Posts by Ernest Barteldes

I am a freelance writer based in New York City. Although I specialize in writing about music, I also dabble in book reviews and more recently I have begun looking at politics, travel and other cositas mas...

Music Review: Alexis Cole’s You’d Be So Nice to come Home To

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By Ernest Barteldes

 

Backed by the celebrated New York-based One For All Sextet (Eric Alexander: tenor saxophone; Jim Rotondi: trumpet; Steve Davis: trombone; David Hazeltine: piano; John Webber: bass; Joe Farnsworth: drums), vocalist Alexis Cole brings a collection of jazz standards taking full advantage of the chemistry among the musicians. The group swings hard on the opening track “Golden Earrings,” with plenty of improvisation from Rotondi, Davis and Alexander.  “Delilah” opens a bit downtempo then evolves into walking bass-dominated blues, which seems to put Cole right in her comfort zone.  The ensemble takes Mancini/Mercer’s “Moon River” to a surprising direction – instead of the slow ballad we have all gotten accustomed to hear over the decades, here it is played quite up-tempo – bringing a new meaning to the “two drifters” mentioned in the lyrics – their quest is a happy one this time around.

Maybe the best known recording of “You’ve Changed” was done by Billie Holiday on 1958’s “Lady in Satin,” which turned out to be her last album released in her lifetime. Alexis Cole does not seem to have sought inspiration on that beautifully sad track, but instead she seems to draw from Ella Fitzgerald’s 1966 version, making it her own with her honestly heartfelt rendition. “A Beautiful Friendship” seems at first to lament the end of a friendship but later it is revealed that the couple is no longer in “the friend zone” and are now lovers. Originally recorded by Ella Fitzgerald as a ballad, here it has more of a bluesy feel in which Cole stretches her vocal range, and it also features a nice call-and-response between Rotondi and Cole throughout.

The title track (by Cole Porter) closes the disc the same way it began: a high-energy, swinging number highlighting all performers.  The disc seems to look back at past eras of jazz vocalists but not as something retro – this is probably indicating where vocal-band jazz should be going into the next decades.

 

You’d Be So Nice to come Home To

Alexis Cole with One For All

Venus Records, Inc.

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At The NYPL Exhibit “You Say You Want A Revolution”

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The “Free Love” Section

Text and photos by Ernest Barteldes (except where noted)

“You Say You Want A Revolution” 

Stephen A. Schwarzman Building through Sept. 01, 2018 

Free 

 Although I did not live through the era, the 60s have always fascinated me: it was the time of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Summer of Love, Woodstock and many other transformative movements, going from the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation, the early days of the LGBTQ movement (which my late friend Jack Nichols was an integral part. 

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Patty Hearst 

The era, of course, had its dark side with the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, President Kennedy and his brother Robert and the election of President Nixon, which would turn out to be one of the most polarizing presidential figures in recent history and of course the military coup that ousted a democratically elected president in Brazil and began a cruel military regime that would remain in power for twenty years. In music, a free concert in Altamont ended in tragedy when a man was murdered by a member of the Hell’s Angels, who were providing security at the event. 

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A Portrait of Bob Dylan, with original lyrics below it (E. Barteldes)

One of the most turbulent years of that decade was 1968, the year I came into this world. That was when student protests erupted around the globe that almost cancelled the Olympic Games in Mexico City and also, when Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, as mentioned before, met the end of their lives by an assassin’s bullet.  

To commemorate that year, the New York Public Library is holding a multimedia exhibit that highlights the many events of the decade (and also some of the consequences that spilled into the 70s) that looks into all its nuances – the music, the politics, the films and much more.  

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Walter Bredel, Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, Bethel, NY, 1969. NYPL, Music Division.

As you enter the Gottesman Exhibition Hall at the  Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, a sign warns that some of the material might “not be appropriate” for viewers. They’re not kidding. One of the first exhibits deals with the Summer of Love and its many branches – the Hippies that came together at San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury with a graphic photo of the members of the Cockettes – an underground theater group that often performed in the nude – with uncensored pictures to prove it.  

You Say You Want a Revolution

Exhinit (photo by NYPL)

Further down are examples of the several underground anti-government groups that formed during the era, including a detailed record of the abduction and conversion of heiress Patty Hearst to a participant of the Symbionese Liberation Army (recently made into a documentary film on CNN). On two screens there are looping videos of the 1969 Woodstock Concert (again uncensored) and moments from the musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.  

Each section is divided by names of popular songs from the era – the name of the exhibit itself is taken from The Beatles’ Revolution (single from 1968), and other tunes include Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With,” Bob Dylan’s “The Times Are A-Changing” and others. In two listening booths decorated with album covers you can listen to tunes from the era divided into the categories of love, political change and sexual liberation.  

I visited the exhibit accompanied by four students from one of my classes at the college where I teach English as a second language, and it was interesting to see the reactions on the faces of these twenty-somethings that had little or no idea about those times. One student was shocked by a random picture taken at Woodstock of a young lady dancing completely in the nude (I think the title was “Nude Girl at Concert”), while others seemed surprised at how things were different five decades ago.  

We later sat at the café inside the library and chatted about it. Many expressed surprise at what they saw and heard, and the conversation then went into a different era – the mid-80s and 90s, when AIDS brought a counter-revolution of sorts as a more conservative attitude about general behavior seemed to take hold even as many today enjoy the benefits brought on by the changes the came during the 60s.  

But that’s another story.  

Book Review: Brian May’s Red Special, The

By Ernest Barteldes

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Although not essentially a guitarist (my main instruments are the electric bass and the ukulele), for many years I have been a huge fan of Queen’s Brian May – not only his songwriting, which contrasts strongly with the style of his bandmates but also for the signature sound of his homemade Red Special guitar, which can be recognized immediately even if it is not on one of the band’s or his solo albums – for instance, its tone is distinctive on Joe Cocker’s performance of “With a Little Help From My Friends” at Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace in 2002 even though there were other guitarists on hand.

Other examples include Brazil’s Os Paralamas do Sucesso’s “El Vampiro Bajo El Sol, and Lady Gaga’s “You and I,” where May was prominently featured – even if some fans were not aware of it.

His guitar has always intrigued me – built with hand tools because he couldn’t afford his much-desired Gibsons or Fenders, the Red Special is an essential part of Queen’s sound so much that when it is not present (in tunes like “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” which featured a Fender Telecaster) you can actually hear the difference in sound and texture.

Many stories have been told about how the guitar was built, but until recently it hadn’t been the whole story from the beginning – which finally happened with Brian May’s Red Special: The Story Of The Home-Made Guitar That Rocked Queen And The World (Hal Leonard, Hardcover – $ 22.40 on Amazon), which brings the whole story together with rich illustrations of every piece of the guitar, which was painstakingly taken apart and photographed for this project.

Written by Brian May with the assistance of co-writer Simon Bradley, we follow May’s initial days learning the ukulele and then transitioning to the guitar – which brought the necessity of going electric as rock music invaded the airwaves of Great Britain via Radio Luxembourg – the same station that inspired The Beatles in the days before there was any kind of young music on the BBC.

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A young Brian May with his guitar (from Brianmay.com)

The writing style is quite conversational, but this being a musician who also happens to be an astrophysicist, things get a bit puzzling for the layman when he goes into the physics of acoustic resonance or when he describes the formula of calculating the distance between the guitar’s frets, which he sorted out using a computer at EMI’s laboratories while he interned there as a teenager.

In spite of those few moments that might go over one’s head a bit, it is a highly pleasurable read, and the illustrations  – which include early pictures of a short-haired Brian May playing with some of his early bands prior to his career with Queen and his signature (now gray) mane.

There is also a section with the different copies made of the Red Special over the years, and a description of his historic performance on the rooftop at Buckingham Palace, which was clearly much harder to put together than it sounds like.

The book is recommended not only for Queen fans but also for guitar enthusiasts in general – it’s rich enough in detail that one might want to build your own Red Special someday.

Book Review: Joe Biden’s ” “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose”

by Ernest Barteldes 

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I am not a big fan of political autobiographies – I have never read Bill Clinton’s “My Life” or any of his wife’s books. The one time I did read one was when I happened to find late New York mayor Ed Koch’s “Citizen Koch” at a discount store and enjoyed reading it as an introduction to life in the city I’ve called home for the last 18 years (oh my, has it been that long?), but I have steered clear of them ever since because they are basically self-aggrandizing books about how well they did while they were in office or what they hope to achieve during the next election cycle. I have read a few but avoided them until I happened to come across former vice president Joe Biden’s “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose,” which is not a political book per se but a glimpse into a period of Biden’s life as he dealt with the burdens of his job while also having to face his son’s ultimately fatal disease.  

Those who expect Biden to bring forth a backstage view of his time in the White House under Barack Obama will be disappointed. This is not at all a political memoir – sure, there are some comments about long career as a senator and his role as vice president, but we only see glimpses of those as we go along. Instead, it is an intimate look at a painful period of his family’s life as they fought a losing battle to brain cancer. 

Of course this being a lifelong politician, the issues that he faced as he did his job are not completely absent: he talks about the situation in Ukraine and Putin’s blatant disregard to international law, the rise of ISIS and the spiritual and political journey that led him to decide not to run for president in 2016 even when everyone around him – except Obama and most of the DNC – encouraged him to do so, mostly because they saw that the middle class was looking for a “plain-speaking American” that could talk to their needs and not some regular “elitist” who would talk down to them.  

Reading the part on the 2016 election with the hindsight of what we know today, one must realize it must have taken a lot of guts for Biden not to have jumped into the race back in 2016 – and what a thrill it might have been with him going on debates against Clinton and Bernie Sanders – and had he won the nomination, it would have been incredible so see him scream “malarkey” as he did when he faced off Paul Ryan during the 2012 VP debate.  

Back to the story – Beau, who was an Iraq war veteran and a former attorney general, took the fight head on, and is described as someone extremely brave under pressure. At one point, doctors suggest an experimental treatment that could simply fail and shorten his life, and his reply is loud and clear: “It’s all good,” he says as every obstacle comes against him and every alternative fail. The family’s pain is palpable, and as you turn the pages you root for Beau even if, as someone who follows the news, knows that the outcome was not what anyone wanted. But Biden, ever the sensible populist, has a way with words, and as that final moment comes, the reader feels as if they’re in a cliffhanger moment in fiction – not something that actually happened.  

“Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose” is a great read no matter where you stand in the political spectrum. There is not a single moment in which Biden attacks the other side, there isn’t even a personal analysis of the election’s eventual outcome. It’s just a great family story intertwined with moments of a man’s job – which in this case just happened to be the vice-presidency of the United States.  

Music Preview: GlobalFest 2018

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Mariachi Flor de Toloache

By Ernest Barteldes

Although the weather might be less than inviting in New York in January with record cold temperatures, snow and sleet, it is also the month when various important cultural events take place – one of them being the World Music smorgasbord known as GlobalFest, which this year takes place at B.B. King’s Blues Club and its adjacent bar Lucille’s Grill and Liberty Theater across the street.

For those who have never been to the event, GlobalFest is a six-hour long event that brings together several artists from around the globe who showcase their music to an audience made up of music journalists, label scouts and curious fans willing to know “what’s next” in the scene.

Few of the artists on the list are necessarily household names Stateside – in fact, I had only heard about one of them, New York-based Mariachi Flor de Toloache, who I heard at Celebrate Brooklyn as co-headliners with LAMC in 2013 and as special guests with Mexican-American singer Lila Downs in 2016.

 

That, however, is the entire point of the festival – to introduce these musicians to U.S. audiences and specially bookers in search of acts to perform in their own festivals and venues. Over the years, I recall hearing then lesser known artists such as Lenine (then already a star in his native Brazil), Cambodian retro pop outfit Dengue Fever, Cape Verdean singer Sara Tavares and yes, a then up-and-coming Lila Downs, who graced the stage (then at Webster Hall) back in 2007.

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La Dame Blanche

Sure, there were many others who came and went without making much noise in spite of good performances, but this is a golden opportunity not only for artists to be discovered but also for many of us music fans to get to know artists that we would not otherwise be exposed to, especially when many of us fail to diversify our listening habits more and more as we stream music that we are comfortable with.

GlobalFest takes place at BB King’s Blues Club and Liberty Theater. For more information, visit http://globalfest.org.  Click here for info on the lineup, and tickets can be had here

Confronting Bigotry and Xenophobia With Dance

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photo by Dominik Werner

Theater review: “INTRO” by Dada von Bzdülöw

Bohemian National Hall

October 1, 2017

New York, NY

 

by Ernest Barteldes

 

During a recent visit to Poland last September, my wife Renata and I made plans to meet with a couple who I’ll call Lukasz and Dorota. It was well after 10 PM by then, and since we were visiting a smaller town,  it meant that kitchens in most places were closed. I suggested going to one of the local kebab restaurants in the area since there were two of those within walking distance from where we were and they stayed open late.

“We don’t do kebabs,” said Lukasz, “because we don’t want Muslims in Poland.” I kind of stared at him in disbelief but reluctantly kept my New York attitude in check. Instead, I just retorted that not all Turkish people are Muslims, but he seemed uninterested in continuing the conversation.

I was aware that Dorota had supported the right-wing PiS party in the last election, and I am guessing that she pulled him into her conservative politics. After an awkward moment of silence in which I took a big sip from my glass of vodka, Renata abruptly changed the subject.  We then reverted to small talk and later we drove to another restaurant that we had visited in previous trips. Since my wife and I had already had dinner, we just enjoyed couple of drinks while they ate.

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photo by Dominik Werner

I didn’t talk about it any further during our trip, but a few days after we returned to New York I had a brief conversation with my Dorota about the issue. When I asked her about how awkward I felt that day, she replied, “My opinion is the same. I don’t like Muslims in Europe, they should be in their country with their own culture.” When I asked what she meant about that, she said, “I like Muslims and my husband does too but when they are in their own countries.”

I countered that Muslims have been in Europe for centuries, and pointed out that Turkey is a secular country with Muslim majority that happens to be part of Europe (and part of the European council since 1949), she replied that “Turkey is not really part of Europe.”

The conversation ended there, and got me thinking about the conservative nationalist wave that has pretty much taken over the conversation in both sides of the Atlantic, especially after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.

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photo by Dominik Werner

As I was reflecting about this whole conversation, I learned about a one night only presentation of “Intro,” a theatre/dance production by Gdansk-based Dada von Bzdülöw Theater that took place at New York’s Bohemian National Hall on October 1 as part of a larger program entitled “Rehearsal for Truth,” a festival showcasing (as stated in the press release) “topical and thought-provoking Central European productions” that also showcased plays from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

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photo by Dominik Werner

The show focuses on four central characters that represents different ethnicities living in present-day Poland: one Polish-born Jew that returns to the homeland after a long period of exile, a Croatian-born immigrant who “received a transfusion of Polish blood, “a Chechen seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin and finally a Middle-Eastern woman who expresses her undying love to her adopted home. All of the characters have great conflict and this is expressed in their dance, which is backed by pre-recorded live Polish punk rock band Nagrobki.

The dance moves, which sometimes happen in total silence or with old Polish folk songs (played from cellphones placed onto microphones) depict the anguish that all these different groups live with: at one point, the Chechen (Piotr Stanek) and the Jew (group co-founder Leszek Bzdyl) mimic working out together and flexing their muscles in a duo dance in which they seem to be searching for something unattainable.

All the dance routines are inspired by different forms of dance: at one point there is a lot of modern jumping jazz-influenced movements, but during another movement the two women in the group (Katarzyna Chimielewska and Katarzyna Ustowska) do a classical ballet-inspired dance.

In between numbers, each character reveals him or herself in short speeches: The Croatian immigrant sings the beauties of Poland and spouts nationalist rhetoric; the Jew, long away from his birthplace, shows conflict about coming back home following the end of Communism. The Chechen vows to blow himself up for Poland, there is a surprise twist when one of the female dancers (Ustowska), who spent most of the play scantily dressed in a barely there top and skirt, reveals herself to be Middle Eastern while being forcibly dressed and put into a hijab. Towards the end of the piece, she reappears in a burka – in Polish flag colors.

“INTRO was created in response to the growing acceptance of extreme national, nationalist and xenophobic declarations in the Polish public debate,” said Bzdyl in an interview released by the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, which co-sponsored the event. “in 2015, somehow in a futuristic way, we presented a monoculture psychosis that will have to be confronted by potential immigrants trying to settle in Poland.”

“When we were creating INTRO, the refugee problem wasn’t yet so blown up by the politicians of the extreme right,” continued Bzdyl in the interview. “By introducing the characters of a Jew, a Croatian nationalist, and Arab woman and a Chechen to the show, we thought of mocking the character of the Pole. The Pole is the one who happens to feel like the messiah of Europe, a Pole gazing at his or her national navel, and reaming of the purity of the Polish blood, and of shedding that blood on the altar of national church.”

The piece – which lasted about 90 minutes – was quite moving and even comic at certain times as it exposed the tragedy of these four different characters and their struggles to assimilate and be accepted in Poland.

During a brief Q&A with the group after the show, Bzdyl mentioned the story of naturalized Cuban-born volleyball player Wilfredo Leon – one of the world’s best  – who expressed desire to play for the Polish national team in spite of resistance from nationalists who cannot accept the idea of a black man on the team.

“He had to try so hard to show that he was more in love with Poland than Poles themselves,” he commented. “It’s like if you are an immigrant you have to become even more Polish than those born in the country.”

I was briefly given the floor and told the group about the kebab story, and  Bzdyl responded that the situation is very conflicted. “Many of these nationalist protesters go on rallies and then go to kebab restaurants because they’re not only everywhere but also the food is cheap and tasty,” he said. “Later on, they go out and complain about how Polish culture is being hurt by them –it just makes no sense.”

Monika Brodka: My 2017 Polish Music Discovery

By Ernest Barteldes

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Brodka (publicity)

Shortly before my last trip to Poland last September (where I attended a wedding and spent a few days exploring Chelm, I had a chat with one of my students and told her how much I admired the work of singers like Anna Maria Jopek and Ania Dąbrowska, and she recommended I check out Monika Brodka, who she described as “really innovative.”

I looked her up and learned that like Dąbrowska, she was an alumna of the popular “Idol” franchise, having won the competition during the 2004 season. She was quickly signed by Sony/BMG and made two very pop-friendly  discs (Album and Moje Piosenki, released in 2004 and 2006) under the production of Bogdan Kondracki (who also produced Dąbrowska’s first three albums).

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“Album” and “Moje Piosenki”

I found both albums at Chelm’s Empik in a two-in-one package labeled “Made in Poland,” apparently part of a series meant to promote the country’s pop-rock artists. Among my favorite tracks from those are a mellow cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Let Me Make It through the Night” (from “Album) and “Glock” (from “Moje Piosenki”), which showcase her vocal potential and also her ability to make a song her own.

Although very enjoyable, neither album stands out – possibly because of Kondracki’s very mainstream sounding production that made them sound almost undistinguishable from Dąbrowska’s first two discs or anything else he touched during that era. Brodka’s albums were nevertheless well received and are still on regular rotation on Polish radio stations like RMF and Eska.

Brodka took a considerable break from making studio recordings and re-emerged in 2010 with Granda, (“Brawl”), an 11-song masterpiece which is incredibly different from anything she’d done before, with nods to electronica and jazz without losing touch with a more pop-rock feel. It is quite adventurous and goes into various directions. The title track is a punk-ish rocker with a pounding bass and some extraneous background sounds, while “Saute” seems to revisit the psychedelic era without sounding dated.

In between albums she released the EP LAX” (which is simply a reference to Los Angeles, where the tracks were recorded), which contained “Varsovie,” a haunting English-language ode to her adopted hometown.

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Clashes

2016’s “Clashes” took things to an even more experimental direction – since she is now signed to an independent label, she has more freedom to do what she wants without having to compromise to whatever the suits might want her to do.  I believe that she is aware of the shock value of the music and of course her looks – like performing with a shaved head.

“Clashes” is not easy listening – there are clear influences from Bjὄrk, the post-punk sounds of Patti Smith and others I have not been able to identify – it’s a disc that has to grow on you after repeated hearings.

Check out “Clashes” here