Alone in a Crowd: Pianist Gwilym Simcock performs solo at Kerrytown Concert House

MUSIC PREVIEW

Gwilym Simcock

The last time British pianist Gwilym Simcock was in Ann Arbor, it was as a sideman with Pat Metheny's quartet when the guitarist played Hill Auditorium in October 2018.

But in June 2017, Simcock played Kerrytown Concert House solo, which he'll do again on March 3.

I interviewed the pianist then and asked him how his playing changes when performing solo versus with a band:

Explosive Comedy: PTD Productions celebrates its silver anniversary with "The Miss Firecracker Contest"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

PTD Productions' Miss Firecracker Contest

Tessie (Cindy Franklin), Carnelle (Stacy Buck), and Elain (Mary Hopper) are a few of the explosively funny characters in PTD Productions' season debut production of Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest.

Twenty-fifth anniversaries are usually celebrated with silver. 

But PTD Productions is feteing its 25th with firecrackers.

The Ypsilanti-based community theater group kicks off its silver season with Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest, a successful long-run Off-Broadway comedy that takes place in a small Mississippi town.

Ann Arbor folk-rockers Little Traps hide complexity inside a warm, inviting sound

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Little Traps

The local indie folk-rock band Little Traps brings sharp musicianship, an off-center outlook, and a distinctive sound with a banjo leading the way. Released late last year, their first full-length album, Can’t Count, is a welcome showcase of their work. 

The band charms listeners with its warm, inviting sound, but underneath lies a somewhat more complex tone. “Uncertainty, ambivalence, and second-guessing are the bread and butter of my lyrics,” singer-songwriter-guitarist Nick Bertsos says. 

In addition to Bertsos, the core band consists of singer-banjoist Annie Palmer and guitarist/pedal steel player Thomas Green. At various times other musicians help fill out the sound; on Can’t Count, Howard White plays bass and keyboards, while Ali Snyder plays drums. On New Tricks, a recently released EP of cover songs, Jessiah Hall is the drummer.

Bertsos answered a few questions recently via email:

U-M Musical Theatre offers hard-hitting drama "The Exonerated"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

University of Michigan's production of The Exonerated

The acting students at the University of Michigan’s Department of Musical Theatre will be shifting gears to perform in The Exonerated, a docudrama that reveals serious problems in the United States criminal system.

The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen tells the true stories of six wrongfully accused convicted survivors of death row in their own words. The script was prepared from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files, and the public record.

Timeless Ocarinas: The Seven Sages interpret music from The Legend of Zelda

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Seven Sages' Korok Forest

John Coltrane on the saxophone.

Eddie Van Halen on the guitar.

Link on the ocarina.

These are giants of their instruments.

But only one of these masters will be feted by The Seven Sages, a new quintet dedicated to playing music from The Legend of Zelda video game series.

Comprised of accomplished jazz and experimental artists Kirsten Carey (guitar), Andrew Hintzen (keyboard), Neal Anderson (EWI / trumpet), Jon Hammonds (bass), and Jonathan Taylor (drums), The Seven Sages make their debut at Ziggy's in Ypsilanti on February 21 -- the 33rd anniversary of the first Legend of Zelda game being released.

Carey and Hammonds answered some questions in an email interview about how The Seven Sages materialized, which Zelda songs the band will play, and their favorite tunes from the games. The queries were posed by myself and Eli Neiburger, who is deputy director of the Ann Arbor District Library and a member of the Nintendoland Family Band.

A Genuine Act of Discovery: U-M's Juan Cole on his book "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Juan Cole and his book Muhammad

Dr. Juan Cole has spent his life dedicated to the study of the Middle East, Muslim South Asia, and religion. He’s been at University of Michigan since 1984, quoted in papers from the L.A. Times to the Baltimore Sun, and appeared on PBS Newshour, Nightline, and The Colbert Report. He received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for research on Shiite Muslim thought and history, published translations of Arabic literature by Kahlil Gibran (and later, sponsored an exhibit of Gibran’s paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts), acted as the director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at U-M, served as editor in chief of the International Journal of Middle East Studies, and wrote or translated nearly 20 books. 

This past October, Bold Type Books published Cole’s most recent book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. The book’s publication at this particular time is in response to recent events around the world. “Extremist groups are misusing or using religious text in dishonest ways," Cole says. "North America and Europe have seen a rise in Islamophobia and the smearing of the prophet Muhammad.”

Cole originally studied early Islam and its foundations while in graduate school in Cairo and later at UCLA. “I got pulled away from the medieval studies," Cole says, "and pulled into writing about modern and contemporary issues in the Middle East by several events,” including the Iranian Revolution. “Although I had this earlier training, I didn’t put it to use in a whole book until now. I tried to tell the story as a response to this moment that we find ourselves in.”

Valentines, Funny & Otherwise: The Derrick Benford Quartet will provide the soundtrack February 14 at AADL

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Derrick Benford

Derrick Benford is a piano wiz who knows a thing or two about jazz. He’s been playing in the Michigan jazz scene for a while now, and this Detroit native has been involved with many groups and artists; lately, he’s been a member of the Gene Dunlap Band.

He’s also a Spirit of Detroit Award winner and has traveled across the U.S., U.K., and Asia working alongside the likes of George Clinton, Marcus Belgrave, and his brother Vassal Benford, among many others in the international jazz scene.

For his latest endeavor, the Derrick Benford Quartet, the pianist meshes jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and gospel into their own funky sound.

The quartet will be performing at AADL’s downtown library on Valentine's Day for a special show dedicated to love in all forms. I spoke to Derrick Benford about many things including his piano background, concerts at the library, his international experiences, and more.

Set the Controls for the "Heart" of the Sum: Robert Spalding Newcomb's music adds form to freedom

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Robert Spalding Newcomb's Dance of the Heart

Robert Spalding Newcomb, Ken Kozora, and Erik Gottesman performing "Dance of the Heart" on March 13, 2018, at Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti.

In "The Heart Sutra," one of Buddhism's most famous texts, there's a line that's often translated as "form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form."

I don't know if this particular sutra informed Robert Spalding Newcomb's structured improvisation "Dance of the Heart," but this long-form piece revels in the sort of free-flowing ambiance that feels simultaneously disembodied and corporeal. The music is an ode to freedom and that freedom helps shape the music's form.

Newcomb is a polymath -- computer expert, software developer, yoga teacher, stringed-instrument virtuoso (guitar, sitar) -- who combines all his talents to create modern music that's rooted in ancient traditions. "Dance of the Heart" is a reflection of that unique skillset, combining electronic percussion, synths, and effects-laden guitar.

"Dance of the Heart" premiered March 13, 2018, at the Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti -- you can watch the high-quality video here -- with Newcomb (guitar, sitar, laptop), Ken Kozora (electronic and acoustic percussion, iPad, trumpet), and Erik Gottesman (analog synthesizers, bio-sensors with EEG/shortwave/Theremin-style gesture proximity and ribbon controllers). The trio is reuniting at Riverside Arts for another performance of "Dance of the Heart" on 

Newcomb explained the concept behind "Dance of the Heart" in an email interview:

Jimi Hendrix's Experience: Jas Obrecht's "Stone Free" goes deep into the guitar great's transformative 10 months in London

MUSIC WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Jas Obrecht and Jimi Hendrix

The life of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix has been explored in numerous biographies and documentaries, so you could be forgiven for being skeptical as to why the world needs another book about the man widely considered to be the greatest guitarist of all time and a major influence on the sound of rock music. Jas Obrecht's new offering on the subject, however, takes a much closer look at a specific period in the life of Hendrix.

Stone Free: Jimi Hendrix in London, September 1966-June 1967 is a detailed, day by day look into the guitar great's arrival in England and his rapid rise from obscurity to fame. Obrecht's book puts into perspective just how quickly and completely Hendrix revolutionized pop music. The supporting cast is a who's who of British rock icons including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Animals, and many others. I had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview with the author, who has written nearly 200 cover stories for Guitar Player and other music magazines as well as a number of books on blues and rock.

Obrecht will be reading from his new book on Thursday, February 14, 7 pm, at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor. Below is the conversation we had, slightly edited for flow.

Call Me: Telephon9 rings up dance-floor-friendly electro-pop

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Telephon9

Telephon9 is from the birthplace of techno, which the Detroit trio blends with pop/EDM and house to create upbeat music that's full of pulsating energy.

Founder Chris Call, Jair Alexander, and Adari “BaseMODE” Perkins count Black Eyed Peas, Daft Punk, Calvin Harris, and Outkast among their influences, and all the members contribute writing, production, and vocals to Telephon9's infectious sound: when their music starts, you’re ready to dance. 

Telephon9 will perform at AADL's downtown branch on Friday, February 8 at 7 pm in concert as a part of the library’s Black History Month programming. We spoke with the group about their journey from acting to music, the Ann Arbor music scene, their upcoming studio release, and more.