A Drum Is a Woman
For an early concert in this year's "Everything Ellington" celebration, producer John K. Richmond unearthed a pair of Ellington works that had been dormant for quite some time: A Drum Is a Woman, Duke's oratorio on the roots of jazz, and My People, a gospel-heavy set of choir-anchored tunes. The music on Sunday had its shining moments and its tricky spots. Nevertheless, this bit of musical and stage archaeology offered less insight into Ellington the composer than it did into his particular concerns of the day.
Originally conceived in 1941 with Orson Welles, Drum was supposed to have provided a forum for Ellington--give him a chance to tell the story of jazz in his own words. Ellington liked the idea, but his first priority and way of life--writing music and performing with the band--didn't allow him the time to develop it. Not until 1956 did Duke finally put it all together as a television program on CBS. My People came in 1963, mixing old Ellingtonia with fresh compositions for the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in Chicago.
In telling his story of jazz in Drum, Ellington composed music around a tale of Carribee Joe and Madame Zajj, and their travels through places rich in jazz history. WCPN's Dee Perry and vocalists Joya Sherrill, Darby Dizard, and Cleve Douglas carried the story through weighty vocals and storytelling, as the band swelled in and out behind them. Once a singer with Ellington, Joya Sherrill commanded most of the attention during Drum for her throaty blues vocals.
The orchestra contained many fine players, and that showed in the solos. Especially notable were lead trumpeter Barrie Lee Hall, saxophonist Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr, and clarinetist/saxophonist Kent Englehardt, all of whom have a long history with Ellington music. The orchestra must not have been playing together for long, because they didn't sound particularly tight. Neither did they share the Ellington Orchestra's famous ability to control the volume, to swing hard even when it needed to be soft.
Things picked up on the gospel-influenced My People, where--logically--the choir figured most prominently. Without a narrative this time, the musicians and singers were left more room to play out. All three singers had their moments, especially Dizard with "My Man Sends Me" and Douglas on "Blues at Sundown." The orchestra enjoyed a few tunes to itself, one of which included particularly tough muted trumpet work by Joe Miller.
Ultimately, however, the program was more of a footnote in the grand Ellington scheme of things. Duke planned several large-scale productions, most concerning--in one way or another--this celebration of the African American through music, and A Drum Is a Woman and My People. both fit into that category. What survives are two moments in history, two snapshots of Duke's reflections. A secondary attraction, the music performed, did swing to the fore on occasion, but not for very long. Duke's musical pinnacles are to be found elsewhere.
Schleigho proved to be a well-rehearsed band Wednesday night. Through the occasional Latin rhythm or stop-start transition, the outfit nearly always kept it together. A jazzy jam band, Schleigho employed some complex chordage and even a cover of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" right in time for the centennial celebration of his birth. The interest, as well as the fun, ended there.
If keeping a steady beat was their intent, then a "well done" is owed them. Recognition probably belongs to drummer Erik Egol and percussive organist Jessie Gibbon. For those of you into this kind of thing--the steady, jammy beat--make haste to your nearest well-stocked CD store.
For the rest of us, Schleigho's jam-band devotion to this steady beat bordered on the tyrannical. The band's sense of rhythm had all the subtlety of a bludgeon. Egol kept a steady beat, sure, but he seemed to be keeping it in a void, plowing away with little empathy for his fellow musicians. Nobody in the band seemed to notice, because they were every bit as introverted as he was.
For most of the night, the band alternated between throbbing repetition and an all-out noodlefest. It drove licks and chord progressions thoroughly into the ground, stretching thin material into ten- and fifteen-minute songs. On top of the mind-numbing repetition, note-thick, endless, directionless solos served no greater purpose than to continually reacquaint your ass with the bar's wooden seats.
Lacking in any sense of balance or proportion, the band chugged on, steady at its favorite speed: go. Everyone played all the time and at the same volume--even through most of the solos--giving the band a remarkably cluttered sound. Only Gibbon emerged from the group sound with anything interesting to say.
At a few odd moments, the band's fascination with the aforementioned stop-start, heavy chunk sections and its penchant for drone combined for what could almost be described as overly complex heavy metal. A new genre? Schleigho might be only one James Hetfield away from superstardom.
The Terrifying Experience
In the spirit of When Good Pets Go Bad and World's Scariest Car Chases, the Fox network may want to consider When Sidemen Go Solo. Its potential is equally as frightening.
Mitch Mitchell split with Guided by Voices in 1997. His band, the Terrifying Experience, eschews Rob Pollard's lo-fi pop sensibility for Les Pauls and thick rhythms. If Pollard was the schoolteacher, Mitchell is the bus driver on the verge of losing his chauffeur's license.
The substantially tattooed Mitchell took the stage with three Columbus musicians: guitarist Duane Hart, Geoff Ortlip (formerly of the Econothugs), and drummer Mark Deane (Monster Truck Five). The band's blend of swamp metal and Midwestern punk was loud, heavy, and not very good.
Mitchell would probably be the first to say he's not much of a singer, and honey-smooth vocals have never been punk rock's signature. But Mitchell didn't compensate for his technical shortcomings with a sense of immediacy or frustration. So little effort was required, he raced through one number with a lit cigarette in his mouth. He sang, seemingly, for no other reason than that he wrote the song.
The band had some bad luck, namely a combustible bass amp. But when Ortlip and Hart took their turns at the mike, spirits (mine, at least) improved. Mitchell himself, not the bugaboos, may have been the Terrifying Experience's biggest disadvantage.
Before TE's set, Viva Caramel played rousing, cerebral trash rock. I left the club with two mental notes: See Viva Caramel again and dust off GBV's Bee Thousand.