It was a sunny afternoon in late April, and as I sat across from Jeff Daniels in the room above his Chelsea recording studio, the sounds of a band practicing below drifted up the stairs, permeating the room with the intoxicating sounds of a particularly tight jam session. (Perhaps it was son Ben's band?)
Daniels is a busy man, but on this day he looked relaxed. He just wrapped-up a series of three sold-out, word-of-mouth concerts at the Chelsea Alehouse, each one drawing a bigger crowd than the last. For loyal patrons of the popular Chelsea watering hole, it was an irresistible opportunity to experience another side of a renowned local talent in a cozy, intimate setting.
For those unfamiliar with the musical side of Daniels' career, there's a distinctive streak of Americana to it -- or as he put in on that crowded Saturday night, "Whatever it is that I do up here." A self-taught musician with a playful sense of humor on stage, the actor-cum-musician fuses folk, blues, and country with a talent for telling particularly vivid, often hilarious, tales.
Though his formidable guitar skills give him the distinction of being a musician, his well-honed talent for holding an audience rapt reveals him to be -- as his other endeavors on stage and screen suggest -- a natural-born storyteller.
As is the case with his play and film Escanaba in da Moonlight, there's an unmistakable aspect of cultural preservation to Daniels' music. Songs like "Big Bay Shuffle" and "Michigan, My Michigan" display a deep-rooted desire share his personal experiences with the world at large.
Meanwhile, his distinctive fingerpicking style -- perfected with years of practice and occasional lessons from talented friends like Keb' Mo' -- can range from delicate and unobtrusive in his more introspective songs, to outright rollicking when he decides the room could use a bit more energy.
Though focused intently on editing a video when I first arrived, Daniels was quick to change gears once we sat on opposite ends of his fluffy studio couch. With the songs from the Saturday night show still ringing in my head, I was particularly eager to learn what inspires the esteemed actor as a musician and discover his secrets for engaging an audience when there's no safety net or script to follow.
U-M professor Henry (“Hank”) Greenspan likes to talk -- and thank goodness for that.
Greenspan has spent 40 years interviewing (and re-interviewing) Holocaust survivors, and from that trove of oral histories he compiled a radio-play-turned-one-man-show called Remnants, which he’ll perform on Monday, May 8, at the downtown library. He put together the radio play in the early '90s, using material he first started collecting for his dissertation in the 1970s.
“The first thing I did was call rabbis who had congregations in the Southeast Michigan and Toledo area,” said Greenspan, who noted that doing survivor interviews was an uncommon practice at that time. “They’d tell people, ‘This guy from U of M wants to interview survivors.’ So initially I’d used the rabbis as matchmakers, but that quickly became unnecessary because things snowballed. People would say to me, in the middle of an interview, ‘You have to talk to my friend Zoli.’ … So I’d make an appointment to talk with Zoli, and one person led to another.”
“I was hoping for some level of success, but what actually happened was off the scale,” said Paula Hawkins, author of the international bestseller The Girl on the Train. “It was extraordinary.”
Hoping for equivalent success with her second mystery novel, Into the Water, Hawkins is heading out on tour to promote it, including a stop at Nicola’s Books on May 17. (AADL and Nicola's will co-host a The Girl on the Train discussion on May 8 at 7 pm at the library's Westgate branch.)
The 16th annual Ann Arbor Jewish Film Festival opens Sunday, May 7, and runs through Thursday, May 11. Sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor, planning for the five-day festival began in November 2016.
“We have a committee of 23 individuals who help decide on the films,” said Karen Freedland, the JCC’s cultural arts director and festival coordinator. “We start with a list of over 95 titles and whittle it down to 40 films we think look the strongest. From there we try to get from the distributors as many of those 40 films to screen, and we narrow it down to the 13 we have chosen.”
Save for one, the films in this year’s festival are very recent, most from 2016. "We try to get the most current releases available and that sets us apart from some other festivals who will show films that we had shown the year before," Freedland said. "We are lucky that we work with Brian Hunter from the Michigan Theater. He helps us source out some of the latest films that are geared for a Jewish film festival.”
Bertolt Brecht’s canonical 1944 text The Caucasian Chalk Circle is the kind of play that many of us read in a college course but rarely see produced.
So it’s worth noting that locals will have the opportunity to see Circle on the stage when Ellipsis Theatre Company presents it at the Yellow Barn from May 4-21.
“Ellipsis is always very interested in the act of storytelling … so the fact that it’s so explicit in this play was appealing to us,” said Ellipsis co-founder Joanna Hastings, who’s both playing a role in and co-directing Circle with Scott Screws. “Plus, (Circle’s) so flexible. You can do it in all sorts of ways.”
As a member of pianist Vijay Iyer’s trio -- one of the most acclaimed groups in modern jazz -- bassist Stephan Crump gets to play with a great drummer, Marcus Gilmore, all the time. But for his own music, the New York City-based Crump avoided drummers for more than 10 years.
“I love playing with great drummers -- only great drummers,” laughed Crump. But, he said, “with the acoustic bass, there are a lot of expressive areas of the sonic range of the instrument that get covered up really quickly in more traditional lineups, particularly with drums or piano.”
It wasn’t until Crump formed his Rhombal quartet in 2015, which released its self-titled debut last year, that the bassist hooked up with a drummer -- the remarkable Tyshawn Sorey, another frequent Iyer collaborator -- for his own jams. Before that, Crump released a series of duo albums, including two with guitarist Mary Halvorson as Secret Keeper and one each with saxophonist Steve Lehman and pianist James Carney. He also released the trio record Planktonic Finales with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Cory Smythe, and three with Rosetta Trio, featuring Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar and Jamie Fox on electric, which makes beautiful chamber jazz with touches of folk and blues. (Rosetta Trio plays Kerrytown Concert House on Thursday, May 4.)
But rather amazingly, Walter heard Eno's pioneering music only recently.
"That is true. So, I listened to a couple of his albums, one of which I liked a lot, Discreet Music," Walter said. "For me, it pointed to the beginnings of Boards of Canada, especially that opening number on Music Has the Right to Children. It also sounded like something I might come up with and I realized that my exploration into the world of ambient electronic music probably would have been very different had I heard this record at an earlier date. Seems like he makes amazing music."
So does Walter, whether he's playing trumpet with the avant-Afro-funk collective Nomo, sitting in with Ann Arbor jazz bands, or wielding the EVI, a wind-controlled synthesizer. His first recording featuring the instrument was 2009's Music for Science Film Strips EP; 2017's Unseen Forces is his sixth. They're all gorgeous, too, featuring languid melody lines hovering over clouds of harmony.
Walter's EVI music is improvised and the songs are selections from those free recordings, which are edited and treated in the studio. "I like to use the unique structure of the instrument to explore how a melody can be created using intuition," Walter said, "which is to say that most of the time I really have no idea what I'm doing."
Well, it sure sounds like he knows what he's doing and we wanted to find out more, so we talked to Walter about improvisation, the influence of trumpeter Louis Smith, and all things EVI.
Libraries, schools, and bookstores have celebrated Children’s Book Week for almost 100 years. The weeklong celebration began with a librarian’s belief that literacy and children’s books can be saviors for kids. While the things we read and the way we read have changed over the years, books remain life-changers for kids. Several local events will honor Children’s Book Week, which takes place May 1-7.
“It is so important for children to have a book in their hand and to read it, sleep with it, carry it around, have it with them," said Lynn Pellerito Riehl, events manager for Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor. "Many of us still harken back to the childhood books we read that fostered our love for reading and opened our minds to different ideas."
What does having an amazing university, a plethora of fantastic local independent bookstores, and a pretty slam-bang public library system (if we do say so ourselves) bring to a town?
Authors. Lots and lots of authors.
In fact, so many authors pass through the area that sometimes it can be hard to keep track of who is speaking and when and where. To help guide you, Pulp curated a highlights list of May 2017 author events.
Every article about Musica Nuda talks about how vocalist Petra Magoni and double bassist Ferruccio Spinetti formed their unique duo in 2003. It was all because a guitarist Magoni was supposed to play a concert with cancelled at the last minute, so she asked Spinetti to fill in -- and they’ve been making music ever since.
This guitar player is never named, but he haunts every article like a ghost.
“His name is Paolo Fazzi. He’s still a guitarist. He has another job,” Magoni laughed. “No, we never played together -- never, ever. But he’s very funny because each time he reads the story in an interview he says, in a way, he’s happy because me and Ferruccio would have never played together otherwise.”
Fazzi’s loss was Spinetti’s eternal gain: Magoni has an amazing voice that fits in any setting, from jazz to French pop to disco -- all of which are in Musica Nuda’s vast repertoire. The duo has released 11 wide-ranging albums, including 2017’s Leggera, but on stage is where Musica Nuda shows its chops and charm. (See the Tuscany, Italy-based group at Kerrytown Concert House on April 29.)