Jim Pepper

MusicWatch Weekly: community spirit

Musical highlights around Oregon this week

This week’s Oregon music highlights feature several concerts devoted to bringing communities together and celebrating various heritages that help make up the larger community that we all belong to. Please add your suggested music events in the comments section below.

Leyla McCalla performs at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall Saturday.

“In a Landscape”
Portland pianist Hunter Noack has embarked on a second September series of outdoor performances around Oregon. (Read my ArtsWatch story about the first one.) This time, he’s put a nine-foot Steinway on a trailer, and is toting it to eastern Oregon. He’s also bringing wireless headphones to distribute to listeners so they can experience the music without alfresco acoustical limitations, and various guest artists, from singer and former Miss America Katie Harman Ebner, Pink Martini founder/pianist Thomas Lauderdale and members of various Oregon orchestras. Check the website for who’s playing what and where and other details on individual performances through September 30.
Wednesday, Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, 22267 OR Highway 86, Baker City; Thursday, Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, 47106 Wildhorse Blvd. Pendleton.

Eugene Symphony
The orchestra performs a recent work by contemporary Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas, and Joyce Yang solos in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 before the orchestra unless that pinnacle of Russian Romanticism, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.
Thursday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Music for Everyone Day
A wide variety of musicians, including the Woolen Men, Skull Diver, Ashi, JoJoScott and more, supply the tunes in this free, family-friendly four hour celebration.
Friday, Portland City Hall.

The Gondoliers
Light Opera of Portland’s latest Gilbert & Sullivan show.
Friday-Sunday, Alpenrose Dairy Opera House, 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland.

The Dover Quartet performs in Ashland. Photo:Tom Emerson.

Dover Quartet
The Chamber Music Northwest favorites return to Oregon to play quartets by contemporary American composer Richard Danielpour, Tchaikovsky, and Bartók.
Friday, Southern Oregon University Recital Hall, Ashland.

The Broken Consort
One of the most potentially exciting additions to Oregon’s music scene, this early music ensemble recently relocated from Boston and New York to Portland. Their repertoire ranges far beyond the too-limited scope of the state’s other historically informed performers, including new music (they just recorded an album of originals by leader and singer Emily Lau), and this concert focuses on American baroque music. Yes, there was such a thing. People were making music in the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries. The eight musicians, who hail from Portland, Los Angeles, New York, and beyond, sing and play music written in the New England colonies (by composers like the great William Billings and Francis Hopkinson), in Spanish colonial America, shape note hymns, and even 19th century songs by Stephen Foster. But they’ll also perform music for ngoni, the instrument brought by African slaves, Native American chants and more, including the west coast premiere of Douglas Buchanan’s 2016 Green Field of Amerikay. It’s the fall’s most fascinating concert.
Saturday, Nordia House, and Sunday, The Hallowed Halls, Portland.

Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival
The fifth annual celebration of a true Oregon original and legendary Native American jazz saxophonist includes Tracy Lee Nelson, Winona LaDuke, Gary Ogan, and more. And if you’re interested in Pepper’s life and work, check out Organic Listening Club’s latest edition at Artists Repertory Theater on October 17.
Saturday, Parkrose High School, Portland.

Taiko Together
If you live outside Japan and enjoy the stirring sounds of Japanese percussion music, or just like whacking on big drums,  Portland is the place to be. This concert brings together all four of the city’s taiko ensembles — Portland Taiko, Takohachi, En Taiko, and Unit Souzou — in a celebration of some of the world’s most, ah, striking sounds. It’s a fine opportunity to sample the different varieties available too, from youth-oriented classes to traditional tunes to folk dance to new music and more.
Saturday, P.C.C. Sylvania, Performing Arts Center.

Portland Taiko at its fall 2016 concert. Photo: Brian Sweeney.

The Vanport Mosaic and Maxville Heritage
Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s fascinating new project kicks off with a free performance featuring music performed by singer Marilyn Keller and pianist Ezra Weiss, featuring Weiss’s song with lyrics by Renee Mitchell, inspired by the story of Maxville. This afternoon discussion event includes presentations about Maxville and Vanport, followed by a talk with the artistic creators, who are hoping to receive input from the community itself for this important multimedia community history project.
Saturday, Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Ave, Portland.

Leyla McCalla
Former Carolina Chocolate Drop cellist/singer/guitarist/banjoist Leyla McCalla’s music draws on her Haitian heritage as well as the Creole, Cajun, jazz and French influences that still simmer in and around her New Orleans home. McCalla’s covers of traditional song and sometimes poignant, sometimes danceable, expertly crafted original music reflect the vitality of the many rich folk traditions she’s assimilated.
Saturday, Old Church Concert Hall, Portland.

Organized by NYC’s Bang on a Can new music collective and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the four-year-old OneBeat program brings young (age 19-35) musicians from around the world to collaboratively create original music, play it on tour, lead workshops with local young audiences, and “develop strategies for arts-based social engagement” when they return to their home countries. This year’s fellows include South African vocalist Nonku Phiri; Aisaana Omorova, a komuz (traditional three-stringed strummed instrument) player from Kyrgyzstan; Chicago-based producer Elijah Jamal; and Belorussian producer and singer Natalia Kuznetskaya. The program has come to Sisters, Portland and elsewhere around the nation in years past; see it now before our current rulers find out about this effort to increase intercultural understanding.
Saturday, The Belfry, Sisters.


Musical biographies relive Pepper, debunk Madoff

Two of this weekend's shows had key themes in common, but couldn't have felt more different.

If you will, a story problem:

Two semi-biographical musical theater pieces open in the same weekend. One commemorates Native American jazz musician Jim Pepper. It’s fueled by a positive attitude and bound for simplicity. The other rebukes Jewish Ponzi-scheme perpetrator Bernie Madoff. What emotions is it fueled by, and what’s it driving at? At what point(s) will the two musicals meet, and at what angle(s) will they diverge?

Still from video by Mustafa Bhagat, Flicker Filmworks

Still from video by Mustafa Bhagat, Flicker Filmworks

A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff , presented by Boom Arts, is Alicia Jo Rabins’ labor of—not exactly love, but let’s say concern and fascination, in response to the infamous Madoff Ponzi scheme. When the former chairman of NASDAQ was busted in 2008 for robbing investors blind since the ’80s, fabricating all of their earnings and never trading a single stock on their behalf, Rabins was close enough to feel the fallout. An artist’s residency had landed the musician and Torah scholar in the heart of New York’s financial district, in a vacant floor of an office building near Madoff’s. The neighborhood was abuzz, and so was the Jewish community. It seemed that Madoff’s actions had, in one way or another, touched everyone she knew.

Rabins began networking through her Jewish community and interviewing acquaintances who’d had direct experience with Madoff: two finance executives who’d foreseen the disaster, an elderly woman who’d lost her savings, a lawyer defending clients who’d overdrawn their false accounts and were now being subjected to “claw backs,” an FBI agent who’d raided Madoff’s headquarters on the 17th floor of the iconic “lipstick building”…

What was it about “not Madoff the criminal, but Madoff the phenomenon” that inspired such misplaced trust from his community? What irresistible promises did he dangle? And what does investors’ acceptance of those false promises teach us about the modern American mindset? Namely: “We’re in a culture where we don’t have to look out for one another…the only way to be truly safe is to make a bunch of money and put it far, far away….We have an unconscious faith that money can protect us from tragedy and old age.”

The scope of Rabins’ research is pretty stunning. With the ideal combination of distance and personal stake in the story, she could just as easily have created an academic lecture on Madoff. But to many, especially in the Jewish faith community, Madoff’s betrayal isn’t merely academic; it’s personal, even spiritual—”the definition of ‘bad for Jews,'” Rabins laughs wryly. To wit, the synagogue closest to Madoff’s Palm Beach, Florida country club reportedly excommunicated him by saying a kaddish, a prayer traditionally reserved for the dead. So, for additional philosophical context, Rabins drew quotes from Biblical and Kabbalistic scripture. She even interviewed a Jewish Buddhist monk.

In Kaddish, Rabins weaves a set of practical and spiritual crises into a rich sensory tableau. She narrates her perception of the Madoff events and re-enacts her interview subjects’ testimony in song. She live-loops melancholy violin riffs and strews torn-up papers on the stage. Behind her, in Zak Margolis’s sparse animations, line graphs veer off course, morph into skyscraper windows, blow away like leaves. Leaves blow through living rooms, too…a false sense of security shattered. “Bring me your empty jars; I will fill them…” sings Rabins, making reference to a Kabbalist tale about creation that involves vessels cracking under the pressure of God’s divinity. Storytelling that could’ve been melodramatic is instead measured, empathetic and elegant. It’s as emotionally haunting as it is intellectually resonant. Like a more natural, less comic Lauren Weedman, Rabins effortlessly shrugs in and out of the characters she’s interviewed. She sits like a man. She postures like a cop. She wrings her hands like a widow.

Her music, too, is strikingly well-suited to the themes. The lines on the graph climb and fall; the violin ascends and descends. Live loops chop data into repetitive segments; the stock figures do the same. Yet amid the staccatos of suspense and the swoons of despair, there’s of course a romance, a humanity. For mourning, the violin is the perfect thing to play.

Ed Edmo and M. Cochise Anderson share folklore before kicking Jim Pepper jams.

Ed Edmo and M. Cochise Anderson share folklore before kicking Jim Pepper jams.

The Jim Pepper Project, not to be confused with the Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival that happens later in the summer, is Triangle Productions’ and artistic director Don Horn’s tribute to a local Native American jazz legend who pioneered jazz/rock/Native folk fusion from the ’60s to the early ’90s. Pepper died at age 52 from lymphoma. Best known for his single Witchi Tai To, a jazz variation of a tribal folk tune, Pepper also toured Europe, released several full albums, and was heavily honored by his tribes, the Kaw and Creek. His saxophone sits in the National Museum of the American Indian.

“This isn’t a ‘Fosse Fosse Fosse’ sort of show,” Horn explained last week to KBOO’s Dmae Roberts—seeming to mean that, compared to the razzle-dazzle dance numbers of jazz choreographer Bob Fosse, Pepper would be sedate. An understatement; the show’s tribal dances are reserved and regal, almost anti-Fosse. Okay. So this show doesn’t overreach with flash. Is it weighty, then, with substance?

Well…to a point of satisfaction and due deference, well shy of new insight. The link between jazz and native music is mentioned, but not analyzed; a Native American myth is recited, but not decoded; the lingering effects of Native marginalization are touched on, but not delved into or depicted; details about Pepper’s life and feelings are mostly skimmed over, less like in-depth biography than promotional music “bio.”

There’s only one good thing about a good man dying: It affords us a chance to learn more about his life. Quotes can be culled from a diary or personal correspondence. Unpleasant events can be brought to light as learning experiences. Even for an all-ages audience, real-life drama is welcome. Let’s see how a great person became or remained great in the face of resistance.

Taken as a whole, The Jim Pepper Project is more like a tribute concert with commentary than a full-fledged play. Pepper appreciators won’t learn anything they didn’t already know…but they’ll surely welcome the chance to revisit his music and honor his spirit with the help of a sparkling cast of actor/musicians. M. Cochise Anderson practically shoots sunbeams in the role of Pepper. He also plays the Native American wooden flute and the saxophone and sings. Salim Sanchez as Sundiata is a second Mister Charisma, making his dynamic entrance dancing up the aisle to take his place on percussion. Karen Kitchen as Sun Carrier is quietly dignified, singing a lovely Native-language translation of “Amazing Grace.” While not “Fosse,” the show certainly doesn’t lack for flair.

Two biography musicals, each about ethnic community figureheads, each a window into belief systems of a particular culture…couldn’t be more different in vision and tone. As the weekend closes, only Pepper, which continues through May 31, remains on offer; Kaddish has already finished a too-short four-night run at PSU’s Lincoln Hall Studio Theatre, but seems worthy of a remount or two in the future. (The next My Mind Is Like An Open Meadow, perhaps?) If you caught both shows along with ArtsWatch, you may wish you could cross them…to get the deeper read, on the better man.


A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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