Saturday, August 19, 2017

Guy Mendilow Ensemble - Music from The Forgotten Kingdom (October 6, 2017)

The Musical Lessons of Lost Worlds: How Guy Mendilow Ensemble Engages Creatively with the Sephardic Past to Inform the Present on The Forgotten Kingdom

The past can feel distant, foreign: its communities erased, its memory buried. Yet we can sometimes access it through the fantastic, through storytelling that resonates with lived experience.

Composer and artist Guy Mendilow has followed this path to the past, weaving together vignettes, glimpses, and fragmented stories from and of Sephardic communities around the Mediterranean and Balkans. Many of these communities have been wiped off the map, even their language nearly forgotten. But the characters who sprang from them feel fresh and present, and to Mendilow, their adventures and trials suggested a Sephardic epic of sorts, complete with powerful music and universally resonant emotions and messages.

Rethinking the role of musical aesthetics and spoken word in re-creating these impressions, Mendilow and his Ensemble has recorded The Forgotten Kingdom (release: October 6, 2017). The album has two versions, one with just the music from the show, one reflecting the interwoven stories, complete with spoken interludes. Its vignettes propel listeners from old world and into new, from the mythical (“La Sirena/The Siren”), the actual (“La Vuelta del Marido/The Husband’s Return”) and concluding with the harrowing symbol of the trains to Auschwitz (“De Saloniki a Auschwitz”) that bring this older age to a definite, violent end.

“What has haunted me as I’ve created this production is how it gives us a glimpse into the end of an era, the destruction of an older world,” says Mendilow. “I wanted to explore what it was like to see the breakdown of empires, the glimmers of hope that then evaporate. What is it like to be caught on the wrong side, in that kind of nightmare? What is like to witness your world ending? How did the moment, which seems so inevitable in our historical hindsight, actually feel to those living it?”

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The product of years of performance, research, and revising, The Forgotten Kingdom’s intertwining music and storytelling conjure an imagi-nation lost to war and upheaval, recorded in a language that blends archaic Spanish with Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, and Greek. “As far as I know, The Forgotten Kingdom is America’s first semi-theatrical touring production made of Ladino songs from Balkan and Mediterranean communities destroyed in WWII,” says Mendilow. “It’s an evocative trek through former Ottoman lands, an allegory that ultimately begs some questions about ourselves today, and the ways these stories continue to play out, in a modern guise.” Mendilow and ensemble get the adventure to burst “with artistry, refinement, and excitement." (Hebrew Union College).

To make the work live and breathe, Mendilow learned these women's songs, traditionally sung a cappella in homes and communal celebrations, by listening to gritty field recordings. He then set aside notions of purity or authenticity, in favor of finding emotional connection. As he described his ideas to an established Ladino scholar, York University’s Judith Cohen, she laid it on the line: You either keep strictly to tradition and abide by its ways, or you pursue your own ideas, but without calling it traditional. Mendilow opted for the latter.

“That’s one of the most challenging things about the project, the moment that demanded the most soul searching,” he reflects. “The conclusion I came to was that we needed to call a fig a fig. I don’t want someone to think they’ve heard Ladino music when they’ve come to this show. It’s not about that; it’s about rendering a traditional way of life in bold, relatable colors.”

These stories speak to our age, Mendilow feels, which is why this project absorbed him for so long. “The Ladino story is a case study in resilience, in collaboration across ethnic and religious divides, and in evolving identities due to immigration,” says Mendilow. “And I feel this story begs the question: Are we also straddling an older, familiar world, and a newer one we can hardly imagine, like those in the stories did back then?” Mendilow and his fellow musicians strive to set the scene, to craft lively portraits of the characters, leaving ample space for listeners to invest in the tales, outside of the cultural and historical specifics.

Stories get better with the telling, and The Forgotten Kingdom proves no exception. Mendilow and his Ensemble, whose members play with everyone from Amanda Palmer and Snarky Puppy to Yo Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin, started developing the live performance of The Forgotten Kingdom several years ago. The group toured the show extensively, gathering responses from audiences who had never heard of Ladino, from elders who spoke it and knew the songs from their Sephardi homes decades ago.

Mendilow felt it was time to take to the studio. The group strived to capture the energy and flow of the performance as much as possible, then dove into the texture and nuance in a way that only studio work can allow. He also expanded the project into multimedia thanks to an artist award from the NEA, tapping Ukrainian sand painters  and German shadow artists to create animated versions of songs. (Two of these videos will be released around the same time as the album)

“Our goal is to sweep up audiences in an emotional experience,” says Mendilow. “We hope it’s so powerful that those with no prior knowledge or connection to Ladino will leave caring deeply about the culture and the world it creates for us. The stories are too good to be ignored, and the communities from which they come too important in terms of what they represent—from models of integration and inter-ethnic cooperation to their own rich heritage—to be dismissed.” 


GUY MENDILOW ENSEMBLE "An international tour de force” (Bethlehem Morning Call) from Israel, Palestine, Argentina and the USA, the Guy Mendilow Ensemble operates on the notion that incredible stories and emotionally sweeping experiences can do far more than just entertain. They can spark resonance, fascination and motivation to care beyond our day-to-day.  With this premise in mind, the Guy Mendilow Ensemble combines world-class musicianship with cinematic storytelling in shows that “explode with artistry, refinement, and excitement” (Hebrew Union College), conjuring voices lost to war and upheaval, whisking audiences to distant times and picturesque places and, ultimately, inspiring the motivation to explore lesser known cultures and histories.

The Guy Mendilow Ensemble tours four shows: The Forgotten Kingdom; Three Sides to Every Story (ft. Philadelphia Girls Choir); Heart of the Holidays — A Global Celebration in Song; and Around the World in Song family concerts. Highly skilled educators, the ensemble specializes in community engagement including tailor-made residencies, choral/string collaborations and a breadth of interactive workshops. The Ensemble is an artist-in-residence with Celebrity Series of Boston's Arts for All since 2014.  

In 2017, the National Endowment for the Arts selected the Guy Mendilow Ensemble for its Art Works, a grant for the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art and the strengthening of communities through the arts.

Alongside touring with the Guy Mendilow Ensemble, members are on the faculty of music schools like the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in India and tour/record with the likes of Bobby McFerrin, Yo Yo Ma, Snarky Puppy, the Assad Brothers, Christian McBride, the Video Game Orchestra, Amanda Palmer and Simon Shaheen. Formed in 2004, the Ensemble is based in Boston, MA and New York, NY, USA.

Matt Wilson's "irresistible" Honey and Salt tribute to Carl Sandburg (Coming August 25)

Drummer/Composer Matt Wilson Pays Tribute to “Poet of the People” Carl Sandburg on his Long-Awaited New Recording Honey and Salt

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death, the album features readings by Jack Black, Christian McBride, John Scofield, Carla Bley, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and Rufus Reid, with music by Wilson and longtime collaborators

“Matt Wilson has never failed to bring an element of surprise and unabashed joy to the bandstand.” – Bill Milkowski, JazzTimes

“Wilson's recordings as a leader are characterized by an adventurous, eclectic spirit, as well as musical humor."  Mark Sullivan, All About Jazz

Wilson celebrates recording in concert:

September 3 - Chicago Jazz Festival

September 12 - Redwood Jazz Alliance, Arcata, CA

September 13 - Healdsburg, CA

September 14 - Take 5 Jazz Club, Stockton, CA 

September 15 - Monterey Jazz Festival

September 19-20 - The Jazz Standard, NYC

September 21 - Clark University Worcester, MA 

When Carl Sandburg died in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson hailed the famed poet as “more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.” Fifty years after Sandburg’s passing, drummer/composer Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt pays tribute to the “poet of the people,” who won three Pulitzer Prizes, wrote the definitive biography of Abraham Lincoln, advocated for civil rights and traveled the country collecting traditional folk songs.

Sharing both Sandburg’s Midwestern roots and his gift and passion for communicating lofty art to a broad and diverse audience, Wilson has been a lifelong admirer of the poet’s work and has been setting his words to music for more than 15 years. The long-awaited release of Honey and Salt (out August 25 on Palmetto Records) coincides with the 50th anniversary of Sandburg’s death in July 1967 and looks ahead to January 2018, when the 140th anniversary of his birth will be celebrated.

“Sandburg was a Renaissance man and a poet of the people,” Wilson says. “I feel sometimes that of all the celebrated American poets, he doesn't really get his due. Hopefully we can help his work get more recognition in some small way.”

To recite Sandburg’s poems, Wilson enlisted a stellar list of jazz greats whose spoken voices are as expressive and eloquent as their better-known instrumental voices, including Christian McBride, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Carla Bley, Joe Lovano and Rufus Reid, along with actor/comedian/ musician Jack Black – an honorary member of the jazz family through his marriage to Charlie Haden’s daughter Tanya. Wilson sets these recitations in an eclectic variety of settings for the ensemble that he’s formed expressly to pay homage to Sandburg: guitarist/vocalist Dawn Thomson, cornetist Ron Miles, multi-reedist Jeff Lederer, and bassist Martin Wind, along with Wilson’s familiarly jubilant and spirited drumming.

Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on January 6, 1878; in 1964, Wilson was born one town over, in Knoxville. That proximity meant that the drummer became acquainted with the poet’s name and iconic silhouette almost from birth; there was a junior college nearby named for Sandburg, as well as a shopping mall. At home, the Wilson family read and discussed Sandburg’s poetry and listened to recordings of his readings.

Later, finding himself in the frantic metropolitan surroundings of New York City, Wilson found nostalgic solace in Sandburg’s transporting verses. But he also found, in Sandburg’s free verse, a parallel to his own adventurous musical proclivities. “As you get older you start to appreciate your regional connections a lot more,” Wilson says. “But I was always fascinated because it didn't rhyme. That aligned with my tastes in music at that time, when I was exploring all different kinds of music.”

Sandburg’s influence has emerged sporadically throughout Wilson’s career. His leader debut, As Wave Follows Wave, was named for a Sandburg poem that is reprised here; his 2003 album Humidity included a setting of Sandburg’s “Wall Shadows;” and An Attitude for Gratitude, the 2012 release by Wilson’s Arts and Crafts quartet, features the Sandburg-inspired “Bubbles.” The Honey and Salt project began life in 2002 with the help of a Chamber Music America New Works Grant and has since toured the world while Wilson has continued to delve into Sandburg’s volumes for new additions to the band’s repertoire.

Honey and Salt is loosely divided into three chapters and an epilogue: the first, urban-leaning poems; the second, more rural themes and ideas; the third examining the collision and overlap of the two; and the epilogue serving as a meditative leave-taking. Lee Morgan-esque horn lines over a gut-rumbling blues bassline open “Soup,” Sandburg’s more-timely-than-ever musing about a celebrity caught in the ordinary act of slurping soup from a spoon. Christian McBride’s gregarious baritone intones “Anywhere and Everywhere People,” with a series of horn motifs for the poem’s key repeated words. Wilson himself recites the contemplative “As Wave Follows Wave,” ultimately joined by a host of collaborators, friends and family members. “Night Stuff” unfolds against a slow, twilit landscape, while John Scofield recites “We Must Be Polite” in a hilarious deadpan against Wilson’s New Orleans shuffle. Sandburg’s own voice can be heard in duet with Wilson’s drums on his most revered poem, “Fog.” Chapter one closes with the raucous march of “Choose.”

Lederer reads “Prairie Barn” (which references a barn owned by a relative by marriage of Wilson’s) against Thomson’s American-tinged guitar and clattering wind chimes to open chapter two. “Offering and Rebuff” becomes a country love song, while “Stars, Songs, Faces” takes on an Ornette-inspired harmolodic tone. “Bringers” closes the chapter with a taste of down-home gospel. Chapter three opens with Black reading “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz” in a cantankerous rasp while Lederer and Wilson duet – a happy accident occasioned by a power outage at the studio. Bill Frisell’s soft-spoken voice on “Paper 1” contrasts with Joe Lovano’s hep-cat enthusiasm on its companion piece. The two are separated by Rufus Reid’s throaty purr on Wilson’s Beat-era throwback take on “Trafficker,” and the chapter ends with the lyrical “I Sang.”

Bley reads “To Know Silence Perfectly,” for which Wilson made silence the vehicle for improvisation; in an approach that John Cage would have appreciated, the tune’s theme is the same every time, while the length of silences vary based on the performers’ whims. Finally, “Daybreak” ends the album on a celebratory note.

As always, Wilson revels in a wide variety of moods and styles throughout Honey and Salt, which takes its name from a 1963 collection of Sandburg’s poetry. The title captures the delectable combination of sweetness and spice that characterizes the poet’s – and Wilson’s – work. “That’s my favorite volume of his poetry and I love the title,” Wilson says. “It has some collision, some rub. Music isn’t all flowers and candy; it has to have some edge to it.”

Balako Release 'Nervous Inn' via Greco-Roman


‘An enticing melting pot of sounds touching on techno, house, salsa, carimbo, disco, and funk’ XLR8R

Released last month, 'Hora De Balako’ was the infectious debut single from Brazilian duo Balako. The pair - AKA Diogo Strausz and Rodrigo Peirao - aren’t about making music to fit. Their styles range from techno and house to salsa and carimbo, blending 70’s disco and funk in the process and creating something both retro sounding and current. The word Balako derives from an 80's Brazilian slang word which fittingly translates as - 'a good type of mess.’ The authenticity of the tracks caused early confusion to Greco-Roman co-founder Joe Goddard who assuming the were littered with samples, quickly fell in love. "Sampling, editing, remixing and re-editing shouldn't`t be the only way to make Brazil sound contemporary on the dancefloor” insists Strausz.“For these tracks we headed to the studio with our musician friends and created our own retro sounding edits from scratch. It just seemed obvious to us.”

'Nervous Inn,' was the first track I ever composed and was actually born from a mistake I kept making on the guitar whilst trying to learn ‘Ligia' by Chico Buarque & Antonio Carlos Jobim. I'd just started learning and was just practicing at home while Eric Duncan and my girlfriend were sitting on the sofa. My little finger kept slipping but I loved the weird chord change instantly. The next morning I played it to my teacher and legendary Brazilian guitar player Cezar Mendes and he loved it. The track has and the vibe and atmosphere of my apartment in Rio, which Eric and I nicknamed ‘Nervous Inn.’ Rodrigo Peirao 

Balako’s unique sound is testament to their ability to look to the past and present for inspiration in equal measure. They love their city’s “sexy and energetic” music scene but want to do things on their own terms. “We are not in the glory days of clubbing and I think that is directly linked to the economic crisis we are facing. Nevertheless there is still some great producers emerging from the city like Carrott Green and Joutro Mundo, alongside local heroes like Mauricio Lopes.” It’s safe to say both Strausz and Peirao had earnt their place amongst the cities exciting new generation of producers before their paths even crossed. By joining forces and dedicating their time solely to Balako, the dynamic duo look to pick up the funk mantel and make 2017 their own. They will perform in two live formats, as a DJ set and with live band.