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Verdine White (left) and Maurice White in 2005
By Dennis Polkow
When Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White died in his sleep on February 3 at the age of seventy-four after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, the accolades for the former Chicagoan were universal.
“We had talked the day before and I had seen him a few days before,” says Maurice’s brother, Chicago native and EWF bassist Verdine White, “so this was a huge surprise.” Verdine describes Maurice’s passing as a “transition” and says that he still “guides me, as he always has.” Although Maurice gave up performing with Earth, Wind & Fire in 1994, he remained a mentor to the band until his death.
It was Maurice who came up with the idea of a multi-genre band that would be an amalgam of styles at a time when, as Verdine puts it, “there was a revolution going on in music.” Read the rest of this entry »
I’m pretty sure I’ve got Brazilian singer-songwriter Badi Assad down cold. I’m guessing that, as the younger sister of two brothers—Sérgio and Odair, both gifted guitarists—who perform together as Duo Assad, she grew up in their shadow, and knew the only way she’d get out of it was to be bigger, better, bolder. So when Badi takes the stage with her guitar, you don’t just get some supremely supple strumming; you get ravishing singing and jaw-dropping vocal percussion, too. She’d probably have taken up handstands and juggling, if it came to it, but as it happens what she’s got on offer was apparently enough to steal some attention away from her older sibs. She’ll steal yours, as well; she’s basically the dictionary definition of “dynamo,” if the dictionary is Portuguese—meaning she bowls you over more through focused stillness and gentle undulation than any overwhelming display of prowess or volume. Her power is mainly implied; it’s all about control, and hers is exquisite. Read the rest of this entry »
Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Indian Classical, Interviews, Minimalism, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Rock, World Music
Philip Glass (left) and David Bowie, 1992
By Dennis Polkow
Composer Philip Glass is coming home. Well, sort of. The high priest of Minimalism, a term Glass has always loathed, will be in residence at the University of Chicago this month. Although it is not the first time Glass has been back to his Hyde Park alma mater, where he was once a mathematics and philosophy major, this is his first official residency there as a Presidential Arts Fellow.
Glass’ residency will include a University of Chicago Presents concert where he and others will perform his Piano Etudes, a screening of the film “Mishima” which Glass scored and will discuss, a free public talk on artistic collaboration and various conversations with students and faculty from across the university.
Chicago was where Glass originally realized—while practicing piano pieces of Charles Ives and Anton Webern—that he wanted to become a composer, although he would head to Juilliard to begin to accomplish that goal. Read the rest of this entry »
Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Interviews, Latin, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Record Reviews, Vocal Music, World Music
By Dennis Polkow
“One of my greatest experiences is when things come to you,” admits Peruvian composer Jimmy López. “The first composition I ever wrote came through a dream, I can still remember it. I trust my memory in that sense.”
Some of the musical ideas that come to López remain with him for years before they end up in an actual piece of music. “I try to write things down only after they have already taken a certain shape in my mind. I don’t really like to write down ideas that I feel are premature. There’s a certain plasticity that ideas have when they’re in your mind rather than written down.”
López reveals he has ideas that “I am carrying right now. There is one I have been carrying since at least 2003.” One from 2007 was only recently written down and turned into a finished piece. “It’s a beautiful melody that I never wrote down because I didn’t know what I was going to use it for, I had no idea. I saw the opportunity to use it, finally, it felt perfect.” Read the rest of this entry »
Eleni Vitali, George Dalaras, Glykeria
By Robert Rodi
One of the features we associate most closely with Eastern music is melismatic singing and playing—i.e., running a sequence of notes during a single syllable. Granted, this is a hallmark of Western music as well; it’s standard in both baroque opera and American R&B. (It’s also been pushed to absurd extremes by the current trend of “oversouling,” practiced by pop singers who can’t sing a single phrase without sprinting up and down the scale like maniacs.) But Eastern Europeans do it differently; there, melisma doesn’t involve a run of notes over a syllable, but a continual bending and reshaping of a single note, to incantatory effect. It’s how you instantly recognize Arab and Turkish music; but it’s a big part of Greek music as well—the Greeks having picked it up during their centuries of Ottoman rule. The difference is chiefly that where Arab and Turkish melisma has a spiritual quality, the Greeks are best at using it to convey earthiness and sexuality.
This month, the Harris Theater hosts a memorable night featuring three singers who have been labeled “the Holy Trinity of Greek music”: Glykeria, Eleni Vitali and George Dalaras. Each is a virtuoso handler of the more sophisticated, relaxed Greek melisma that evokes the pleasures and pains of the material world. Read the rest of this entry »
This is Billy Strayhorn’s centenary, and it’s been heartening to see so much attention paid to a songwriter whose gifts are almost in inverse proportion to his fame—i.e. the former stratospheric, the latter microscopic. Part of the problem is that Strayhorn is so closely associated with Duke Ellington, who was one of the more flamboyantly extrovert of the past century’s geniuses. Another part is that Strayhorn himself was quite happy to reside in Ellington’s shadow. The result is that today people are surprised to learn that tunes indelibly associated with Ellington—such as “Lush Life,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Take the ‘A’ Train”—are in fact Strayhorn’s compositions. It’s hard for us to think of them in a new way; they’re so bonded to our DNA. Read the rest of this entry »
Jazz has always been a meritocracy, in the sense that hooks matter more than looks. But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate a concentrated dose of oomph when it’s right there in front of us. Peggy Lee worked it. So did Nina Simone. And the New York singer-songwriter Somi (born in Illinois to Ugandan and Rwandan parents) has the same kind of high-voltage charisma. She also has an absolutely exquisite instrument—graceful, gorgeous and under her complete control. In the fifties, she’d have knocked ‘em dead in supper clubs; today, she’s slaughtering digitally, in ravishing videos like her simmering R&B ballad, “Ginger Me Slowly.” Read the rest of this entry »
Old Town School of Folk Music is hosting the Allos Musica quartet on one of its upcoming World Music Wednesdays. Which is a bit of a cheat, because the group is made up entirely of local boys. Its prevailing genius, in fact, is James Falzone, who’s so active in Chicago jazz, classical and early music circles that you can’t swing a dead cat without clipping his clarinet. Yet while Allos Musica doesn’t have to hop an ocean to get here, the inspiration they carry onstage with them has a pretty extensive global pedigree. Besides Falzone, the group boasts Ronnie Malley on oud and harmonium (he occasionally sings as well), Jeremiah McLane on accordion and Tim Mulvenna on hand drums and percussion; and when they sit down together and launch into a tune, the time zones drop away—the centuries, too. Their repertoire is highly distinctive; there are shimmeringly sinuous Arabic numbers, around which Falzone’s clarinet circles like smoke rings; but there’s French music, as well—maybe not as strange a pairing as it first appears, given the history of French colonialism in places like Morocco and Senegal. Read the rest of this entry »
By Dennis Polkow
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt turned eighty last month, a milestone which has been celebrated across the music world during this anniversary year. In Chicago, Bella Voce has taken the lead in offering Pärt performances: his “Stabat Mater” last spring and this fall, his “Berliner Messe,” a 1990 work for vocalists and organ which Pärt later revised for string orchestra and chorus.
Bella Voce is no stranger to the music of Pärt, having been chosen by Pärt’s celebrated interpreter and subsequent biographer Paul Hillier to be the choir heard in the North American professional premiere of Pärt’s “St. John Passion”—better known by its short Latin title, “Passio”—back in 1990 when the group was still known as His Majestie’s Clerkes. Read the rest of this entry »
Chicago is blessed with the return of global sensations Ibeyi (pronounced ee-bey-ee), for a second performance in one year. French-Cuban twins Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz, who sing in both Yoruba and English, are the daughters of late Cuban percussionist Miguel “Angá” Diaz of Irakere and Buena Vista Social Club fame. Angá died in 2006 when the twins were only eleven; tragedy stuck again in 2013 when they lost a sister, Yanira. They grew up mostly in Paris and credit their French-Venezuelan mother, a singer, with inspiring their love of West African Yoruba culture (brought to Cuba by slaves in the 1700s). Naomi plays percussion, mixing hip-hop and Afro-Cuban beats on the cajón and Batás, and handles production while Lisa, the primary vocalist, plays piano and concentrates on composition. Read the rest of this entry »