Instinct to Play: Thollem McDonas at Kerrytown Concert House

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Thollem McDonas

This article on June 28, 2017. We're re-running it because McDonas is returning to Kerrytown Concert House on Thursday, November 7, and he'll again collaborate with local improvisors Piotr Michalowski and Abby Alwin for an evening of spontaneous music.

Thollem McDonas might be a compulsive collaborator. The American pianist, composer, keyboardist, songwriter, activist, teacher, and author's many projects have included several renowned, and lesser known, players over the years, and he doesn't seem to be slowing.

From improvisations with perennial experimental music headliners -- guitarist Nels Cline; double bassist William Parker; the late composer, accordionist, and electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros -- to his Italian agit-punk unit Tsigoti and the art-damaged spiel of the Hand to Man Band (also featuring American punk icon Mike Watt on bass and Deerhoof's John Dietrich on guitar), there's little ground McDonas hasn't covered or isn't covering. He might just be the ideal "six-degrees-of" candidate for people into that particular Venn diagram of weird improv, challenging chamber music, and thinking-people's punk rock.

McDonas plays Kerrytown Concert House on Thursday, November 7, with a trio completed by two accomplished locals: reedman Piotr Michalowski and cellist Abby Alwin. We talked with the restless, and very thoughtful, pianist by email about his many collaborations, balancing political action with music, and sitting down at Claude Debussy's piano.

Be, Hear, Now: yMusic brought its contemporary classical and crossover collaborations to Rackham

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yMusic by Graham Tolbert

Photo by Graham Tolbert.

If you aren’t paying attention at the beginning of Andrew Norman’s “Music in Circles” you might miss it. The first note is just so quiet, an almost imperceptible harmonic whispered high in the viola, the kind of airy, insubstantial noise you have to strain to hear.

But once you hear it you’re hooked.

That first lonely pitch is like a slow intake of breath, interrupted after a moment by a stuttering spiccato exhalation that foreshadows the energy that is to come. Slowly the viola is joined by other strings, and patiently the music unfolds and intensifies until, some two and a half minutes in the viola takes off with an up-tempo rhythmic pulse produced by bouncing the bow vertically off the strings, generating a sound that is a blend between being pitched and being a percussive noise.

From here the music grows in volume and intensity as the cello and trumpet play yearning arpeggiated lines, the bass clarinet pitches in with a fluttering falling figure, the violin scratches wildly and the flute shoots jets of air. It’s thrilling. And then it winds down again, just as patiently as the music of the opening developed.

Eventually, the piece closes out with soft, slowly moving echoes of the previous material, pared down until it’s only the viola, again, playing alone, with that same airy harmonic it began with.

“Music in Circles” has always been one of yMusic’s more popular pieces, at least on the classical music side of things, so it’s no wonder that the group chose to program it on last Friday’s performance at Rackham Auditorium.

In a Silent Way: Don Hicks, owner of Ann Arbor's Blue Llama Jazz Club, won an auction for one of Miles Davis' trumpets

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Don Hicks with Miles Davis' trumpet

Don Hicks, owner of the Blue LLama Jazz Club, with his Miles Davis trumpet. Photo from Facebook.

A piece of jazz history has found a permanent home in Ann Arbor.

Don Hicks, owner of the Blue LLama Jazz Club, won a auction on October 29 for one of three trumpets Miles Davis commissioned in 1980 when he was coming off a five-year performing hiatus.

Christie's auction house in New York City put a pre-sale estimate on the instrument’s value between $70,000 and $100,000, but as you can see in the video below, a flurry of bids pushed the cost to $220,000 -- and with the addition of Christie's commission, the final price for the trumpet was $275,000.

Happy Sad: The Cactus Blossoms' shimmering folk-rock hit a harmonious sweet spot at The Ark

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Cactus Blossoms at The Ark

The Cactus Blossoms at The Ark. Photo by Amanda Szot.

Why is it that sad songs make us feel better? 

Esther Rose, opening act at Thursday night’s show headlined by The Cactus Blossoms at the Ark, asked that question partway through her set as she realized that all of her songs to that point had been a bit melancholy.

A Michigan native, but a New Orleans resident for the past decade, Rose sang songs of loves lost and found. Not just people, but places too -- from her family’s farm near Flint, Michigan, to the love of the Lower Ninth Ward in her adopted hometown. Her earnest songwriting and clear vocals were paired with sparse instrumentation. She was joined on stage by Jordan Hyde, who provided backup vocals and lead guitar. Her debut album, You Made It This Far, was released in 2019 on Father/Daughter records.
 
The Cactus Blossoms are brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey on main vocals and guitar, now joined eldest brother Tyler Burkum on guitar, cousin Phillip Hicks on bass, and Jeremy Hanson on drums. Formed in Minneapolis, The Cactus Blossoms have a sound influenced by classic country, folk-inspired storytelling, and the harmonies of famous sibling duos, with some good old-fashioned rock and roll reverb from the ‘60s. The band members started exploring this style of music around 2006 while investigating their local library’s music collection and through a friend whose collection of obscure folk music and “high lonesome” sounds was particularly intriguing.
 

The U-M Digital Music Ensemble's "Pond Music for Airports" encountered unexpected turbulence

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Pond Music for Airports

All photos by Christopher Porter.

I went to the pond not to fish, not to swim, but to listen to experimental music.

And all I heard was silence.

It's not because the University of Michigan's Digital Music Ensemble (DME) was performing John Cage's 4'33"The group, under the guidance of Professor Stephen Rush, had worked up a piece inspired by Brian Eno's Music for Airports, the landmark 1978 ambient record that was built by having pre-recorded tape loops of varying lengths go in and out of phase with each another.

The DME's Pond Music XVII: Brian Eno’s Music for Airports -- or more colloquially on the promo posters, Pond Music for Airports -- was created by students who wrote and performed the short music segments that were then committed to tape. The DME artists then spliced the tapes and loaded them onto old reel-to-reel machines, which were set up in front of the retention pond behind the Earl V. Moore Building, which is the home of the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, located on North Campus.

Lineup announced for the 43rd Ann Arbor Folk Festival

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Calexico and Iron & Wine, Nathaniel Rateliff, Ingrid Michaelson, Bettye LaVette

Top: Calexico and Iron & Wine. Bottom: Nathaniel Rateliff, Ingrid Michaelson, Bettye LaVette.

The annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival, a fundraiser for The Ark, returns to Hill Auditorium on Friday, January 31 and Saturday, February 1, 2020. A combined performance by Calexico and Iron & Wine headlines the first night and a solo Nathaniel Rateliff tops the second evening.

Calexico and Iron & Wine released the collaborative album Years to Burn last year, but the groups' artistic relationship stretches back to the 2005 EP In the Reins.

Rateliff is leaving his soul band the Night Sweats at home and will perform songs from his earlier, folk-based albums (but don't let that stop you from shouting out requests for "S.O.B." -- the audience can handle the hand-claps).

Check out the rest of the lineup below along with videos for each of the artists.

The Comic Opera Guild focuses on the funny in "Follies"

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Comic Opera Guild logo & singer Tiffany Thorpe

Tiffany Thorpe is one of the singers who will perform at the Comic Opera Guild's Follies. Photo by Larri Slade Photography.

The Comic Opera Guild was founded on the premise that the operetta (or comic opera) was the perfect vehicle to introduce people to opera and the thrill of listening to classically trained voices. Comedy makes everything approachable. Comic songs were common in the last century, either as pop music or taken from Broadway shows. Unfortunately, the comic song is uncommon now, and so we decided to produce a show that brought this idiom to people's attention.

On Friday, Nov. 1, at 7 pm at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown location, the Guild presents Follies, a revue-concert featuring high-spirited and comic entertainment reminiscent of the Ziegfeld Follies. Classically trained singers and instrumentalists will cross over into light-hearted music from the 1920s to the present day, from shows, Vaudeville, and even Tom Lehrer and Eric Idle.

Oasis in the City: Juno-winning alto saxophonist Allison Au brings her pastoral jazz to Blue LLama

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Allison Au Quartet

Saxophonist Allison Au said her 2016 album, Forest Grove, was inspired by the Toronto neighborhood where she grew up. But it's not city life she's referring to; it's a place where trees and nature provided the vista, not concrete. 

The pastoral spirit of the Forest Grove neighborhood runs deep through Au's alto on all three of her records. She tends to play relaxed, melodic phrases that reinforce an ensemble sound rather than firing up solos that race over the harmonic foundation of her compositions. Keyboardist Todd Pentney, bassist Jon Maharaj, and drummer Fabio Ragnelli have plenty of freedom to explore Au's tunes and they feel essential to her vision, not just a backing band. 

Forest Grove won a Juno award -- the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy -- for best jazz album and her latest, 2019's Wander Wonder, was nominated as was her debut, The Sky Was Pale Blue. Au self-released all of the albums, so to garner this type of recognition for independent releases is a testament to her talent.

You can see the Allison Au Quartet at Blue LLama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor on Wednesday, October 23. Below are some videos of the band in action and you can listen to her three albums. 

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

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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."