Wynton Marsalis' annual Ann Arbor appearance is always full of good cheer

MUSIC REVIEW

Wynton Marsalis by Frank Stewart

Wynton Marsalis by Frank Stewart

On November 28, veteran jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis brought the warm winter spirit to Ann Arbor's Hill Auditorium, courtesy of UMS. Marsalis came along with the delightful Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and they played tunes of the season. It was the opening night for their Big Band Holidays Tour and the house was full. 

The music at Hill took on several moods, from contemplative to stirring, with Marsalis introducing each song with commentary, then mostly guiding the band from the back row while also playing with them there. The opener, "Jingle Bells," set the tone for the night and Marsalis played a remarkable solo, his fingers moving quickly as he showcased the instrument's upper range. 

Audra McDonald demonstrated the power of a good song at Hill Auditorium 

MUSIC REVIEW

Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald took her audience on a fascinating tour of American musical theater history Saturday at Hill Auditorium.

She incorporated songs she’s performed in stage productions, some classics from the genre, and some lesser-known gems, both old and new. It all worked together to make a compelling case for the enduring power of musical theater songs.

McDonald is one of our truly great current stage stars. She knows exactly how to connect with an audience on a personal level, and Saturday’s performance, sponsored by the University Musical Society, displayed her extraordinary abilities as a singer. 

Her tone, range, and phrasing are all impressive, but equally effective is the way she inhabits each song, not just singing it but acting it as well. It makes sense, of course, given her accomplishments as an actor as well as a singer -- six Tony Awards, for starters. 

Musique Non-Stop: The 2018 Ann Arbor Synth Expo in pictures

MUSIC REVIEW

Photo by Josh Barnhart

Last weekend the Ann Arbor Synth Expo (formerly Mini MoogFest) returned to the basement of the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch for an afternoon of hands-on music-making and knob-twisting fun.

Approximately 350 patrons over the course of four hours had a chance to play with various synthesizers in the AADL Music Tools collection as well as talk to instrument and effects creators such as Vintage King, Zeppelin Design Labs, and North Coast Modular Collective. The day also featured performances and talks by Robot Rickshaw, Alex Taam (Mogi Grumbles) and Anıl Çamcı, and companies such as Sweetwater, ReverbPittsburgh Modular, Perfect Circuit, SynthCube, Electro-Faustus, Arrick Robotics, and more provided branded T-shirts, stickers, pens, screwdrivers, and more to the visitors. 

Below is a collection of photos from the 2018 Ann Arbor Synth Expo by AADL staffers Josh Barnhart and Christopher Porter.

"Ocean" View: Jazz bassist Rob Crozier discusses his new album

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Rob Crozier Jazz Ensemble

Bassist Rob Crozier, keyboardist Keaton Royer, percussionist Aron Kaufman, saxophonist  Rafael Statin, and drummer Rob Avsharian explore the natural world through music on the ensemble's new CD.

The Rob Crozier Jazz Ensemble’s new recording, Ocean Blue, explores the theme of nature in general -- and water in particular -- in a variety of settings and styles. The nine original songs benefit from the support of a rock-solid band: primarily bassist Crozier on bass, Rafael Statin on horns, Keaton Royer on keyboards, Rob Avsharian on drums, and Aron Kaufman on percussion.

The follow-up to last year’s Tall Trees, the new album features Crozier’s compositions and the band’s skilled playing, which make for a powerful combination. The slightly mysterious quality of “Autumn Moon” does indeed evoke its namesake and would make a good soundtrack for Halloween. “Ocean Blue” is built around a sweet and somehow sad flute line courtesy of guest artist Kelly McDermott, Crozier’s wife. “Water Snakes” gives Crozier the chance to show his chops on, of all things, a didgeridoo. 

While most of Ocean Blue is instrumental, the opening and closing tracks do feature vocals. On “Water,” Terry Jackson recites a poem that inspired the music. “Into the Gloaming” features a funky beat, atmospheric charming vocals from Emma McDermott, and a compelling bass solo.

On two occasions, the album departs from its nature theme. “Keaton’s Blues” sounds like it belongs in a smoky New York piano bar in the 1940s, highlighted by Royer’s swinging and shuffling piano. Meanwhile, “R Is For Richko,” with its sharp drumming and inventive sax solo, might have fit comfortably in that same bar a couple decades later.

Crozier took the time to answer a few questions about the new album in advance of a show on Friday, Nov. 16, at Kerrytown Concert House.

Black Thought: Ann Arbor hip-hop artist Jamall Bufford addresses life's daily opera on new LP

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Jamall Bufford

Jamall Bufford is one of the most influential hip-hop artists from Ann Arbor. He has influenced many MCs in town with his quick wit, lyrical wordplay, and open-minded stances on social issues.

Previously known as Buff1, he rhymed with the hip-hop collective Athletic Mic League and later helped start the performing arts group The Black Opera. For those unfamiliar with this hometown gem, The Black Opera calls itself "rap’s first performing arts group" and the duo dress as different characters each song during their live shows. Bufford is also a solo artist and his latest album, Time In Between Thoughts, continues in pushing past the typical boundaries in usual hip-hop subject matter by exploring themes like colorism and the dangers of social media.

Bufford, who has performed with Eminem and Mos Def, performs at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch on Friday, November 16, at 7 pm along with fellow A2 hip-hop artist DaG. We talked to Bufford about how Ann Arbor has influenced him as an MC, whether he’s an activist, and more.

The Danish String Quartet offers a striking scope of expressions amid longtime friendships

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

The Danish String Quartet

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen (violin), Asbjørn Nørgaard (viola), Frederik Øland (violin), Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin (cello) are the Danish String Quartet. Photo by Caroline Bittencourt

When violinists Frederik Øland, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, and violist Asbjørn Nørgaard were 11 and 12, they met at a summer music camp, never guessing they would grow up to be part of what The New York Times called “an exceptional quartet.” 

“I grew up nearby, and I just signed up because it was a chance to play in a big symphony orchestra, something that I had never really tried," says Nørgaard, now of the Danish String Quartet, which performs at Rackham Auditorium on November 15. "And then I met Rune and Frederik. Honestly, the friendship was more founded on the soccer field than in rehearsal rooms. The vibe of Danish music summer camps is quite loose, more focusing on the love that an amateur can have for music than working hard to build a career in music. I think this priority of values has always been quite important to us, and we are at times still quite shocked when we encounter the steely ambition that also is a part of the classical music world.” 

Home Sweet Second Home: They Might Be Giants at the Michigan Theater

MUSIC REVIEW

They Might Be Giants

The offbeat, thoughtful, melodic, and often hilarious music of They Might Be Giants clearly suits a town like Ann Arbor, and the band seemed to treat Wednesday’s show as a bit of a homecoming.

“We are super excited to be back at the beautiful Michigan Theater, our home away from home here in Ann Arbor,” co-leader John Flansburgh said early in the show. “I’m a little disappointed that like nine-tenths of the used bookstores have closed.” After wondering aloud about a possible Wikipedia edit and noting someone in the audience would probably make the change before the night was out, he added, “I have a sneaking suspicion we are performing for some of the highest-SAT-scoring individuals among our fan base.”

The flattery was hardly necessary, as the adoring crowd was fully engaged for every note of the nearly three-hour show. Flansburgh and co-leader John Linnell have always made a great partnership, with complementary personalities and voices that blend in a perfectly geeky harmony.

Where It Starts: A conversation with Miles Okazaki about Thelonious Monk

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Miles Okazaki by John Rogers

Miles Okazaki by John Roberts

Miles Okazaki is among the greatest living improvisers on the guitar. An assistant professor of jazz guitar at the University of Michigan, he has his own deep and well-conceived ideas about rhythm, harmony, and melody. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Okazaki to discuss his latest release, a massive six-volume solo-guitar project entitled Work in which he recorded every song by Thelonious Monk -- 70 in total -- with no effects, overdubs, key or time changes.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Monk in American music. His approach to harmony, melody, and especially rhythm has influenced virtually every musician who has followed him. It was a privilege to be able to get into the weeds with Okazaki on the topic of Monk’s music.

Our conversation is below, with some edits for flow.

Out of Chicago: Roscoe Mitchell and the Art Ensemble anchor the 22nd Edgefest

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Roscoe Mitchell

The theme for the 22nd annual Edgefest (Oct. 17-20) is “Chicago - OUT Kind of Town,” celebrating the city's rich legacy of avant-garde jazz and new music, which is strongly rooted in the vision of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). One of the first members of this collective, which formed in 1965, was saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell, who in 1969 spun off the Art Ensemble of Chicago (ACM) from AACM along with trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors, saxophonist Joseph Jarman, and percussionist Don Moye.

Mitchell and AACM musicians are guests at Edgefest this year -- along with numerous other Chicago musicians and likeminded explorers -- and their appearances are a launching point for an anniversary celebration of the Art Ensemble.

“This is the first performance of this 50th-anniversary project and Roscoe has written music for this group based on music written for the Art Ensemble years ago by Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, and Lester Bowie,” said Deanna Relyea, Edgfest’s artistic director. (Bowie and Favors are deceased; Jarman is retired.) “So, in many ways, it’s a premiere of music based on the past, looking to the future.”

Full Range: Pat Metheny explored 40 years of music at his Hill Auditorium concert

MUSIC REVIEW

Pat Metheny

World-renowned guitarist and composer Pat Metheny has written a lot of music over a 40-plus-year career, and with his current tour he is taking the time to dig deeper into some of the older material. Rather than release an album and tour new tunes, he decided to put a small group of consummate musicians together who are capable of playing a wide variety of his music from across the decades. But don’t call this a retrospective. Instead, it’s more like research. The players are digging into the old tunes and finding new pathways to navigate. Metheny has clearly chosen his bandmates to be able to find fresh ways to improvise over his material.

Metheny’s UMS-sponsored performance on October 10 at Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium felt surprisingly intimate considering there were 4,000 people in attendance. The stage was set up almost like a rehearsal space, with the supporting musicians arranged in a tight circle around Metheny. The band played loose, keeping arrangements minimal and playing off of each other throughout the set. Metheny came out first, performing a beautiful solo piece on the 42-string Pikasso guitar, built for him by luthier Linda Manzer. The guitar itself is a work of art with a huge range, and Metheny used the whole instrument, fretting deep bass notes with his left hand while improvising beautiful harp-like melodies on the drone strings. Following that first piece, the rest of the band took the stage, and the energy kicked up and stayed up for the rest of the night.