Sonic Activism: Isaac Levine discusses his new LP, "A Death So Obsessed With Living"

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Isaak Levine and album cover

Photo by Kit Parks; album cover sketch by Hillary Butterworth.

Isaac Levine is a restless creator and organizer. Whether it's fighting against unsustainable development, booking DIY shows at houses and small venues, or making music in numerous bands and solo projects, this Washtenaw County resident's proactive drive is admirable.

Levine's latest recording is the guitar-centric A Death So Obsessed With Living, which is his third album in the past 365 days, following May's auto-chord organ LP Cloudpleasers under his own name and last December's Pee on These Hands with one of his bands, The Platonic Boyfriends.

A Death So Obsessed With Living was recorded in November by Spencer Tweedy, son of Jeff and a member of his dad's band, Wilco. We talked to the Levine about the story behind recording the new album, the themes on his last two LPs, and the pros and cons of living in Ann Arbor.

Isaak Levine + Friends celebrate their record release with a concert at Unity Vibration in Ypsilanti on Friday, December 21.

Beyond 8 Mile: The "History and Future of Detroit Hip-Hop" at U-M

MUSIC REVIEW

Sterling Toles, Jamall Bufford, Khary Frazier

No cyphers broke out during the making of this panel: Sterling Toles, Jamall Bufford, and Khary Frazier talk the history of Motor City hip-hop. 

In June 1990, newly freed political prisoner Nelson Mandela made his way to the United States and eventually to Detroit. Mandela toured the Ford Rouge Plant and UAW President Owen Bieber made him an honorary lifetime member of the union -- experiences and honors that are uniquely Detroit. Mandela’s visit culminated in him addressing a standing room only crowd at Tiger Stadium. But before Mandela spoke, two local rappers, Kaos and Mystro, took the stage and performed in front of the 49,000 people in attendance.

For many in Detroit’s hip-hop community, including Khary Frazier, this was a seminal moment in the development of the D’s niche hip-hop scene.

It was stories like this that dotted the December 4 conversation between Khary Frazier, Jamall Bufford, and Sterling Toles on the U of M campus. The three gathered this past Tuesday in the Dana Building to discuss the "History and Future of Detroit Hip Hop" -- a scene that all the panel participants have had a hand in shaping.

Ann Arbor artist Dani Darling debuts with a new single, video, and name

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Dani Darling

"I manage Annekes Downtown Hair Salon on Main St.," Danielle Davis said. "I'm a true Townie."

But when Davis isn't overseeing people getting their hair done, she's crafting songs as Dani Darling. The artist formerly known as Soulgalaxygirl just released "2:22," her first single and accompanying video under the new sobriquet, and it's a woozy slice of off-kilter R&B. The video features Darling lounging around her place, swiping her way through a bunch of Tinder profiles in search of a soul mate, but the tune itself is more of a true love song.

When Darling performs live, it's in a two guitar, bass, and drums lineup, and her music continues to evolve week by week and won't necessarily sound all that much like "2:22" in the future. But the multifaceted Ann Arborite with strong pipes can light up whatever kinds of songs she sings.

We talked to Darling about "2:22" and future plans with her band.

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.

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.

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.”