Thursday, February 9, 2017

Ice Shanty Village

Although it sometimes hardly seems like an event at all, the Ice Shanty Village often punches above its weight.  In recent years it's been located on the northwest lobe of the White Bear Lake cloverleaf—the part that's practically dried up. The ice houses are widely spaced and spread out in no particular pattern discernible from the ground, and as you approach on foot from the parking lot in the nearby county park just off Highway 96 there doesn't seem to be much going on. This is, in part, because the huge expanse of ice on which the event is held dwarfs the visitors, but also because lots of people are inside the shanties enjoying the art.

We arrived on a sunny afternoon, made more brilliant by the reflected light of the snow-covered lake. (I have noticed that February light is often grand, maybe because of the medium-low angle and the dry air. You can almost feel the cells of your facial skin waking up.)

Walking out through the playground and over the ice berm, we missed the official entrance entirely—it would have involved a detour—and headed directly out to the village, which was situated a hundred yards and more out on the ice. The heavy bass sounds of a hip-hop track boomed across the lake from the dance shanty at the far end of the conurbation. 

We'd timed our visit to coincide with a flamenco performance that was listed on the schedule. Seeing no one that fit that description we inquired in the headquarters shack. "Well, they're supposed to start at 11:30, which is now. See that woman with the furry hat," the woman said, pointing through the window. "She's one of the dancers. I think they're going to meet up out there."

We wondered off to view the various shanties. Among my favorites were the following:

Shanty National Park: Inside this small space a woman was heating up some water on a camp stove. I asked her what she was making. "Nothing. I'm just trying to get some humidity into the room." The interior was decked out like a tropical forest—hence the need for humidity—and if I had taken more time to let my eyes adjust to the low light, I'm sure I would have seen an assortment of plastic animals hiding amid the foliage. I did admire the river (actually a long loop of paper painted with blue water and white rapids) that was flowing by along the side of the woods. In order to keep the water moving, someone had to turn a crank manually outside the building. Once we'd emerged into the sun again, I took a turn at the crank myself, though I didn't last long.

Pod from the Future Shanty: Two young men had evidently arrived on the lake from 600 years in the future in a little plywood pod. The room was equipped with a science fiction library that brought back memories of my teen years—Dune, Childhood's End, The Martian Chronicles. Visitors were invited to sit at the controls of the pod, and also to write down questions about the future on pieces of paper and stuff them into a box positioned nearby.

"Anything? Like, when will Trump be impeached? or What will the Fidelity Star Fund do next year?"

"Sure. Though we need to respect the future and not throw things terribly out of whack." All sci-fi enthusiasts are familiar with the long-term dangers of changing even little things about the past.
I learned later than these two young men drive up from Indiana every Friday night, and head for home again every Sunday afternoon after the village closes down.

Mythology Shanty: The ceiling of this shanty is covered with images of mythological figures, both traditional and modern. It's creator, who was standing inside, was impressed that I recognized Perseus holding the head of Medusa. I was even more impressed that he could recite the names of the three fates silhouetted on the opposite side of the dome: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. (I was hoping he'd ask me to name the three musketeers.) 

Arcade Shanty: The interior of this shanty seems to be lit by a blue florescent light. There is an air hockey table against one wall that you can play with any stranger who takes the other end. I found that I'm very bad at this game.

Mood Shanty: In this shanty you're invited to place your hand on a stove, at which point the stove pipe will change colors, indicating your mood.

Chef Shanty: In this shanty people were making potato prints. The proprietor told me that a wide variety of activities have been scheduled for upcoming weeks, some involving food you can actually eat.

Conversation Shanty: Here you sit on a wooden bed and talk to a young woman behind the one-way mirror. The point is to engage in conversation with strangers. I enjoyed it, though it reminded me vaguely of a semi-risque scene from Wim Wenders's film Paris, Texas.

Solar Power Shanty: This dwelling consisted of a pup tent made of clear plastic sheeting. A man was sitting in the door wrapped in a down sleeping bag. He was fiddling with some thick orange-red slabs of plastic that, so he told us, generate electricity, even on cloudy days. Someone at MIT invented the material, but then shelved the project. A single manufacturer in London has a license to sell it. That's where he gets his panels.

Memento Shanty: Weird and commonplace objects hang from the clear plastic ceiling of this shanty. The artist who constructed it told me that he gathered the junk from friends. Each artifact evokes a fond memory for the person who donated it.

"Do you know what the specific memories are?" I asked.

"I haven't the slightest idea," he replied.

Car Wash Shanty: All you have to do is walk through this open-ended shanty the way a car goes through a car wash. I did so, and felt strangely cleansed as I emerged into daylight again on the other side. Sort of like taking communion.

Among the shanties I skipped were the Justice Shanty (I'm tired of politics), the Slumber Party Shanty (clearly meant for young girls), the Dance Shanty (I didn't feel like dancing to hip-hop in a thick down jacket), and the Vehicle of Expression Bus, which seemed to be about self-expression—an activity I try to avoid. (Just kidding.)

As we began to retrace our steps through the village, we noticed that the flamenco group had assembled and was now performing on the roof of the headquarters shanty. We listened for a few minutes. People came and left. A man rode by on a wolf-bicycle. It was fun.

After considering several restaurants in downtown White Bear Lake, we ended up eating lunch at a Taco John's near the Kowalski's on Highway 61. As we were pulling out of the lot, I said, "I think my mom is buried nearby."

"Let's go pay her a visit," Hilary said. We found the cemetery without difficulty—a small quiet site with a few large trees here and there—but we couldn't locate her headstone, which was probably buried under the snow.

She was an artist herself. I think she would have enjoyed the show.   

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Minnesota's Great Northern Festival

For me, the Loppet began unexpectedly on Friday evening, when I emerged from the basement wearing my headlamp (I'd been looking for a book) to the sound of explosions. Having examined the Loppet schedule in detail earlier that day, I knew immediately what it was. They were shooting off fireworks down in Theodore Wirth Park, a mile from the house, and I could see the colorful bursts of light through the trees from the darkened dining room window.

The moon was out, somewhat more than a quarter, and Venus was still bright in the western sky, but the fireworks were more colorful—garish reds and greens—though fairly low in the sky and partially obscured by the naked trees. I was tempted to run and get my camera, but then I realized this was the grand finale! The fireworks were scheduled to commence at 8 p.m. It was now 8:10. A brief display, which is all anyone needs, and a perfect introduction to a weekend of winter fun ... with or without much snow.

You could explore the website associated with the City of Lakes Loppet for quite a while without coming upon a succinct definition of what a loppet is. By definition, a loppet is a long-distance cross country skiing event. In these parts it's also an organization devoted to winter sports, and it seems that the Loppet has established a large degree of control over the real estate on which the Theo Wirth Par 3 golf course is located.  It's in charge of making snow at the site all winter, and it hosts quite a few national and international ski events, not to mention frequent high school tourneys. I have already skied the trails six or seven times this winter and I can attest to their quality, even in times of meager snow. This winter they rearranged some of the loops, making them better than ever.

An abbreviated lists of the events sponsored by the Loppet this weekend would include the Speedskating Loppet 25K National Championship Event on Lake Calhoun, a set of sprints sponsored by local vendor Sisu, a classic marathon sponsored by Hoigaard’s, a telemark clinic, a snow sculpture contest, and an evening luminary loppet on Lake of the Isles that we've joined a few times.

There is also a Kubb tournament out on Lake Calhoun, the Puoli Loppet Classic, the Pearson’s Crew Ski Loppet, a Ski-O Loppet, Speedskating Loppet, the National One-Dog ski jouring Championship, the Rossignol Junior Loppet, various Short Skate and Long Skate Speedskating Loppets, a Snowshoe Loppet, a Fat Tire Loppet, Chuck & Don’s Point-to-Point Loppet and Subaru Two-Dog National Championship, and a Dogsled Loppet.

In order to ramp up the excitement and create an even more impressive display of winter energy and craziness, the Loppet has teamed up this winter with the St. Paul Winter Carnival and the National Pond Hockey championships under the rubric of a single moniker—the Great Northern.  I don't imagine it can do these events much harm, but I doubt whether people will be more likely to visit a frigid part of the country to see some ski races at Wirth Park if a Red Bull Ice Crashed Ice event (also a part of the new consortium) is going on later that day in St. Paul, on the other side of town.   

 Saturday afternoon I wandered down the hill along Bassett Creek to the Loppet event center. You could hear the voice of an announcer over the loud-speakers a half-mile away, but when I turned the corner leading up to the Surley beer tent and the racing headquarters I heard a new and unexpected sound—a chorus of barking dogs. I'd lucked into the ski-joering competitions. 

One race was underway, but there were forty or fifty skiers standing in the broad starting lane, trying to keep their dogs under control as they awaited the mass start of the next race. Spectators were lined up two and three deep all along the snow fences on either side of the track. A lot of handsome dogs were yipping and pacing, bewildered to be in such a large crowd of fellow canines, probably, and eager to get going.  it all seemed a little awkward and silly, but also very sporting and colorful.

The snow wasn't good, but it was good enough, and there were howls and shouts of encouragements as the skiers competing in the previous race sped down through the trees in the distance, made the corner and continued up the slight incline to the finish line. Theirs was a two-lap race, however, and after disappearing behind the announcer's booth, they reappeared and headed back off into the wooded hills again. Most of the skiers were going faster than their dogs at this point, and it became obvious to me that the art of ski-joering involves not only getting pulled by a dog at twenty miles and hour, but also making sure you can control the slack on the reins at those times when the dog takes a breather and you find yourself speeding ahead of him.

Finally the new set of racers was given a countdown. No gun was sounded. A man with a megaphone simply gave the word, and they were off. Most of them, anyway. A few ran into each other and tumbled into the icy snow, causing further difficulties for the competitors coming behind them.

Once most of the racers had disappeared around the bend, I wandered back the way I came, enjoying the smell of the wood fires burning in the plaza, admiring the stuffed waffles for sale at the food truck, then wandering through the beer tent, which was packed with skiers in tight blue and black ski suits emblazoned with brand names: Rossignol, Atomic, Fischer, Sisu.


Later than afternoon we drove to St. Paul. We had tickets for a concert at the Ordway Concert Hall, and arrived early because Hilary had spotted an item in the newspaper. The Original Coney Island Restaurant & Bar—the oldest commercial structure in either of the Twin Cities—would be opening its doors at 2 p.m. The building dates to 1858, and it's been a Coney Island restaurant since 1923. When I was a kid (back in the 1960s, that is) we used to ride the bus downtown and wander the streets, going to Musicland, Bridgeman's, Daytons, and occasionally the Coney Island, which was around the corner and halfway down the block. It seemed a little seedy even then to an impressionable fifteen-year-old, but the coneys were cheap.

The restaurant is still owned by the same Greek family who opened it in 1923, but it's been closed since 1994. In the last few years Mary Avanitis, who's now in charge of operations, has opened it on rare occasions for private parties and, even less often, to the public.

The place was lively when we arrived. I had anticipated a line stretching out the door, but we found a booth easily and walked up to the counter to order some coney islands. A waitress came by later to retrieve our plastic basket, and when I asked her if she was the owner, she sat down to chat. No, she wasn't the owner, but she and Mary had been friends since grade school. They had grown up on Watson Street, in one of the many St. Paul neighborhoods that I'd never heard of—and don't remember now. "People think of it as part of Highland, but it's not," she said.

A few minutes later Mary herself came by and joined us in the booth. She told us that they closed the restaurant because her brothers got sick and they weren't making money. Once the city forbade them to rent rooms upstairs to boarders, it was all downhill. "I can't even come out ahead on St. Patrick's Day," she said. She wasn't complaining, but it was obvious she enjoyed seeing customers in the place and would like to be open more often.

The Coney's were fine. And the juke box had offerings such as Dean Martin"s "That's Amore," Patsy Cline's "San Antonio Rose," and tunes by Jimmy Dorsey, Percy Faith, Enoch Light, and the Platters. No rock'n'roll in sight.

Back out on the street, we were immediately immersed in commotion. The Torchlight Parade had just passed by. Beer-drinkers were enjoying the bonfire pits at Great Waters Brewing, and romantic couples were slurping oysters next door at Meritage. A throng had wandered out into Rice Park where the battle between King Boreas and the Vulcans was about to commence. Most of the hoopla seemed to be taking place at the public library at the other end of the park, however. Flames were shooting twenty feet in the air, fireworks were exploring, and I could see quite a few Vulcans in their red outfits hanging around on the library steps.

We ran into the brother of King Boreas later in the upstairs lobby of the Ordway Theater. I forgot to ask him how the battle turned out. He gave me a button which I'm sure will be worth a lot of money some day. However, I gave it to a little girl who was passing by with her mother; she seemed to be more interested in costumed figures than I was.

The concert? The modern pieces were "interesting," due to the energetic performance of flautist Clare Chase and the deft Couperin arrangements by Thomas Ades, and the performance of Respighi's The Birds was delightful. As we left the hall, a Price cover band named Chase and Ovation was just wrapping things up out in the park. The only food booth still open was selling deep-fried cheese curds.

We passed the Coney Island joint on our way back to the parking ramp. Peering through the window, I saw Mary standing at the counter in the half-dark inside, doing a final tally with a pencil and paper. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Paterson - the Film

A bus driver named Paterson and his wife live in a small house with their English bulldog in Paterson, New Jersey. He walks to work every day carrying a metal lunchbox. She mostly stays home painting curtains, designing dresses, or baking cupcakes to sell at the local farmer's market. She's very sweet, not to mention beautiful. He's agreeable, soft-spoken. He walks the dog after dinner every night, hooking the little fellow up on a post along the sidewalk so he can go into a bar and drink a single beer, very slowly, while he chats with the bartender or whoever sits down beside him.

During the day he listens to conversations between the passengers sitting near the front of the bus. He also writes poetry in the Imagist style, inspired by the work of Paterson's most famous son, William Carlos Williams. He often starts a poem while sitting at the wheel of his bus, waiting for his route to start. He spends some time in the basement when he gets home from work, polishing.

She has a dream of purchasing a guitar she's seen advertised on TV, and maybe becoming a country-western star. She's never played the guitar, but stranger things have happened. He encourages her, though it's pretty clear money is tight. For her part, she encourages him to Xerox his book of poems. She thinks he should share his verses with the world.

Minor characters add variety to the scenario. Paterson's supervisor at the bus terminal has a litany of little complains to share each morning. The bartender has taken some money from his wife's cookie jar to enter a local chess tournament. A young woman at the bar is trying to dump her boyfriend, an actor who seems to be more in love with the drama of being in love than with her.

Anyone who's seen a Jim Jarmusch film will be familiar with the slightly stilted dialog. There are long gaps between remarks, while the interlocutors ponder what's just been said and come up with a thoughtful response. Although there are moments of danger, surprise, and anger scattered here and there, for the most part Paterson flows along like a gentle brook. And that allows the viewer to begin seeing the people, the city, the passing urban scene, and the domestic tranquility shared by the protagonists in the same poetic light as Paterson himself does. A sort of calm, slightly bemused wonder takes hold and grows, like lichen.    

It's remarkable to see a film like Paterson on the big screen—quiet, almost methodical, yet humming gently with quirky characters and unexpected incidental remarks.  It's a celebration of the quotidian, though such a word would never appear in one of Paterson's poems. As he writes, or recites, slowly, handwritten words appear across the screen. His voice carries a degree of sincerity, but it sounds as home-spun as the words themselves. 

Here's one of them.

Love Poem
We have plenty of matches in our house
We keep them on hand always
Currently our favorite brand
Is Ohio Blue Tip
Though we used to prefer Diamond Brand
That was before we discovered 
Ohio Blue Tip matches
They are excellently packaged
Sturdy little boxes
With dark and light blue and white labels
With words lettered
In the shape of a megaphone
As if to say even louder to the world
Here is the most beautiful match in the world
It's a one-and-a-half-inch pine stem
Capped by a grainy dark purple head
So sober and furious and stubbornly ready
To burst into flame
Lighting, perhaps the cigarette of the woman you love
For the first time
And it was never really the same after that

All this we will give you
That is what you gave me
I become the cigarette and you the match
Or I the match and you the cigarette
Blazing with kisses that smolder toward heaven

I haven't seen all that many films about poetry. The only ones that I can think of off-hand are a Korean film called Poetry and a biopic about Keats called Bright Star. Both are excellent.
Back home, I pulled a little volume of William Carlos Williams' selected poems off the shelf. (Paterson's wife calls him Carlos William Carlos for a little joke.) I've never been a big fan, but now that I've seen a few scenes from Paterson, I'm starting to like him better.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Barrow's Goldeneye

A warm January is nice. But a gray and dreary day calls for some sort of response. Ours was to head for the Mississippi north of town to see about locating a Barrow's Goldeneye that had been reported seen by three or four people in the vicinity of Anoka.

The common goldeneye can be seen fairly often in these parts, even in the wintertime, presuming there's some open water. It's a beautiful duck, and full of character, a frisky diver, more compact than most ducks, with a somewhat elongated forehead that gives it an interesting shape.

The Barrow's goldeneye looks just the same—except that the white spot on its cheek looks like a comma rather than a circle. (There are other differences, but no need to go in to them here.)

Goldeneyes tend to travel in flocks, up and down the river, usually on the opposite side from the one you're on. We reached the river in Champlain, a twenty-minute drive north, and pulled in to the riverside park. I was trying to get the spotting scope rigged up when a pick-up pulled over.

"Any luck?" the man said.

"You mean the Barrow's goldeneye? We just got here."

"I saw it earlier this morning. Haven't seen it lately. A lot of the goldeneyes are across the river in front of that house—can you see it?—with the big front porch."

It was a long ways away.

A man with a very large camera was sitting on a stool near the beach, poised a ready.

"See anything?" I asked, walking over his way.

"No. But maybe you can get those goldeneye to cross the river and pose right here in front of the beach."

"Sure. If you'll email me the photo. Did you know there's a rare one out there?"

"I had no idea."

We decided to cross the river ourselves to check out another large flock just offshore in front of Peninsula Park in Anoka, barely visible from where we were standing. On our way out of Champlain I made what may have been the best sighting of the day—Q Fanatic BBQ.

"That place often shows up in the top ten lists," I said. "We should come back for lunch."

Five minutes later we were lined up along with three other birds on the bank of the Mississippi, looking through the trees at a large raft of goldeneyes.

"You see anything?" I said.

"I've got the Barrows right in my scope. Trouble is, he only comes up for a second or two and then dives again. Oh, he's up again. Now he's down."

The man directed me to the part of the raft where the Barrow's was diving. Through that V in the trees, just beyond the ice flow. I didn't see him.

"He's up! Now he's down."

I think the three other birders must have seen him, but we didn't. I started to rationalize: three knowledgeable birders attest to the presence of a barrow's goldeneye within that raft of ducks. I see the raft of ducks. So it might be said that I have seen a Barrow's goldeneye, though I have no idea which duck it was. Not a very satisfying "sighting."

I don't mind asking questions, it's obvious that we're novices."So, do you look for the facial markings, or the coloration on the back?"

"Look for the darker back. It's very distinctive. You'll never see that hook in the white spot. Oh. Now he's up again! ... Now he's down. Here. Take a look through my scope."

I didn't see it.

A few minutes later we walked up a rise along the mushy sidewalk to a spot where two other birders were standing. One was the man we'd talked to initially across the river in Champlain.

"He's out there," the man said.

The view was better here. He tried to describe where the Barrows was situation in the flock. Then I saw it. The obvious comma-shaped white marking in front of the eye. The bird had grown tired of diving, evidently, and was taking it easy. Nice.

Hilary took a long look and also saw the variation on the back. I looked away, then saw it again. When two other birders with their scopes came over, I (suddenly the expert) tried to help them locate the position between the trees and in the midst of a grouping of perhaps eighty other almost identical birds drifting slowly downstream in the midst of large chunks of floating ice.

Having driven this far, we decided to continue up the river a few miles the Monticello, where hundreds of trumpeter swans congregate every winter. There weren't any swans in sight when we got there—just a few hundred mallards. They'd taken advantage of the melting snow to head out into the nearby cornfields to feed. But Jim Lawrence, who lives next door and feeds the birds daily, happened to be standing there, and he showed is a panorama on his iPhone of a recent day (or perhaps it was last year) when more than 1,600 swans had congregated there. 

Jim told us the story of how the swans, once considered extinct in North America, had made such a comeback locally, and also shared quite a bit of information about coyote hunting in urban areas and trapping nuisance species in nearby Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. But that's a tale for another time.

We decided to take backroads along the river back to Champlain, rather than return to the freeway, and this took us through a village I'd never visited before—Dayton. Not much going on there, by the look of things. But sometimes you'd be surprised.

We capped off our gray winter field trip with some heat—at the Q Fanatic BBQ, located in a very short strip mall just off of Highway 169 in Champlain. Lots of meat on those ribs, and the beans and slaw were also notably tasty.

I'm no expert on ribs, but I later read a review in The Heavy Table that began as follows:
It is infuriating that Q Fanatic is one of Minnesota’s best-kept gastronomic secrets. This is a place that should be elbow-to-elbow crowded, seven nights a week, and resisting the temptation to expand and choke on its own success. Q Fanatic is doing barbecue at a level that stacks up, rib for rib, against the kind of stuff they’re doing at the grand-champion 17th Street Bar & Grill near East St. Louis, or at Allen and Son in Chapel Hill, NC. This is stuff that kicks Famous Dave’s into the dust and merits the long drive from the metro area. Grit your teeth, and get in the car. There is a rainbow of perfectly cooked meat waiting at the end of your voyage.
If ribs alone don't make it worth a trip, you can always stop along the river and try to hunt up a Barrow's goldeneye. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Is Jazz Dying?

Among the several virtues of the recent film La La Land is that it has gotten people talking about jazz. A few people. One of the protagonists in the film (Ryan Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who has a dream of opening his own club. He's afraid that the jazz traditions are dying, and yet he finds it impossible to make a decent living without stooping to accept a job as a sideman in a pop-funk band.

Some viewers have commented that the way this issue is developed in the film is a little childish and generally unconvincing. I agree. Here are a few reasons:

a) Few unemployed jazz musicians living in one-bedroom apartments seriously imagine they might lease or purchase a historic ballroom in Los Angeles any time soon.

b) In any case, running a club is an entirely different kettle of fish from playing music on the highest level. Both take a lot of time, but they aren't the same thing at all.

c) Most aspiring musicians of any genre spend a great deal of time jamming with their musician friends, trying to develop new sounds, rather than sitting alone at the piano trying to copy riffs from LPs that are fifty years old.

d) The manager of the nightclub where Gosling works could easily have agreed to let him play something more complex  than "Jingle Bells," if he kept it mellow, and he could easily have agreed. It not, he could also have amused himself jazzing up the items that were on the playlist for his own pleasure without alienating the dinner guests unduly. That's what jazz musicians do. (Check out Charlie Parker's version of "White Christmas" on iTunes.) As it stands, the conflict in the film rings false.

All of this doesn't effect the film much, however. La La Land is a fantasy, and jazz is a pretext, and it works well enough under the circumstances. So let's not get too concerned about it. The question remains: Is jazz dying? And the answer, to anyone who knows jazz, is an obvious no.

Most people don't know much about jazz, and I suspect that many adventurous listeners who give it a try find that they don't like it much. Yet in the set of statistics I just dug up online, which runs to 2014, jazz accounted for 1.4 percent of music sales—the same as classical music. Not bad! I suspect if it rose much higher we could attribute it to the success of one particular vocalist or "crossover" artist who would no longer be doing "real" jazz anyway. 

There are many types of "real" jazz, of course, though they aren't mutually exclusive. You might like Trad Jazz, Swing (Big Band), vocal jazz, Bop (cool, West Coast, hard bop), Modal, free jazz ("out"), fusion, Euro (chamber jazz), or "ethnic" jazz, by which I mean jazz inflected with Asian, Brazilian, or modern African elements, to mention a few of the most obvious style-niches.

The beauty of jazz—I think the film got this right—is that those who love it really love it and are thrilled to be in its presence on any given night. Jazz blogs abound covering some of its many underground nooks and crannies. (One I read regularly is dothem@th, maintained by Etan Iverson, the pianist of The Bad Plus.)

The energy of a live jazz set tends to wax and wane, and the temptation musicians face to coast is ever-present—especially on a Monday night in Minneapolis. I consider my time well-spent if there are ten or fifteen incandescent minutes in a given performance. Often there are more.

I've been going to jazz shows since the late 1960s, when the Guthrie Theater presented a top-notch series (Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, Garry Burton, etc.). In those days the storefront club Cafe Extraordinaire (located where K-Mart now sits on Lake Street, but one hundredth the size) also booked some big names into its dark, low-ceilinged room full of folding chairs (e.g. Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson). The six dollar cover seemed enormous to a high school kid like me, and the club was twenty miles from home, but it was worth it to listen to the McCoy Tyner Trio while resting my tennis shoes on the front leg of his piano!  

All serious jazz fans maintain a memory list of greats they've heard "live"—experiences often only dimly captured in recordings. I won't bore you with mine. But I would like to send one query out into the blogosphere. I once heard Charles Mingus play a surprise set at the Guthrie with only two or three days notice. I heard about it on the radio (KSJN).The two young reed men in his group were fantastic, but at the time I'd never heard of them and didn't remember their names. In retrospect I wonder if they might have been Rickie Ford and Sonny Fortune. Can anyone help?

The greatest challenge jazz presents to newcomers is simply one of sorting out the styles. If your introduction to jazz piano, for example, happens to be Thelonious Monk, you'll have a very different impression of jazz than if Bill Evans is your guide. And what about Jaki Byard, Muhal Richard Abrams, Bud Powell, Robert Glasper, Mal Waldron? The stylistic differences are striking, radical, and the list goes on and on.

If you emerged from the theater after seeing La La Land with the idea that you might like to learn a little more about that elusive thing called jazz, here's a short list of recent mainstream piano recordings to check out on iTunes. Why not download a few numbers? It would cost less than your morning latte. I wouldn't say these are the BEST. They're just a few albums I happen to own myself.

  • Kenny Barron/ Dave Holland: The Art of Conversation (2014)
  • Bill Charlap: Notes from New York (2016)
  • Gerald Clayton: Life Forum (2013)
  • Chick Corea: Further Explorations (2011)
  • Herbie Hancock:  River - the Joni Letters (2007)
  • Brad Mehldau/Joshua Redman: Nearness (2016)
  • Fred Hersch: Night and the Music (2007)
  • Robert Glasper: In My Element (2007)

And for historical perspective I'd throw in the 2 CD set by Bill Evans called Some Other Time, recorded in 1968 but released only last year.

I haven't followed jazz avidly for a long time, though I occasionally "dip in" to see what's happening. I also belong to a Jazz Night group that meets once a month to listen respectfully to selections brought by the various members. I came across a very thick book the other day, Jazz Record: the First Sixty Years, by Scott Yanow, in which he chronicles the art form in exhaustive detail over the course of 800 pages of fine print. The narrative ends in 1976, but Yanow concludes:

Some of the lazier observers of the current jazz scene have complained that jazz has lost its direction since the 1970s and that the music has run out of fresh ideas. The truth is that jazz is in a golden age that started in the mid-1890s, accelerated around 1920, and has not stopped since. The music on a whole has never had an artistic off period, and it continues with brilliant performances and recordings up to the current time.

He follows this remark with a list of roughly three hundred "young" performers, only a smattering of whom I've heard of.

In short, jazz is still very much alive and well. The challenge for the performers is one of making a living from it. The challenge for us lies in sorting it all out.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Northwoods Journal

It was dusk when we pulled into the Mont Royal supermarket—a place where the lighting director probably makes more than the produce buyer. It was a glitzy shopping experience of the kind I don't generally associate with Duluth. But we'd come looking for fresh fish and bought a pound and a half of lake trout. The butcher was excited to sell it to us. "Caught just yesterday in Bayfield," he said enthusiastically. (Everyone else seemed to be buying frozen shrimp and scallops for their New Years Eve party.)

It was dark by the time we got to Two Harbors. Not a big deal, though it seemed odd to arrive at our cabin in Castle Danger without having gotten a good long look at the big lake. We could hear it, however. It was roaring. We breaded, fried, and ate the fish while listening to jazz piano on Hil's iPad (Billy Childs, Fred Hersch), took a walk in the dark along the approach road to the resort, then built a fire in the glassed-in fireplace.

Now I'm reading Martin Heidegger, who tries to convince me, based of the etymology of the German word, that "building" is "dwelling." Think about it. It's a ridiculous position to take, though it highlights Heidegger's singular preference for passive rather than active notions.
Tomorrow we'll ski.

Morning. Two red-breasted mergansers (I think) just drifted by outside the window. I had a dream that I had been selected to give some sort of speech at a college campus. No one told me this until I arrived, however.

We skied Gooseberry State Park. Plenty of snow cover. Two hours without seeing a soul. These are our favorite North Shore trails. The woods are varied and generally open, never flat but seldom treacherous. Climbing gently, descending to that creek. (Don't know the name.) The frozen river is nice, of course, but even more impressive, I think, is the view inland across the expanse of woods and hills from the ridge, a mottled pattern of frosty grays and greens stretching to the horizon. We took our usual route but tacked on another small loop at the base of the "deer yard" and then up a little hill to a bivouac shelter with another great view, flushing a grouse along the way.

Later, on our way out of the parking lot, we came upon four pine grosbeaks sitting in the road.

After lunch we decided to go back out and ski the municipal trails in Silver Bay. That was ambitious. It was something of a shock to arrive at the parking lot and find it almost full.

"I can't believe there are so many people here," I said to the middle-aged woman who was just climbing up over the snowbank with her skis.

"Everybody decided to come north, I guess," she said, with only a faint wisp of disdain in her voice.

"Yeah, but we skied Gooseberry this morning for two hours and didn't see a soul."

She wasn't interested. She was gone in a flash, off into the dense woods. And she was the only person we saw during our ski.

The trails here are narrow. They run through the dark spruce woods maybe thirty feet up the bank from the Beaver River. The afternoon sun coming across the frozen river penetrated the vegetation here and there to give the woods a genuine sparkle. A half-mile in, the trail leaves the river and the countryside becomes more open, occasionally meadow-like, which makes it easier to see the spectacular rock outcroppings in the distance, hundreds of feet high.

On our way back we took a detour to Lax Lake, where the ice houses can be beautiful set against the same rugged hills we were skiing between. There weren't all that many houses out on the ice--too early in the winter, perhaps?--but little matter; few things are more brilliant than just to be out on a snow-covered lake in full glare of winter sun.

I was cooking up a lamb stew with white beans and vegetables when Hilary got back from testing out a new set of aluminum snowshoes we'd inherited. "I haven't quite mastered the snowshoes," she said, "but the moon is spectacular."

I went outside to take a look. There was a crescent moon, more golden than usual. There was Venus, above and to the left, and then Mars, higher up, smaller.

I'm drinking a glass of Willamette whole cluster pinot noir. A few steps above my normal price point, yet I'm finding it unpleasantly sweet?! (Do you think that will stop me from having another glass?)

I have a collection of Heidegger's essay here beside me on the couch. Having read a few pages, I arrive at the conclusion that Being isn't very interesting. Can anything be done about Being? I think not. Let's put it aside, therefore, and redirect our attention toward a more important concept: Value.

So I turn to Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, where I read:

Men, in moments of
Idleness, occupy their minds
with the vacuity of
Feminine eyebrows..."

—Ou Yang Hsiu

The poet must have had a rough life, for he goes on to say:

               —who ever
has been benefitted by the
presence of a woman? Still,
my lewd heart yearns for the past ...

Turning from Rexroth to the French thinker Gabriel Marcel, I read:

Might it  not be said that to create is always to create above oneself? And is it not exactly, also, in this sort of connection that the word "above" assumes its specific value?

A little further on in Marcel's work, I come upon a remark that might well have been aimed, in the kindest way possible, at his estimable German colleague:

When he coins a new word, a philosopher is often the victim of an illusion. The strange and surprising impression produced on him by his new word often prevents him from seeing that there is nothing strange or surprising about the thought it expresses.  

And so, we walk outside again to view the stars. A clear night, constellations everywhere, the moon still 20 degrees above the horizon.

And then a bonus—a pack of coyotes, not that far away, yipping like mad.

Monday, January 9, 2017

La La Land

When the temperature is approaching zero and the skies are gray, the idea of spending a few hours in sunny Los Angeles might sound like a good one. And Damien Chazelle's new film, La La Land, satisfies that urge to a T. It's a quasi-romance on the order of A Star is Born, in which two aspiring artists fall in love—sort of. It also happens to be a musical. The songs are fairly catchy, and few human activities have greater power to lift the spirits than tap-dancing.

The opening number, a ten minute song-and-dance in the midst of a traffic jam on the LA freeway, appears to be a single take, and it establishes that this film is going to be full of creativity and whimsy. That impression is reconfirmed in many places along the way.

In short, La La Land has enough energy and surprise to dismiss from our minds the notion that it's striving slavishly to ape some lost film aesthetic. I'm a big fan of Hollywood musicals (not Broadway musicals)  and I've never seen a film quite like this. 

On the other hand, I'll have to admit that the opening sequence reminded me of a very, very long Target commercial.

In fact, La La Land is the kind of film in which you often find yourself thinking about the art director. The colors are super-bright, like a film from Pedro Almodóvar in his prime, though never to the point of outright garishness. Yet you look at a turquoise tumbler on a table, and notice how well it harmonizes with the bathroom curtains. That's not a good sign.

The most serious shortcoming of the film, however, is that the central romantic entanglement is tepid. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sustain a sort of antagonistic humor in the early going, but we don't feel much of an amorous countercurrent. They even sing a song together as they look out over the lights of Los Angeles in which they analyze this lack of feeling they share for one another. Anyone familiar with the energy and tension generated by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, or by Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or even by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century, must find this tone a little troubling. (Judy Garland and Gene Kelly? Kelly and Rita Hayworth? Grant and Jean Arthur? Astaire and Rogers? The list goes on and on.)

Gosling is largely to blame. He's sort of glum, and his repartee has an element of bitterness in it, based on the fact that no one shares his enthusiasm for mainstream jazz. When he eventually joins a band to start earning some real money, we're supposed to take it as a sell-out to pop commercialism ... but I sort of liked it. And anyway, musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, and Chick Corea (jazz greats one and all) made the same choice back in the early 1970s, during the glory years of fusion. Hey! A guy's gotta eat.

Things do start to click between the two eventually, but the strongest impetus they exchange is one of encouragement and self-sacrifice. Gosling wants Stone to follow her dream, while she wants him to do the same. That's all very noble, and it might even be wise, but it doesn't generate much entertainment heat. And neither of these aspiring artists should be surprised that if and when their careers blossom, they aren't going to be seeing much of each other.

But such concerns, which force us to leave aside superlatives when discussing La La Land, take nothing away from the film's value as a divertimento. Singing, dancing, color, romance, the pursuit of a dream: what's not to like? The ending scenes work, I think, but what happens "in the end" is less important than what's happening scene by scene, and this makes La La Land the kind of film that would, I suspect, be very easy to watch more than once.