Jun 13

The Call and Response of Creativity

Alice Sara Ott gave an amazing solo piano recital at Symphony Center on Sunday, 2 June 2013. She played Wolfgang Mozart’s Nine Variations in D Major on a Minuet by J.P. Duport (1789), K. 573; Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in D Major (1825), D. 850 and Franz Liszt’s Grandes études de Paganini (1838 | 1851). The Liszt was described as especially challenging to play and it certainly sounded like it. Ott made it sound effortless, which made her musical ability and technical skill all the more impressive.

The program reminded me of the way creativity is in part a process of call and response. Works of art call to us and we respond in various ways. In classical music, composers have often written works as variations on the work of other composers, as Mozart did here.

Liszt was so powerfully affected by seeing violinist-composer Nicolo Paganini perform in Paris that he vowed to become the Paganini of the piano. Paganini inspired him to work on his piano technique for four or five hours a day. Later Liszt tried to create an equivalent of Paganini’s work on piano.

Ott played the entire program without music. How many hours must she have practiced these complex and difficult works to achieve the level of mastery she showed? Her calling to be a pianist (she began lessons at age 4) is obviously very powerful, as is the call of these composers. When one plays a song or piece of music until it becomes yours in some deep interior sense, then the magic happens.

This creative call and response also occurs throughout the history of the blues. Blues musicians responded to songs they heard and liked by adding them to their own repertoire. They also adopted or “borrowed” parts of lyrics, riffs or melodies, incorporating them into songs of their own creation. I’ve often heard a blues song and recognized a line or phrase I’ve heard in someone else’s song. Once the blues were more widely recorded (and copyrighted) this freely flowing exchange diminished.

Call and response is also an important concept within the blues and related music, but that’s a topic for another post.

Aug 10

Magic Slim and the Teardrops

This was the third time I’ve seen Magic Slim and the Teardrops this year at Kingston Mines, but it was a special treat, because in the first set Magic Slim played a Fender Jazzmaster. This was his primary guitar on his early recordings, including my favorite album of his, Grand Slam (1982). In his hands (he uses a thumb and a finger pick), the Jazzmaster had a more twangy, stinging tone than does the Les Paul Classic that I’ve see him play before and which he played during the second set. (He doesn’t use effects pedals, but plugs directly into the amp.)

Magic Slim at Kingston Mines August 14, 2010

Magic Slim at Kingston Mines August 14, 2010

Magic Slim is a master of the shuffle. Many of his songs are based on this fundamental blues rhythm. Born Morris Holt on Aug 7, 1937 in Torrence, Mississippi, Magic Slim is one of the elder statesman of Delta-flavored Chicago blues. He was given his blues moniker by West Side Chicago bluesman, Magic Sam, a Mississippi friend. Magic Slim is no longer slim, but he’s still tall and he definitely still has the magic. There are guitarists who can play faster and with more flash, but very few who can convey the depth of feeling Magic Slim can with seemingly little effort.

At this performance, The Teardrops consisted of Jon McDonald (Fender Stratocaster and vocals), Andre Howard (electric bass) and Brian Jones (drums). They provided a solid rhythmic base for Slim’s singing and playing. During the second set, a trombone player joined the band (I couldn’t catch his name). Additional photos of this event are on Flickr.

I’m already looking forward to more Magic in September when the band returns to Kingston Mines as well as to Buddy Guy’s Legends.

Aug 10

Harlem Avenue Lounge

August Lordy of ChicagoBluesBeat.com told me a few months ago that the Harlem Avenue Lounge was one of his favorite Chicagoland blues clubs. It’s just a few minutes from my house, but I just now made it there for the first time. I’ve driven by it a number of times, but I’m not sure I even noticed it. It’s not inviting from the outside. I was curious in particular about their Thursday night “Open Mic Blues Jam.” They have a house band play for an hour starting at 8:30 and then anyone who signs up can play.

The house band was much more impressive than I expected, especially guitarist Pistol Pete, who played with the speed and intensity of a Buddy Guy.

Pistol Pete with house band at Harlem Ave. Lounge

Pistol Pete with house band at Harlem Avenue Lounge

The first guest players I heard were hardly beginners. I couldn’t imagine getting up there myself in the near future, certainly not before I’d played for a while with other musicians. I plan to go back to hear more.

Jul 10

Chainsaw Dupont at Nick’s Beer Garden

Chainsaw Dupont is the first musician I’ve ever seen take a cell phone call during a set. (It was a brief call and the band kept playing.) He played his blues loose, but raw, his Laguna electric guitar heavy on echo and reverb. Several times he asked someone in the audience for a beat and would use that as the basis for a song. He had mike problems, so it was hard to hear when he sang. Perhaps because of that, most of his numbers were instrumentals.

Chainsaw Dupont

Chainsaw Dupont at Nick's Beer Garden

His band consisted of electric keyboard, bass and drums. The bassist (Tom?) and drummer were outstanding. During the first set, a couple of young men carrying African-style drums came in the club and sat down to listen. Dupont asked if they were there to jam. I gathered that wasn’t their intention, but he invited them to join the band and they played along through the second set.

Nick’s Beer Garden on Milwaukee Avenue in the busy, trendy Wicker Park neighborhood is a typical long narrow storefront bar. The band was set up by the windows at the front. Patrons coming through the front door sometimes had to step around Dupont as he played. It didn’t seem to faze him.

This was the first time I’ve heard Chainsaw Dupont and I really enjoyed his playing. It was a fun show and I would definitely go see him again. Additional photos of him are here.

Jul 10

Laurie Morvan Band

A band comes to town that you’ve never heard of. You check out their video on the Web. They’re playing at a club a few blocks away, so you take a chance. It pays off.

I saw the Laurie Morvan Band at Fitzgerald’s and was impressed. She’s a skilled guitarist, a good singer, and a lively performer. She had a tight band with Pat Morvan, her ex-husband, on bass, Tom Salyers on electric keyboard and Lisa Grubbs on backing vocals. They put on a good show, one that CDs can’t capture.

Laurie Morvan Band

Laurie Morvan Band plays the blues at Fitzgerald's

Morvan mostly sang original songs, but also covered two Albert Collins songs (“If You Love Me Like You Say” and “A Good Fool Is Hard to Find”), as well as “Messin’ with the Kid” and Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working.”

Her approach to the blues struck me as in the modern rock-pop vein, with less Delta than I like. It’s hard to explain, but it has a different feel to me. I thought she was very good at what she did. I also liked some of her original songs, but her style of blues is not one I aspire to. Needless to say, I’d love to be able to play at her level someday.

She has recorded four CDs, including Out Of The Woods (1997), Find My Way Home (2004), Cures What Ails Ya (2007), and Fire It Up! (2009).

Gear: Laurie Morvan played a 1956 reissue black Fender Stratocaster with gold pickguard from the Custom Shop. She used several effects pedals including a wah wah plugged into a 2006 Tone King Meteor II 40-watt head & cabinet.

Additional photographs of the Laurie Morvan Band are here.

Jun 10

Omar Faruk Tekbilek

The Turkish musician Omar Faruk Tekbilek performed with his ensemble at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago on Thursday, June 17, 2010. The music was lively and engaging and it was fascinating to see the mostly unfamiliar instruments being played.

Omar Faruk Tekbilek

Omar Faruk Tekbilek Ensemble at the Pritzker Pavilion

Tekbilek played several sizes of end-blown flutes [ney or nar, derived from the Persian nay. They are made of hollow cane and have six finger holes on the front and one on the back.]. For one song, he played a zurna, an instrument with a double reed mouthpiece and a bell-shaped end. (It’s similar to the duduk.) He also played a bağlama, a seven-stringed long-necked lute similar to an oud, but smaller and with an oval-shaped wooden body (shown in photo above). He sang the vocals in Turkish, so I had no idea what the songs were about, but it didn’t matter. In several songs, he begin with the ney, alternating with vocals and then switched to the bağlama.

The ensemble consisted of Tekbilek’s son, who play Turkish drums and others who played acoustic guitar, electric keyboard, drums and kanun, a type of zither that was played with metal picks on the fingertips.

Whenever I attend a concert like this, I always wish there was at least a brief overview of the instruments at some point. I’m always curious about what they’re called, how they produce sound or how they are played. It would save a lot of Google time trying to figure out what I saw.

I usually enjoy music more when the musicians seem to be having a good time, as this ensemble did. I think this is the first time I’ve heard Turkish music live and would definitely not miss an opportunity to see Omar Faruk Tekbilek again.

Jun 10

Rev. K.M. Williams

The Chicago Blues Festival is one of a number of free lakefront summer music events. The more well-known acts perform at the main stage, Petrillo Bandshell, while other groups perform at stages of various sizes. Because there are so many options, it’s a great way to discover musicians you’ve never heard of just by wandering from one stage to another.

I got to the Festival site early for a group that had been recommended, so I walked around. I saw a crowd at the small Roadhouse Stage. Rev. K.M. Williams, “The Texas Country Blues Preacher,” and the Amazing Trainreck (also known as Washboard Jackson) were playing. Williams played a First Act electric guitar that he said came from Wal-Mart. Trainreck played a washboard and a drum kit bare handed (he had thimbles or some kind of covering on his fingertips).

Rev. K.M. Williams at the Chicago Blues Festival, Saturday, June 12, 2010

Rev. K.M. Williams at the Chicago Blues Festival, Saturday, June 12, 2010

I just heard the end of their performance, perhaps three or four songs, but I enjoyed it a lot and the crowd was very enthusiastic. Williams played one-chord riffs while Trainreck tore up the drums. It was “primitive” but effective. Williams played one number on a cigar box guitar that looked like it had only two strings. He used a slide and got a lot of music out of it. I’d love to be able to do that. The performance was a highlight of the Festival for me.

Born in Clarksville, Texas on October 19, 1956 as Kelvin Mark Williams, he is an ordained minister, currently based in Dallas, Texas. He has recorded some 20 CDs.

Jun 10

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba (6/10/10)

Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba played at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park on Thursday, 10 June 2010. Their music was exhilarating and thrilling. It continues to amaze me that they can get so much music out of such “primitive”-looking instruments as the ngoni.


As someone who is still learning to play a six-string fretted guitar, It’s hard to imagine how one can play a four-stringed unfretted instrument with such apparent ease and precision. They played their hypnotic music for a little over an hour.

As an introduction to the Chicago Blues Festival that began the following night,  Barry Dollins came on stage and announced the Howlin’ Wolf tribute (yesterday was the 100th anniversary of his birth). Otis Taylor came out with Eddie Shaw and Hubert Sumlin. They played a few Wolf tunes (“Spoonful,” “Back Door Man,” “Shake It”) with the Kouyate group. Taylor played a white Fender Telecaster, Shaw played sax and sang, and Sumlin played his well-worn Strat. He had his oxygen tank with him and had to sit, but he seemed to be having a good time.

The jam was a chaotic mess. Taylor mostly just played a rhythm line. Sumlin’s guitar was hard to hear whenever he got a chance to solo. I imagine they never rehearsed, but I’m surprised that they didn’t do it so everyone got a chance to be heard. Fortunately, I’d heard Otis Taylor and Hubert Sumlin before so I knew what they were capable of, but it wasn’t a good introduction for new listeners.


Jun 10

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Nancy and I went to Symphony Center at 6:30 for a pre-concert performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Trio in D Major, Op. 9, No. 2 played by three members of the Orchestra, Qing Hou, violin, Lawrence Neuman, viola, and Brant Taylor, cello. I’m not a big fan of chamber music, but enjoyed this pretty well.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Joseph Karl Stieler (1781–1858): Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis (1820)

After the trio, Lawrence Rapchak, music director of the Northbrook Symphony gave a presentation on the evening’s program. He spent the most time on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 67, but also talked about the Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 and the Overture to Fidelio. He went through the symphonies, talking about the musical elements and structure, playing themes on the piano or playing excerpts from orchestra performances. His delivery was quick, lively and very interesting. It was perhaps the best and most helpful talk I’ve ever heard about music, especially among the pre-concert talks. I would love to hear more by him.

Nancy and I enjoyed the program conducted by 81-year-old Bernard Haitink. I think my enjoyment and understanding were enhanced by the Rapchak presentation. I heard more and noticed more. It was a memorable evening.

Jan 10

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Eighty-five-year-old Pierre Boulez conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert tonight. You’d never guess he was that old by the way he walks on stage and conducts.

We heard Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, Suite for Orchestra Marc-André Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto (2006) and Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Opera in One Act (1918). The Ravel was familiar, but the other two were new to me. I enjoyed the program.

Béla Bartók (1927)

Béla Bartók (1927)

The Bartók was a bit long, but I thought it was interesting both as music and as a portrayal of male and female psychology. I was struck by the familiar pattern of the woman trying to find out about the man she loves, to get him to reveal his secrets to her, to open up the doors to his (well-defended) castle. The man resists, but gradually gives in hoping that the woman he loves will be able to save him from himself—from the monster he is or feels he is or was without her love.