Common Cause: The long-running experimental music event Edgefest fosters a sense community

MUSIC PREVIEW

Edgefest

The 2019 Edgefest (Oct. 16-19) has been on my calendar for months and I've been meaning to write a preview of this Ann Arbor experimental-music institution for weeks.

This year's theme, "OUT West," focuses on "the rich historical contributions of West Coast artists in the development of avant jazz improvisation and new music." That quote is from the website of Kerrytown Concert House, which is Edgefest's hub, even if all the October 17 concerts are at the sparkling Blue LLama Jazz Club and the large-ensemble finale on October 19 is at Bethlehem United Church of Christ. You can't have Edgefest without the Concert House.

But this and that happened, time got away from me, and I never got around to writing the preview.

Thankfully, longtime music writer and Edgefest musician Piotr Michalowski wrote the festival's program, which is an excellent primer on the dozens of musicians and various ensembles performing at this year's edition. You'll find Michalowski's write-up below, but first, I want to share a story about one specific event at Edgefest -- and why I think it defines the festival as a whole.

Moon Hooch explores consciousness with a knockout combo of jazz and dance music

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Moon Hooch

Moon Hooch's music has all the manic energy of a city. The Brooklyn group's drums-sax-sax lineup rumbles like the New York City subway system, where the trio spent many hours busking when it formed in 2010. The way the band combines dance beats and avant-garde jazz is akin to a metropolis' relentless forward rhythm that's being intersected by speeding cabs running red lights.

But the nervous energy Moon Hooch exudes in its simultaneously catchy and edgy music is in direct opposition to the way drummer James Muschler and saxophonists Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen live their lives off the stage.

Or even in their touring van.

Moon Hooch's members are avid meditators and they use this practice to stay mentally and physically fit during arduous tours across the U.S.

"Yeah, it’s not easy," McGowen said of touring. "Meditation, Qigong, and breathing exercises are what keeps me going. I try to transmute stress through present moment awareness. I don’t succeed always, but when I am enough present I can stay calm even if the situation is challenging. We usually get together every morning, sit in a circle, breath together and share how we feel. We aren’t doing that every day, but whenever we do it, it really uplifts the group dynamic."

Long-running folk duo Annie and Rod Capps coalesced with a great band for its new album, "When They Fall"

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Rob and Annie Capps

Photo by Jennifer Prouty.

For fans of heartfelt and well-played acoustic roots music, a new album from Ann Arbor duo Annie and Rod Capps is always a treat. But with their latest, When They Fall, something’s a little different.

The songwriting, always smart and heartfelt, has become richer. The musicianship -- fleshed out on the record by Jason Dennie (mandolin and mandola), Dan Ozzie Andrews (bass), and Michael Shimmin (drums and percussion) -- is also better than ever. And the duo is making its most concentrated publicity push. It all feels like something of a step forward for a project that was already a vital and important part of the local music scene.

When They Fall goes from one highlight to the next, but among the most memorable tracks are “Poor Old Me,” showing a great sense of humor with the band sounding particularly lively; the touching “Happy New Year” and “Walking Through” (the latter featuring memorable lines like “I’m praying for the strength to grieve”); and “Build that Fire,” a warm and optimistic conclusion to a truly great recording.

Annie Capps answered a few questions recently via email.

Double Date in Kerrytown: William Bolcom, Joan Morris, Amy Burton, and John Musto paired up for cabaret

MUSIC REVIEW

Bolcom & Morris with Burton & Musto

Top: Joan Morris and William Bolcom. Bottom: Amy Burton and John Musto.

A crowd of concert-goers buzzed with excitement last Sunday as they packed into the seats of Kerrytown Concert House, excited for an afternoon of music with a cabaret duo that over the years has emerged as a community favorite. 

Pianist William Bolcom and mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, a husband and wife musical team, are among the leading performers of cabaret music active today, as well as having been members of the Ann Arbor community for over four decades. Both former faculty at the University’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, they have been concertizing together for over 40 years, and even performed at the very first concert hosted by Kerrytown Concert House some 35 years ago. The duo was joined on the stage Sunday afternoon by another musical couple, soprano Amy Burton and pianist John Musto, for a light-hearted performance billed as “Double Date.”

Milestones: The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Celebrates its 50th Anniversary at Rackham

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Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Clockwise from the upper left: David Finckel by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco; Gloria Chien by Tristan Cook; Kristin Lee and David Shifrin by Tristan Cook; Matthew Lipman by Tristan Cook.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) is celebrating its 50th anniversary, a milestone. So, co-artistic director and cellist David Finckel says it was fitting that CMS begins this season with milestones in the art of chamber music. “We identified pieces of music that have somehow influenced the way chamber music evolved,” he says.

The program CMS will bring to Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor on October 11 includes four of these works: Harry Burleigh’s Southland Sketches (1916), Antonin Dvořák’s Quintet for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Cello in E-flat Major, Op. 97 (1893), Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1941), and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944), originally called Ballet for Martha (Graham). 

“The story of Dvořák in America is colorful and entertaining,” says Finckel.

Turns out, it is Burleigh’s story, too. 

Wires and Waves: Synthesizer pioneer Suzanne Ciani comes to Ann Arbor

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Suzanne Ciani

You can debate who the best guitarist is all day and still not carve out a consensus. Braaap all you want about who's the finest trumpeter and the winner's horn will never sound. Argue about pianists and you'll be talking in circles about tickling the ivories even though a title-holder will never be crowned.

But the undisputed master of the Buchla synthesizer is Suzanne Ciani.

Might as well cue Jadakiss' "The Champ Is Here."

It's Ciani by knockout. 

The 73-year-old champ is bringing her Buchla to Ann Arbor for a master class (2 pm) and a performance (8 pm) on Saturday, October 5 as part of the Resonance festival, an annual one-day event that celebrates women and non-binary artists in music technology, sponsored by the Performing Arts Technology department at the University of Michigan. Ciani will work in Hankinson Rehearsal Hall -- limited seating, get there early because both events are free -- and perform her Buchla compositions in quadrophonic sound with accompanying visuals.

If you're unfamiliar with Ciani, here's a crash course in her music and the synthesizer she mastered.

Seeing Clearly: Singer-songwriter May Erlewine's new album, "Second Sight," is filled with political fire

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Mae Erlewine by Michael Poehlman

Photo by Michael Poehlman.

The much-loved singer-songwriter May Erlewine begins a fall tour this week in support of her powerful and poignant new album, Second Sight, and one of the first shows she has scheduled is on Friday, October 4 at The Ark

Interviewed by phone last week for Pulp, the Michigan native was already psyched about coming back to Ann Arbor's premier venue for acoustic music. "Oh my gosh, The Ark is my favorite!" Erlewine said. "It feels the most like a homecoming show and I did spend time living in Ann Arbor a lot of my life so there’s truth to that. Every time I play there I put so much intention and thought into it because it’s a big deal to me. It’s just one of the best venues in the whole country."

Erlewine will be bringing a five-piece band and two backup singers to The Ark, with one set devoted to the entire Second Sight album and another set to other songs. "It’s a reflective time but we’re also infusing it with a lot of catharsis and levity," said Erlewine. "I want people to reengage and to feel connected to their home and their community and their heart."

May Erlewine's music truly has a special way of touching the listener's heart and soul with its message of hope and unity, and positivity is something we can never get enough of these days.

Sonic Cinema: Hydropark's "Circuit 2" features 18 songs to score your imaginary movie

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Hydropark at the Blind Pig, Fuzzfest 2018

Hydropark at Fuzzfest 2018 at The Blind Pig. Photo by Christopher Porter.

Hydropark's second album, Circuit 2, works like one of those vintage British or Italian library-music albums that feature short songs written to set moods in films and TV shows -- tunes with titles like "Creepy Street," "Misty Canyon," and "Blue Veils and Golden Sands."

Those compositions weren't concerned with key-changing bridges or clean denouements. They parachuted people into the middle of a groove and then extracted them before the mood was exhausted.

"The majority of both our [self-titled] first album and Circuit 2 is loosely structured jams, first takes, experiments, or songs we liked but weren't stylistically consistent with each other," said Hydropark guitarist Fred Thomas, who is joined in the band by drummer Chad Pratt, keyboardist Chuck Sipperley, and bassist Jason Lymangrover. "We looked to J Dilla's beat tapes as inspiration for this record. Collections of fragments and the best parts taken from longer recordings that switch to the next song at the first signs of boredom or disinterest."

Retired U-M professor Bruce Conforth co-authored the definitive biography of blues legend Robert Johnson

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Bruce Conforth and his book Up Jumped the Devil

Decades of painstaking research and meticulous attention to detail have led to the 2019 book Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, which aims to rewrite and correct the story about the legendary bluesman. Co-authored by retired U-M professor Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, this book entertains with facts, cut through myths, and lets readers learn about a man who has for too long been reduced to a single (and impossible) anecdote about trading his soul to the devil down at the crossroads in order to play the blues.

“When Columbia released its Thesaurus of Classic Jazz [in 1959], it was the first chance for most country-blues artists to have their recordings on a major label," Conforth says. "Most people didn’t even know that these folks existed. And on this record was Robert Johnson. … The liner notes said that he was the greatest blues musician there ever was, but we had nothing to compare him to and didn’t know anything about him. Almost immediately this mystique formed around Johnson while at the same time people were saying, ‘Oh, we’ll never know anything about him.’”

Conforth, who grew up in and around New York City during the 1960s folk revival, took that as a challenge.

Jazz From Ann Arbor by Mark Stryker

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Bassist Robert Hurst - Jazz From Ann Arbor

Bassist and U-M professor Robert Hurst makes the case for being the cover star of a future book.

Mark Stryker will talk about his new book "Jazz From Detroit" at AADL's downtown location on Thursday, September 19, at 6:30 pm. We asked him to recommend some jazz from Tree Town.

Ann Arbor makes a number of cameo appearances in my book Jazz From Detroit. Several recordings highlighted in the text were taped live in Ann Arbor, and a number of the musicians featured in the book have ties to the University of Michigan. (The book itself was published by U-M Press.) Here’s a playlist that takes its inspiration from the Detroit-Ann Arbor jazz connection.