Friday Five: James P. Johnson & U-M Opera Theatre, Couch, Dagoretti Records compilation, Same Eyes, Darrin James
Friday Five highlights music by Washtenaw County-associated artists and labels.
This week features a James P. Johnson blues-opera recording by the University of Michigan Opera Theatre, noise rock by Couch, a Dagoretti Records comp of Kenyan music, synth-pop by Same Eyes, and Americana by Darrin James.
James P. Johnson, De Organizer / The Dreamy Kid (excerpts)
University of Michigan music professor James Dapogny discovered the lost musical portion of James P. Johnson's blues opera De Organizer—with lyrics by Langston Hughes—in 1997 and later told the New York Times, “I went weak in the knees" when he realized what he found. The only performance of this piece by Johnson—a stride pianist who, along with Jelly Roll Morton, helped move ragtime into jazz—was on May 31, 1940, at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Dapogny stumbled across the score when he was perusing papers donated to U-M by Eva Jessye, a choral director whose credits include the original staging of Porgy and Bess and the lone performance of De Organizer.
Dapogny was finally able to stage De Organizer in December 2006, both in Detroit and in Ann Arbor, and it's the latter performance that can be heard on this new Naxos Records release, which is fleshed out with excerpts from another Johnson opera, The Dreamy Kid, based on the Eugene O’Neill play. Unfortunately, Dapogny passed away from colon cancer in 2019 at the age of 78, but without his scholarship and passion, this recording would have never been made.
Here's a collection of articles about Dapogny's resurrection of De Organizer and his life as a scholar of Johnson and Morton:
➥ "Missing’ one-act opera found in CAAS holdings" [The University Record, May 22, 2000]
➥ "An opera lost … and found" [The University Record, November 18, 2002]
➥ "From Oblivion to Ovation: An Opera Right Out of the Harlem Renaissance" [The New York Times, December 28, 2002]
➥ "James Dapogny, Who Resurrected Jazz of the Past, Dies at 78" [The New York Times, March 19, 2019]
➥ "James Dapogny, Not Forgotten" [Jazz Lives, September 3, 2020]
➥ "Jazz and Classical Met in the 1940s, and We’re Still Catching Up" [The New York Times, September 8, 2023]
➥ "First recording of lost James P. Johnson blues opera ‘De Organizer,’ libretto by Langston Hughes" [The University Record, September 7, 2023]
Between 1992 and 1995, Velocity Hopkins (Dr. Peter Larson) and Marlon Magas (James Magas) created a helluva racket as Couch. Despite a band name that evokes relaxation, Couch sounded like The Birthday Party if Nick Cave drove the band van into the side of a mountain like a character from Mad Max: Fury Road. It's noise rock, no wave, and broken blues packed into a lit stick of dynamite—and now you can hear all of Couch's explosions on the group's Bandcamp page.
Various artists, Kambanane: Nyatiti Music From Kenya 1970-1985
When Dr. Pete isn't reissuing records from his noise-rock daze, he's reissuing sounds from Kenya along with many new recordings of out-jazz, synth explorations, and worldly music on his Dagoretti label. Kambanane collects nyatiti-based singles that soundtracked Nairobi between 1970-1985. The instrument is a plucked lute associated with the Luo people of Western Kenya, and Larson has become a terrific player himself in addition to big upping all the nyatiti musicians who inspired him.
Same Eyes, "Never Enough"
The 2023 monthly singles series from Ann Arbor synth-poppers Same Eyes continues apace. Or maybe they're behind a bit now; honestly, I've lost track. The group's Bandcamp page is only updated through the June release, and "Never Enough" came out in late August. I assume all these great songs will be collected into an album one day, but go listen to them one by one for now on Spotify.
Darrin James, "When You're With Me"
Ann Arbor's Darrin James has trickled out a couple of his singles from his forthcoming full-length album, beginning with June's "Born for One Love" and continuing with "When You're With Me." Unlike his New Orleans funk / Afrobeat band Disaster Relief, the music released under James' name is pure twangy Americana.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.