Understorey Time: Ann Arbor’s Jess Merritt Celebrates Her 40th Birthday and a Return to the Stage at The Ark
Some say reaching 40 is a milestone but that each decade lived should be celebrated.
Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Jess Merritt will take The Ark stage on February 13 to celebrate all of her decades as well as her 40th birthday, recent life changes, and what is yet to come.
“I’m so grateful to be celebrating this new chapter of life with The Ark and that they were willing to put this on,” said Merritt who used to be known as Jess McCumons when she co-led the soul, rock, and blues band The Understorey. “It feels so great to be getting back to the stage after a few years away, and this is a really big way to kick things off at my favorite place to perform.”
U-M Professor Kiley Reid’s Novel “Such a Fun Age” Is the 2023 Washtenaw Read Book
The 2023 Washtenaw Read is Such a Fun Age by University of Michigan professor Kiley Reid, whose plot-driven novel details what happens and how people feel amidst misunderstandings and omissions around a recent run-in and past hurts.
Reid is having a talk, reading, and Q&A session at the Downtown Library February 5 at 4 pm.
The lives of characters Emira Tucker and Alix Chamberlain very quickly intertwine in ways beyond their relationship as babysitter and mother of a toddler, respectively. From the description on the book jacket, readers know going into the book that Emira, who is a Black woman, is confronted for having Alix’s white child, Briar, at a food market late in the evening. This unexpected and unfair confrontation leads to connections, coincidences, and consequences that unfold throughout the rest of the book. The ensuing events are best experienced page by page as one reads.
Reid develops each of the main characters with their own flaws. The characters’ actions raise dilemmas based on how much they know and what their position is in each situation. Perhaps one lesson is that one’s intentions do not always make things right. Mrs. Chamberlain illustrates this in an overbearing statement to Emira:
“You might be too young to understand this right now, but we have always had your best interests at heart. Emira, we, we love you.” Mrs. Chamberlain threw her hands up in surrender as she said this, as if loving Emira was despite her family’s other best interests.
Poet and EMU Lecturer Andre F. Peltier Imagines New Contexts for Pop Culture Icons in Recent Chapbook, “Poplandia”
Part tribute, part humor, and part elegy, the new chapbook Poplandia by Andre F. Peltier centers on epic moments, including epic scenes in movies like the "Yub Nub" Ewok celebration to epic memories like recalling the purchase of a new record when it was released. The poet lives partially in this world and partially in others by reviving late 20th century childhood longings, such as to live in the Star Wars galaxy, among others.
One such dream deals directly with poetry itself:
Intro to Poetry anthology.
Dial up a poem on
Go to open mic poetry nights
or listen to slams in coffee houses.
Find a poem
that won’t be improved by adding
It can’t be done.
In Peltier’s perspective, life, literature, films, shows, and music should be interchangeable and allow humans and characters to cross boundaries between worlds or break through the fourth wall.
Searching for the Right Words: Julia Cho's award-winning "The Language Archive" makes its Michigan debut at Theatre Nova
When Julia Cho read about dying languages, she wondered if losing a language meant something larger—losing a whole way of looking at the world.
In her whimsical play The Language Archive, Cho explores the questions: Do languages that develop between people in a country (or a marriage) die when the participants die? Does the culture die when the language does?
First produced in 2009 at The South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa, California, and then in 2010 at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City, The Language Archive makes its Michigan debut at Ann Arbor's Theatre Nova, February 3-26, directed by Carla Milarch. (The play won the 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded to a new English-language play by a woman.)
“There are sixty-nine hundred languages in the world. More than half are expected to die within the next century,” says George, a linguist and the play’s protagonist. In addition to his native English, George speaks eight languages including Greek, Cantonese, Esperanto, and Elloway—the last of which is a dying fictional tongue.
Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar brings spiritual energy to Encore Theatre’s "American Songbook" concerts
Kahil El’Zabar has a very clear memory of the greatest performance he ever attended.
“I saw [John] Coltrane at a club called McKee’s in Chicago,” the jazz percussionist and band leader said in a phone interview. “I was 15 and [drummer] Elvin Jones went to sleep while he was playing and never lost a beat. The telepathy, the power of communication and connectivity, of mind and spirit in music, that one moment changed my life because I knew that I would want to be part of that embrace for the rest of my life. I would always search for that moment when you are beyond consciousness and can express something greater than yourself. I hope for that every time. When you do it, it is the most exciting and humbling experience you ever experience.”
El’Zabar and his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble will bring his unique approach to the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter, Feb. 3-4. Last year at about the same time, El’Zabar and his group performed at Encore’s Modern Jazz Meets Musical Theatre; this year the theme is A Modern Exploration of the American Songbook.
The innovative, award-winning musician will celebrate his 70th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble next year. His career has been influenced by both his African heritage and growing up in one of America’s legendary jazz cities, Chicago.
El’Zabar’s music has a rich spiritual component that comes from both his experience in Africa and his exposure to the masters of jazz.
“When I came out of Lake Forest College in ‘73, I had an eight-month residency in Ghana,” he said. “I was at the University of Ghana in a city called Legon. Just how people related on a human level, the connection of touch, not just physical but eye and voice and through performance; it seemed to have this spirit that I wanted to retain in my own music.”
As a teenager in Chicago, he got to know performers like Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He admired the energy.
Aaron Burch's perspective-shifting “Year of the Buffalo” tells the tale of a road trip to reconciliation
Aaron Burch captures the spirit of a road trip in his novel, Year of the Buffalo. The long drive sets the stage for bonding, observations, and memories shared between brothers Ernie and Scott as they travel from Washington state toward Detroit.
In this third-person novel, the focus shifts from character to character. On the road, Ernie reflects:
They were doing it. He’d agreed to the trip not because of any desire to return to Michigan but just because. Because he had no reason not to, because it seemed like Scott wanted him to go, because why not? But wasn’t this what roadtrips were supposed to be? Revelatory and epiphanic and life-changing and life-answering and everything else about life that he was searching for, everything he thought the farm might be able to be and now believing a cross country roadtrip was definitely going to be. There was a simplicity to the moment—two guys driving, taking their time, without consequence.
Travel by car—or SUV for Ernie and Scott—may be all those things, but the journey also emphasizes the tension and strong need for reconciliation between the two siblings.
The road trip takes on a life if its own as the two men discover secrets about each other. Scott, once a professional wrestler, grapples with the distinction between his persona and self, as does Ernie. The wrestling persona of Mr. Bison must come to life again since the brothers are on their way to promote Scott’s new video game. One of their many interactions reveals the pressure that comes from its reappearance:
Author and Former Literati Bookseller Mairead Small Staid Narrates Travels in Italy and the Search for Happiness in Her Book of Essays, “The Traces”
Happiness may be elusive, but the quest is part of the experience.
“Happiness is the endpoint and the race itself, the finished vessel and its firing,” writes Mairead Small Staid, an author, librarian, a University of Michigan alum, and former Literati bookseller.
Her new nonfiction book, The Traces: An Essay, recounts the author’s time in Italy, studies the concept and feeling of happiness, and critiques art and literature. Staid’s chapters form individual essays that roam through concepts such as whether a person is different when in different places and look at sculptures and paintings by artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Italo Calvino’s novel, Invisible Cities, is a focal point to which the book repeatedly circles back.
The exploration itself brings novelty and thus pleasure. Staid writes that, “Here lies another possible explanation for my happiness, this sustained and sustaining newness: it’s November, after all, and still each ordinary day—each breakfast, each cigarette—is tinged with cinematic light.” The fresh sights and circumstances can reinvigorate one’s outlook.
New AADL Video Showcases Photographer Josh Lipnik’s “Up North: An Architecture Road Trip” Presentation
Architecture aficionados who don’t want to leave their houses can now take a virtual road trip to Northern Michigan with photographer Josh Lipnik.
An Ann Arbor District Library video from Lipnik’s January 17 slide show presentation, “Up North: An Architecture Road Trip,” is now available for viewing.
In “Up North,” Lipnik travels through small Northern Michigan towns to find the marvelous facades, neon signs, elaborate Victorians, and architectural trends that time has left behind.
He offers his evocative pictures to tell the story of immigrants, industry, and the role of local resources and geology while reflecting on his time on the road.
Lipnik runs Midwest Modern, a platform for photography, research, and writing about architecture and design. He is also a graduate of the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and The Ohio State University’s College of Engineering.
(Re)Introducing Djangophonique: Andrew Brown and Co. are putting a modern spin on a jazz tradition
“When I say ‘modern music,’” says Andrew Brown, “what I mean is, like, anything after 1956.”
Brown is the band leader and lead guitarist for Djangophonique, the crisp Ann Arbor-based quartet that’s made a name for itself reveling in—and updating—the 1930s and 1940s music known as “gypsy jazz,” or jazz manouche. It's a sound primarily associated with the French-Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt, but Djangophonique applies the style to a range of genres, from country music to swing.
In 2020, Djangophonique released a live EP, Jazz Du Jour, some of which was recorded at the Blue Llama Jazz Club, but it came out just before the pandemic began. “That kind of put things on pause for a while,” Brown says.
But the band regrouped and last summer issued its first full-length album, Introducing Djangophonique, which garnered the quartet more and more attention. The group snagged some high-profile gigs, too, including the bluegrass-based Wheatland Music Festival, the Detroit Jazz Festival, and Ann Arbor's Top of the Park. While Djangophonique performs all over the area, its current home base is Ann Arbor's new North Star Lounge, where Brown is the creative director and the group has a residency most Wednesdays.
How Human: Lily Talmers returns to Ann Arbor with two new excellent albums that explore deeply personal and universal experiences
On "My Mortal Wound," the opening song on Lily Talmer's It's Unkind to Call You My Killer album, states in the chorus:
I’m alright; I am
Just the tide’s gone still and I’m left waiting for something to happen
For anything to happen; For good things to happen
Well, good things are happening for the Birmingham native and University of Michigan graduate.
In the past few months, she's released two terrific albums: the aforementioned Killer, an 11-track, stripped-down collection of songs performed live, and Hope Is The Whore I Go To, which features 10 strings-and-brass-colored tunes recorded in studios from Ypsilanti, Michigan to Brooklyn, New York.
Both albums highlight Talmer's exquisite amalgamation of 1960s folk-pop, Eastern European brass bands, and the melancholy melodies of Brazilian and Mediterranean music. Her twang-tinged voice is a slightly untamed powerhouse that's more than capable of delivering her heartfelt, poetic lyrics exploring personal and spiritual relationships with the drama and delicacy they deserve. Think of a jazz singer who hasn't sanded the edges off her voice but can still duck and weave in and out of the music like an instrumental virtuoso. (Canadian cult singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O'Hara is the closest analog to my ears.)
"If Hope Is The Whore I Go To is the primordial scream version of the message I’m trying toward," Talmers says in the interview below, "It's Unkind to Call You My Killer is the inward recoil. I’m telling you something in the first record, and in the second I’m kind of just admitting things to myself."
Since graduating from U-M, Talmers has moved to Brooklyn but makes frequent trips back home, including a stop on Sunday, January 8 at The Ark for her first headline show at the venue.
In 2021 Pulp did an extensive piece on Talmers for her debut full-length release, Remember Me As Holy, and in late summer of this year, former AADL public library associate Katy Trame talked to Talmers about her life and brilliant new records.
—Christopher Porter, Pulp