during World War II. There were many things to think about, but I was given free reign. I was given the synopsis of the series and I wrote themes and sent MIDI files for editing. Some of it was quartet and others were solo piano.”
As far as his connection to Paul Motian’s music, it goes back to his early interest in jazz. I got information from record stores - the first record I had was a Wes Montgomery or Milt Jackson album, then Ralph Towner and Gary Burton. I liked the ECM label and the sound. I fell into John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny pretty hard, but I found a promo copy of Dance by Paul Motian on ECM, which at first I didn’t get it but I loved the spacious sound, and there was no other drummer so unique. Then it was his project Rambler with electric guitarist Bill Frisell and got reacquainted with Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet and Quintet. But it was Paul’s Live In Tokyo that really turned the light on and I realized so much in his music - elements of Thelonious Monk, Eastern European music and Ornette Coleman coming together in his writing and it hit a peak.”
“I tried to get in touch with him, wrote to the record label - his music is not in The Real Book - and he graciously sent me 10-12 copies of his music. I got together with some people and went through this music ten years ago, There’s a lot of depth and you see how the writing is becoming stronger. Then he was not touring, only playing in New York and I went to the Village Vanguard to hear him, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. It was religious and mesmerizing. Then he passed away in 2011. Through the internet I was able to meet others who were interested in his music, had copies and was able to exchange music with them. I wrote his music administrator to see if I could get more, was able to, and did the recording project of which I’m proud of.”
As multi-faceted a musician as Carl Michel is, we listeners and his students are benefactors of his vision and broad experience. On the surface as laid back and less interested in image, Carl Michel is a major figure in the Ann Arbor jazz scene we all should pay closer attention to.
Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local, national and international music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
Carl Michel & Friends with bassist Keith Malinowski and woodwindist Paul VornHagen play The Old Town Tavern, 122 W. Liberty, Wednesday, November 16 at 8 pm. For more information call (734) 662-9291 or visit online at http://oldtownaa.com.
Ann Arbor's Skyline High School Theater presents Les Misérables: School Edition, beginning this weekend and running through November 20. Adapted for high school performers and produced by special arrangement with Music Theatre International (MTI), this musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's epic novel is a timeless story of human kindness, cruelty, revenge, love, and the survival of the human spirit.
“This is our most elaborate production to date,” says Anne-Marie Roberts, Skyline Department Chair for Theatre Arts. “We are so excited about staging this wonderful production that combines the drama of a pivotal time in history with an inspiring story of sacrifice, faith and love.”
The story centers on escaped convict Jean Valjean after he breaks parole and is pursued relentlessly by police inspector Javert. Valjean is soon forced to leave his past behind in order to keep his promise to raise the orphaned Cosette, but as Javert closes in and revolution kindles the Paris Rebellion of 1832, Valjean ends up sacrificing everything to protect those he loves.
“Community support of these events is critical,” adds Roberts. “It means so much to our students to have friends, families and neighbors attend these events, and support their long hours and the hard work they have put into creating a terrific production. And ticket sales are vital to ensuring we can continue to provide our students with great opportunities to showcase their incredible talent. We hope everyone will come and “hear the people sing’.”
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Show times are November 12, 18, 19 at 7:30 pm, and November 13 and 20 at 2:30 pm. Ticket prices are $25 for VIP seats (reserved seats in the front rows with a treat); $15 for adults; and $10 for students and seniors. Tickets are available online at http://www.skylinehstheatre.org/cart and will also be available for purchase at the performances. Skyline High School is located at 2552 N Maple Rd, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48103.
At just 21 years old, Rochester Hills-based singer-songwriter Olivia Millerschin is more prolific than many artists twice her age. She began 2016 with more than 200 concerts planned, and she says she had somewhere between 70 and 100 song ideas prepared when she went into the studio to record her excellent sophomore LP, Look Both Ways, which dropped in September.
Millerschin has expanded her local following to the national scale over the past several years, thanks to appearing as a quarter-finalist on America’s Got Talent, winning the 2014 John Lennon Songwriting Contest with her anti-romance ballad Screw Valentine’s Day, and touring internationally in support of major label artists like Teddy Geiger, Howie Day and Ryan Cabrera.
Look Both Ways follows Millerschin’s 2014 EP Over the Weather, and it’s her most accomplished record to date. Aided by guest vocalists Michael Grubbs (a.k.a. Wakey Wakey) and Sawyer Fredericks (The Voice), the 9-song set explores deeper and darker emotional territory than she has ever attempted. Musically, the record showcases not only the singer-songwriter’s keen ear for catchy hooks and clever lyrics, but also her skills as a composer. The arrangements are awash with everything from strings to synths, but every element of the production rests on Millerschin’s versatile voice and crafty melodies. Her previous accomplishments notwithstanding, Look Both Ways is sure to establish her as a major talent.
I called Millerschin, just after she wrapped up a photo shoot for Hour Detroit Magazine, to talk about her new record, her career ambitions, appearing on national television, and collaborating with high profile musicians.
Q: Having been on America’s Got Talent and having toured the country with more well known acts, in addition to performing locally, where do you feel most comfortable? Do you prefer larger audiences, or do you like playing more intimate venues?
A: I don't really know. I think a lot of people have their vision set out, and that's really great, but I've always been sort of open to everything. I've been really lucky that I've been opening for singer-songwriters who have more intimate venues that they play, and small listening rooms. I've been spoiled in that way, where I really love those. But every time I go to a big stadium concert, I really enjoy that. So I think I'm just open to making more music and reaching as many people as I can.
Q: You put college at bay to pursue music full-time. I'm curious about what your thought process was there, and if you had any fear or reluctance about making that decision.
A: I went to music school for a year and I really enjoyed it, but I found that I was learning more just studying on my own than I was in my classes. I kept having to turn down touring and other opportunities, so I decided to take the year off. I was really worried about it. I was hoping to make it a sustainable career, and I said, "I'll go back if it doesn't work out." You always worry about disappointing your family and your friends, but I took the year off and it's been nonstop ever since. So I'm very lucky that way.
Q: You also had to put off touring for a bit when you were on America's Got Talent. How did that make you feel?
A: That was weird because I love playing live more than anything. That's just where you get to connect with people in general, and you get to grow as an artist. America's Got Talent is a completely different experience than anything I've ever been a part of. It was good from the exposure standpoint, but it definitely held us back in the other aspects of our career.
Q: What did you take away from that experience?
A: It definitely made me see more of the business side of the industry, because I had always dealt with people who are just in it for the music. I was a teenager, so it opened my eyes to people who see it as a business and see you as a business, and it just made me more aware of everybody, I guess.
Q: You seem to work well under pressure, and you often put yourself in challenging situations. Where does that drive come from?
A: I feel like I was a lot better at it when I was younger, because I just like, "I'm gonna stand up on the stage and sing my songs for people. No big deal!" I didn't realize what I was actually doing. It depends on the situation. Sometimes I'm like, "I can handle this." It's just a matter of convincing yourself that you can do something, because the insecurities are what eats me alive. I've always wanted to one-up my previous accomplishment.
Q: Your new album has a very polished sound, but it also sounds strikingly intimate. How did you achieve that balance?
A: It kind of goes all over the map. I kind of write more about other people's experiences than my own. I just think it's easier to be subjective that way. I know a lot of artists write singles so they can pitch them for radio, and I've never thought about that. It's very smart as far as marketing, but my writing's always been whatever I'm seeing around me at the time. I had probably 70 to 100 songs ready for the record, and I showed them to the producers, and they liked those songs the best.
Q: Tell me about the process of recording this album. I know you did most of it in New York. How did that differ from the way you've recorded in the past?
A: My first record was self-produced in one of my friends’ studios. That was very hands-on. We were super young. I think I was 15 or 16 at the time. So we were just kind of experimenting. And the second one I didn't really have much of a hand in. This one I collaborated with two producers out of New York, and I got to really be a part of the whole process. It was my music, but I got to control where the sound went. We did one song in Detroit too, but I think it sewed the whole thing up when I was open to what they were saying, and when I could throw in, "Oh, let's keep this aspect a little more settled down."
Q: Do you have any plans to move to a bigger city to be closer to the music industry?
A: I'm living with my parents right now. I'm trying to save up to get a house or something around here. I thought about moving out to New York because when I was working on the record I was living out there, but it just doesn't make sense, and I just like Michigan so much.
Q: You have two well known guests on the album: Michael Grubbs and Sawyer Fredericks. How did you meet them and get them in the studio to sing with you?
A: Michael Grubbs is a really phenomenal songwriter. His band is Wakey Wakey. He was one of the two producers that produced the record. The song that I have him on I originally just wrote for a solo song, and he was singing some backups and I was like, "Do you want to be featured on this one?" He was really happy to do that.
Sawyer I met through a project I did for Mitch Albom. Sawyer and I are both on the soundtrack for one of Mitch's books [The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto], and we just kind of kept in touch lightly. I had this song that I really imagined a couple different voices on, but especially his. So I reached out to him, and I didn't really know what he would say, and he was like, "Absolutely!" He drove into New York, and we worked on it. I'm just really lucky [laughs].
Q: How did you come to work with Mitch Albom?
A: It came about when I was on America's Got Talent, or maybe a little before then. I was promoting a couple of different things, and I went on his radio show. I don't know how it happened, but he somehow decided that he liked me. He's been nothing but incredible. Ever since then, every time he's got a project or he's producing a movie, he'll call me and have me do something for it. He had this soundtrack for his book, and it was all these huge artists. They had Ingrid Michaelson on it, they had Tony Bennett on it. He asked me if I could just be, like, his local artist on the CD, so I did.
Q: Turning back to your new record, Long Weekend is the obvious single, but it also seems like the emotional center of the album. Where were you coming from when you wrote that?
A: That was my favorite one off the record, which is saying a lot [laughs]. Most of my music in the past has been upbeat, and part of that's just age. Of course songs I write when I'm 14 are going to be different from songs I write when I'm 20. I wrote that song not only about personal experience, but just about everybody. I think everybody has that one person that they think is going to be the one, and then they get away or something like that. That one was really tough to write. I wrote most of it in the studio, because I showed the guys the chorus of it. That was all I had written, and they were like, "You have to finish that one!" So I kind of rushed the process, but I really like that one.
Q: The record sounds very cohesive, both thematically and sonically. Was there any kind of overarching theme or concept you wanted to express?
A: I think the whole point of this record is perspective, and being able to find some good in something that's seemingly bad, or even just understanding and coming to terms with the bad. The older I've gotten, like anybody, I've experienced more not only heartbreak, but just real life experiences, and death and loss. So I felt like that stuff needed to be talked about, but it didn't necessarily need to be mourned. It needed to be discussed in a way that people could understand and relate to.
Q: What are your plans for the rest of the year, now that this record is out?
A: I'm doing some promotion for the record. I'm hoping to get it in movies and TV. I'm doing a ton of touring this year, so I haven't had much time to be writing a new record. But I'm ready to do that. After two months of living with this one, I'm like, "Oh, why not start a new one" [laughs].
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
Olivia Millerschin and her full band perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 2 at the Black Crystal Cafe, 3653 Santa Fe Trail. The show is private to registered guests. Tickets are $25, which includes complimentary hors d’oeuvres and beverages.
One of the first things that bestselling author Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Eating Animals) mentioned in his talk at Ann Arbor’s Rackham Auditorium on Friday night was that he’d always rather engage in conversation than do a straight-up reading.
The reasons why became evident soon after the evening’s host, author/U-M professor Doug Trevor, invited audience members – from the crowd of about 550 – to approach one of two microphones to ask Safran Foer a question. When the second fan at the mic said that his favorite author, Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), once claimed that the reader was his best friend, Safran Foer’s wit kicked into high gear.
“Now I’m jealous of Jonathan Franzen,” said Safran Foer. “Did you have to say that? … Couldn’t you just ask, ‘What’s your relationship with your reader?’ And his first name is Jonathan, too, which just made it that much worse.”
After Safran Foer asked for the fan’s first name (Justin), he said, “My favorite reader’s first name is also Justin.” When Justin responded by saying, “I greatly respect you, too, as a writer,” Safran Foer quipped, “Respect is for losers.”
Digressions weren’t likely to throw off Safran Foer’s readers, of course, who have come to appreciate the author’s sometimes funny, always insightful literary side-trips.
Though Safran Foer’s latest novel, Here I Am, focuses on a marriage in decay, a family in crisis, and an earthquake in the Middle East, it primarily draws its title from the biblical story of Abraham. For when Abraham called upon by God to make an unbearable sacrifice, he simply replies, “Here I am.”
Safran Foer - whose visit was sponsored by Literati Bookstore, and who was dressed casually in a gray plaid button down shirt and camel brown pants on Friday night - spoke at length about not feeling a need to focus on momentum and plot when writing novels. “Why is the plot so important?” said Safran Foer. “TV takes care of plot these days. Books don’t have a burden to entertain people. Books have a different burden, which is really hard to articulate, even though it’s so unmistakable when it happens. I think it has something to do with … the feeling of being known. If you really love a book, or really moved by a book, transported and changed by a book, the physicality of it disappears, and the characters and plot disappears, and language disappears, and you’re just left with this feeling of being known. … When I write, I want my books to be forceful expressions of my sensibility.”
Safran Foer’s work is often called “cerebral” and “ambitious,” but during Friday night’s talk, he insisted, “I don’t think unless I’m either writing or in conversation with somebody. I do not. I’m always curious, if other people are really different, or if they just haven’t thought of it that way before. I don’t have an active interior monologue. I don’t walk down the street by myself thinking things other than, ’It’s unseasonably cold,’ or, ‘I feel like Chinese food,’ or whatever. I do not have thoughts. They don’t self-generate. They’re always responsive. So that’s why I love conversations, and that’s why I love writing, because writing creates a context for thought.”
A father of two young boys, Safran Foer made non-literary headlines in recent years when he and author Nicole Krauss (The History of Love) separated and divorced; when an email correspondence between him and actress Natalie Portman – the only person who actually appeared in the story’s sexy accompanying photographs – was published in the New York Times’ T Magazine; and because he’s been dating actress Michelle Williams. But Friday evening’s talk focused solely on Safran Foer’s work and his newest book, which nonetheless deals with the challenge inherent in sustaining a marriage over time.
“People who are married and entertain the notion of divorce get divorced,” said Safran Foer. “Even if they don’t legally or technically get divorced, to entertain the notion is to break something, because marriage is the absence of divorce. That’s what it is. … Some people choose to do it, and that is what it means to get divorced. Some people will not allow that to be a choice. And that’s what makes it a marriage.”
Finally, Safran Foer talked about how changes in his life and perspective feed into his sense of his work.
“I always feel like I hear a little voice saying, ‘This is the last thing you’re ever going to write,’” said Safran Foer. “Not in the sense that I’m going to die, and not in the sense that I won’t write another book, but in very straightforward sense that, the person writing this book will not write another book. And proof of that is when I look at my old books. I did not write those books. Obviously I have more in common with the person that did than anybody else, but they are not reflections of my sensibility. They’re reflections of the sensibility of the person I used to be.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
Edward Gorey: lover of cats, ballet, Victorian/Edwardian era aesthetics, fur coats, pen-and-ink drawings, the color black and bats. Becoming a fan of Gorey has come in/out of fashion many times over the years, but since his death in 2000 he has only grown in the public consciousness. If you don’t know Edward Gorey’s work you surely know of the legions of other artists who were inspired by his work. From Tim Burton to Lemony Snicket, and goth culture to steampunk Gorey’s influence is felt far and wide. And from Neil Gaiman to Emily the Strange, and Lenore all things, dark, atmospheric and vaguely historical likely started with a love of Edward Gorey. Gorey’s black and white aesthetic lends itself to tattoo work, and often seeing a Gorey inspired tattoo will be for some their first glimpse into his macabre and hypnotizing world view. Many people also discover Gorey from the many New Yorker covers he did, as well as the animated credits for PBS's Mystery!
Unsettled: The Work of Edward Gorey @ the Cranbrook Art Museum, in Bloomfield Hills, MI opened September 18, 2016 and will be on display through March 12, 2017. The show is a perfect primer for entering the pen-and-ink world of Gorey’s illustrations. Gorey was a prolific illustrator who started working in the 1950’s for Doubleday publishers in NYC as their in house illustrator. It was here he honed his craft and illustrated classics like Dracula by Bram Stoker, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, and Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. Later, he became known for illustrating most of children’s author, John Bellairs’s books, starting in the 1970s and continuing in the 90s.
The exhibit is a collection on loan to the museum from a local collector and it serves as an excellent overview and entree to the work of Edward Gorey. Newbies and devoted fans will both enjoy the variety of work on display and the opportunity to ponder and look closely at his detailed drawings. The size of the works and his simple yet complex use of black pen and ink begs to be more closely inspected.
The majority of what is on display are the wide variety of books that Gorey illustrated for others as well as his own works such as: The Curious Sofa, The Beastly Baby The Sopping Thursday, and his most well known book The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Knowing that most of his original illustrations were the size that they were published makes his meticulous detail even more impressive.
The original prints, posters and ephemera are also a thrill to see. From the large framed poster print of the 1977 Broadway revival production of Dracula that he designed the sets for to the 3D replica of the stage set, that allows you to do your own version of the play, it’s a wonderful sampling. A bean bag filled Gorey bat with red rhinestone eyes, The Fantod Pack - Gorey’s version of a Tarot card as well as a few rare stuffed cats and pigs were also on display. The impossibly miniature and rare books on display are a joy to see - smaller than 2 inches in diameter with full, detailed illustrations.
Gorey’s humor is dark, clever and at times make you feel uncomfortable, but you may also find yourself smirking with knowing glee at the black humor and the dangerous places he fearlessly takes his audience.
Erin Helmrich is a librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and an avid collector of Edward Gorey's books and more. She has three tattoos of Gorey's work - all black of course.
Unsettled: The Work of Edward Gorey is on display through March 12, 2017. Museum admission is $10 for adults and the exhibit is included in this fee. More information about the exhibit and the museum can be found here.
Ann Arbor is blessed to have many veteran acoustic musicians grown from experiences in the old days via performing at the original Ark Coffeehouse on Hill Street and the late lamented Mr. Flood’s Party. They have lived to give us an overview of pre-technology years and simpler times.
Jay Stielstra, a native of Ludington, is the local founding father of this movement. Borne of the 1960s protest movement and the so-called folk music boom, he has written some one hundred fifty tunes about the life and times of legendary or fictional figures dealing with heartbreak and triumph, and the outdoors lifestyle that is much more rural routed and natural than the digitally produced country music of today. In his eighties, the guitarist and vocalist still has a lot to say based on his experience, his love of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and his longtime affection for Ann Arbor as not only the city of trees, but the beauty that still surrounds the outskirts of our city, untouched by strip mall mentality.
Stielstra’s magnum opus “North Country Opera,” as well as “Tittabawasee Jane,” “Old Man In Love,” “Escanaba,” “America, America,” and “Prodigals” are full-length theatrical musical dialogues that have stood the test of time. So too have songs like “Spikehorn,” about the Harrison, Michigan iconic backwoods coal miner and bear whisperer/preservationist/advocate John “Spikehorn” Meyer, a timely poem for the season titled “Autumn," the poignant “November Love” and “The Most I’m Missing,” a sly spinoff on “Farmers Daughter” titled “Baker’s Daughter,” and locale-driven tunes like the recently penned “Cut River Bridge” and “Manistee Waltz.”
Stielstra’s current ensemble consists of a cadre of admirers, followers, and talented players he has essentially mentored. They include guitarist/vocalist Chris Buhalis, mandolinist Jason Dennie, slap bass expert David Roof, harmonica master Peter “Madcat” Ruth, and rising star songwriter, guitarist and singer in her own right Judy Banker.
We spoke to the veteran musician and award winning playwright /actor from Manchester during a rehearsal session prior to his upcoming Ark show. The former Ann Arbor High/Pioneer and Huron High School football coach, public school teacher, and carpenter is also as humble as a Buffalo nickel, and responds with equally laid back demeanor about his status as an icon and the depiction of his sound as easy-going mosey down music.
Originally influenced by Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, Stielstra also mentions the music of the Washington First Baptist Church. “A lot of my tunes, the patterns and progressions come from those old gospel songs. I’m not a religious person at all, but my parents were during World War II. I loved those tunes and still do. My mother played piano and my four years younger brother Elden Stielstra still is a tremendous trumpet player in Grand Rapids who plays Dixieland and big band music. He was the musician in the family,” he chuckles, “and I was the jock."
“I started singing when my daughters were small,” he continued. “We didn’t have a piano then so I got a guitar and said I’ll see if I can play that and learned to strum a few chords. Then the folk music thing came on - The Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan and Pete Seger. Most all of those tunes were simple. In the seventies there were places to play in town - it just went from there. I was in the schools, then retired from coaching, became a carpenter and did year round what I did every summer.”
Jay got into theater, building sets at the old Tech Center and original Performance Network where the YMCA is now located. This led to the North Country Opera and his one man show Old Man In Love.
But an accident curtailed his performing career: “I stopped playing, had to relearn and retune the guitar, and eventually was fortunate to play for a long time with excellent musicians like mandolin player Kelly Schmidt, bassist Gary Munce, David Menefee, Eric Nyhuis, Judy and John Banker - we had a trio together for four years. We worked with Drew Howard out of Lansing a number of times; Jason whenever we can because he’s a full time musician; and now Madcat - we got together with him last year and will again this year. He’s great.”
As far as a blues component, he added, “Yes, at one time in my life, and I had my heart broken a lot of times. It has influenced a number of songs I have written. Why it happens or how it happens, I have not a clue.”
Amazingly Jay Stielstra has only two recordings to his credit, but a long standing legacy of live shows all over Michigan and other far flung places leads him back to his home and to us, hopefully for many more years to come.
Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
Jay Stielstra & Friends play The Ark, 316 S. Main Street, on Thursday, November 17 at 8 pm. For more information call (734) 761-1800 or (734) 761-1818, or visit online at http://theark.org.
Pioneer Theatre Guild's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a special production: First, PTG is one of a handful of American schools piloting the musical before its rights are released to theater groups across the country. Second, they may well be the first to perform it, with a few other venues performing the musical during winter and spring 2017. So it's not only an Ann Arbor premiere, it's also a sort of world premiere as well.
In preparing for the show, PTG has been fortunate to have the technical assistance of University of Michigan Professor Peggy McCracken, whose expertise in France during the Middle Ages has helped the students and directing staff understand this period and place as well as the motivation of their characters. Then, to even top this unexpected source of expertise, the production group has had the opportunity to Skype with the show's musical composer, Alan Menken, for additional pointers.
The show's haunting, beautiful music -- featuring a full choir that helps narrate the plot and give a historical feel to the theater -- showcases the timeless and powerful story of Quasimodo and his love for the beautiful Esmeralda against the backdrop of the historic Notre Dame Cathedral. Set in 1482, a time of mystery and havoc, the story follows Archdeacon Claude Frollo’s dark past and how he came to raise the disfigured child Quasimodo who is prohibited from ever leaving the Notre Dame environs. Others among the bustling city of Paris below the church bells are the aforementioned Esmeralda; the war soldier Phoebus; and the unexpectedly heroic Clopin Trouillefou.
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs Friday, November 4, 7:30 pm; Sunday, November 6, 2:00 pm; Friday November 11, 7:30 pm; Saturday, November 12, 7:30 pm, and Sunday, November 13, 2:00 pm. (Note: No show Saturday, November 5 because of U-M game across the street.) Tickets: $10 (Students, 65+ Seniors, PHS Staff); $15 (Adults). Reserved Seating Tickets will be available in advance at http://showtix4u.com, beginning on October 24, 2016. General Admission tickets will be available at the door starting one hour before each performance. All performances in Schreiber Auditorium.
One of the more intriguing scripts I’ve read recently is Hir, by Obie-winning playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac, which opened last fall at New York’s Playwrights Horizons. A black comedy about a truly, truly dysfunctional family, the play caught my attention with its high profile review in the New York Times, which called it “remarkable, audacious, uproarious … a daring combination of realism and madcap absurdity.”
Time Out called Hir a “dizzying theatrical Tilt-a-Whirl, in which sections of the play spin wildly on a steadily revolving base” and TheaterMania praised it as a “remarkable examination of gender and identity in contemporary America.”
Local audiences can experience this madcap new play when Kickshaw Theatre, Ann Arbor’s pop-up professional theatre company, brings Hir to Ann Arbor as a staged reading on Friday, November 11, at 7pm at Espresso Royale, 214 South Main Street. The previous week, on Friday, November 4 (same time and location), the company offers a reading of another recent play: Milvotchkee, Visconsin by Laura Jacqmin - a “comedy about a tragedy.”.
“These are not predictable plays, to be sure,” explains Kickshaw Theatre’s artistic director Lynn Lammers. “The staged readings will give audiences and artists a chance to get a taste of Kickshaw’s aesthetic. These two plays are wildly imaginative in their structure and style, which translates to stories that unfold in surprising ways.”
Milvotchkee, Visconsin follows the fascinating journey of a woman experiencing various stages of dementia. Directed by Sara Lipinski Chambers, the professional cast features Ruth Crawford, Hugh Maguire, John Seibert, Casaundra Freeman, Brenda Lane, and Aral Gribble.
In Hir, war veteran Isaac returns home to the suburbs to help take care of his ailing father, only to discover a household in revolt. Michael Lopetrone, Henry Schreibman, Emily Sutton-Smith, and Hugh Maguire are featured in this reading, directed by Lynn Lammers.
Kickshaw is Ann Arbor’s new non-profit professional theatre and operates under an agreement with the Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers. Kickshaw prides itself on exciting the curiosity of audiences and artists with plays that represent humanity in all its complexity and multitudes.
Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.
The staged reading of Milvotchkee, Visconsin will take place November 4, at 7 pm, Espresso Royale, 214, South Main Street; the staged reading of His will take place Friday, November 11, same time/location. There is no admission for either reading. For more information, visit http://kickshawtheatre.org.
Preview: Local Author Scott Savitt Discusses His New Book "Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China"
Former foreign correspondent Scott Savitt, who’s called Ann Arbor home for a little over a year now, is celebrating the release of his new book Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China with local appearances on Tuesday, November 1 at 7 pm at Nicola’s Books, and on Tuesday, November 29 at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore.
The book starts with Savitt’s harrowing account of spending 30 days on a hunger strike in a Chinese prison; and it later explains how the tragic death of his high school girlfriend set him on the path to spending years of his life in China. But the last section he needed to write to complete the manuscript – about Tiananmen Square, where Chinese political protesters were confronted by tanks and military force in 1989 – may have demanded the most courage.
“I had never revisited that, even in all the years since it happened,” said Savitt. “You have to move on somehow. And speaking as a journalist, the story continued. People were arrested, people went into exile – you had to keep covering the story. … So I wrote that section last. My publisher got to a point where he said, ‘Maybe you just can’t do it,’ and I said, ‘No, I can.’ So I finally cranked it out one sleepless night, and then the next morning, I read it to [U-M faculty member Dr. Rebecca Liu], and I started sobbing uncontrollably. It just made me realize how repressed that emotion was. It was still there. I don’t like calling things ‘syndromes’ but post-trauma – that’s real, and I still have it for sure. … It was something people are not built to see.”
But Savitt’s unique journey began when he was a freshman at Duke University. One Sunday night, he spoke by phone with his girlfriend, a high school senior, and 12 hours later, after suddenly becoming ill, she lay comatose in Yale University Hospital. She died one week later.
Shortly thereafter, Savitt was back on campus, leading a wilderness survival training program (Outward Bound), when he heard about Duke’s new student exchange program with China. The requirements were rigorous and included taking an intensive Chinese language course five days a week for one school year.
“I feel pretty certain that, if not for that untimely death, I wouldn’t have done something like that,” said Savitt. “I could have shown you China on a map, but otherwise, I didn’t have that mindset at all. I just felt like, ‘I want to get out of here.’”
So Savitt left for China in 1983. First, he was a student, but he then began working as a journalist – first for Asiaweek Magazine, then The Los Angeles Times, and United Press International. At age 25, he become the youngest accredited foreign correspondent in China.
“I’d never really thought about being a journalist for my career,” said Savitt. “ … But at that time, in China, there were very few ways you could stay there when you weren’t a student. You had to get a job visa. You could teach English, and I did that, too. But getting a job in the foreign news bureau was the best job you could get, and it would utilize my Chinese language skills and my writing ability. … It was really easy to sell articles then.”
After witnessing, and reporting on, the events surrounding Tiananmen Square in 1989, Savitt founded his own independent, English language newspaper in China, called Beijing Scene – which eventually led to his 30 day imprisonment in a small dark cell, in solitary confinement, and then deportation.
“The compliment I usually get from all sides [about the book] is that I’ve really tried to be fair about China, because having those experiences – it would be easy to become embittered,” said Savitt. “But I’m not. By the time those events happened, I was ready to leave, anyway.”
But Savitt’s sustained residence in China, fulfilling a number of different roles, lends him a far more comprehensive view of this huge, complicated country than is normally available to journalists.
“We rely on (journalists) to tell us what’s happening in places, but in many cases, they don’t exactly know,” said Savitt. “It’s not that easy. If I’d never started a business, there would be stuff about China I just wouldn’t know. … There are very few Americans or journalists who’ve seen the inside of a prison cell, or seen how business gets done – which involves paying bribes for pretty much everything.”
Given Savitt’s deep knowledge of, and vast experience with, China, you might wonder what we, and our political leaders, get wrong about the country.
“What I get the most is, ‘Oh, I thought China was going to pass us like we’re standing still – that China is the future, and we’re the past,’” said Savitt. “I would disabuse people of that notion. China’s used to highlighting our own shortcomings, but it’s never going to pass us on per capita income. … The general consensus is that China will grow old before it grows rich. In many areas, it’s still a third world country. Yes, the cities people have visited are modern, because they leapfrogged other parts of the country. But many places never had landline phones to begin with, so they went from no phone to cell phones, which saves a lot on infrastructure. … But the main thing I always say to people is, if they’re the future, how come thousands of Chinese people line up every day to move here, and no one is lining up to move there? Nobody who’s not from China stays there permanently. And when people are making a decision about where to raise children, the vast majority of people would rather be here.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
Scott Savitt discusses his book at two local appearances: Tuesday, November 1 at 7 pm at Nicola’s Books, and on Tuesday, November 29 at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore.
Local musician Isaac Levine is hosting a record release party for his first album at Arbor Vitae—a unique music-and-performance-oriented loft on State St. where Levine and five others reside—on November 4. The album, Nothing Shocking, is one he’s worked on for over a year, and he’s recruited a multitude of local performance artists, storytellers, and musicians to help him celebrate its release. For the first few hours of the event, attendees can immerse themselves in two different performance spaces: a storytelling stage and an improvisational group area, and beginning at 11:00pm, Levine will play his solo set. This free event is a great opportunity not only to hear Levine’s music in an up-close-and-personal venue, but also to get a taste of some of the more obscure, younger local talent in the city.
The diversity in performances at the event is impressive. The Shade Brigade, a local sit-down comedy group comprised of Demario Longmire and Thomas Kratofil, will dialogue on child birth and more. Kit E. Parks will read samples of her work, complete with tongue twisters. Of Parks, Levine says, “She manages to approach the tragedy and comedy of her life in a way that shares the joy of living.” Evicholas Nolpe will read stories about “moseying around,” while Katie Brown and Noor Us-Sabah will perform their piece “TOYS.”
Levine’s music is a little bit early Andrew Bird-like, trippy and shadowy without being overly synthetic. He juxtaposes his slow “How Not to Break Someone” song with a video of real worms wrestling gummy worms, the shots moving in and out of pixilation. This writer hopes that he will find a way to play the video behind him when he performs at Arbor Vitae, if only so that the crowd there can enjoy the unsettlingly disgusting experience of seeing live worms wrestle candy ones.
Arbor Vitae in and of itself is a reason to attend the event on Friday. For over 50 years, the loft space has housed an eclectic group of students and performers. Concerts, art show openings, and other performances are held there regularly. Created by world traveler Richard Ahern in the 1960s, the loft was originally intended to be an architects’ studio, but the offices inside gradually got converted into bedrooms and artists and musicians began calling Arbor Vitae home during the Peace Movements of the 60s and 70s. Now, six people always live in the loft, navigating their lives around instruments, art pieces, and whatever past residents have left behind. These have included, at various points in time, an impeccably organized collection of VHS tapes, a piano, and a drawing that reads simply “Hella Taco.”
Overall, Friday’s event offers a cool (and free!) chance to check out what the young people of Ann Arbor are up to these days, most notably musician and host Levine, whose passionate enthusiasm for his music and the talents of others will surely make the evening a fun one.
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Isaac Levine hosts a release party for his record, Nothing Shocking, from 9pm-12am on Friday, November 4 at Arbor Vitae, 336 ½ S. State St. No cover.