W a s h i n g t o n P u b l i c R a d i o
EUGENE, OREGON AUGUST 8, 2012. by Tom Manoff
The Oregon Festival of American Music opened its 2012 summer journey last night. OFAM has always been among my favorite music festivals. Although I no longer live in Eugene, I will always consider OFAM as the city’s particular gift to a wandering New Yorker always in search for a kosher musical meal. Jim, in particular, has had an trememdous impact on my thinking and understanding of American Music. As a person from a New York theater/acting family, OFAM’s programs often deal with people I knew as a kid, or knew about or still know today. So when OFAM goes to Broadway, in a way, I’ve always been able to “go home” to New York even though I’ve been in Eugene. (For some reason, Eugene is a city in which I’ve never felt at home .)
Jim Ralph is also a fellow who really appreciates music criticism, even when he disagrees with the writing. Not every head of a festival has that kind of integrity. Trust me. And speaking of trust, I will be writing my honest opinions about the festival. There is no point in music criticism if the writer feels overly constrained. Wasted time. So I won’t be wasting mine or yours.
This year’s festival – Le Jazz Hot – American in The City of Light, 1919-39– explores the interplay between American Jazzers and French Culture which spanned World War I and the period leading up to World War ll. It’s an important theme, one of the most vibrant musical-cultural rivers in recent centuries.
No Europeans are more famous for their historic love affair with Jazz than the French. American jazzers who lived (and live) in France are considered heroes. The French Minsitry of Culture even created the Orchestre National de Jazz in 1986. No small thing. Afterall le Jazz is a fully American creation. What was it about the French which made them so receptive to this American Music?
We must also ask why American black musicians found Paris such an important destination. It was a two-way street under which the A-Train stopped in Harlem and then surfaced on the Champs-Élysées.
However canonized as musical saints American Jazzers became later, their initial arrival in Paris was hardly honorable. Josephin Baker was considered a “sexualized savage.” She was, of course, a black woman. . Here we are at one side of a structuralist duality, the cultural mechanism which reveals the American/French Jazz Conection. The (partial) structuralist diagram looks like this:
Structuralist Dualities: American/French Jazz Interaction
On the left side of the structuralist diagram you find the “savage” and negative response. To the right you find the “civilized” and positive response. It’s an easy step to move from left to right to get a sense of the interplay. You can also move up and down the diagram and get more of the structuralist action.
Thus, in structuralist terms, Josephine Baker came to the Paris on the left side (yes, you can throw in “Left Bank”) and ends up fully on the right side. Thinking through it another way, and this is quite important, the entire sensibility of the American/French Connection embraces both sides of the structuralist diagram.
I will be revieiwng OFAM through a structuralist lens. Perhaps it’s no happenstance that the “Father” of structuralistism was French — that mythic Shaman of the Champs-Élysées, Claude Levi-Strauss.
OFAM’s Paris journey is lead by Ken Peoplowski. Ken “ain’t” French by a longshot, a constant running joke as he tries to pronounce French words. He’s always the ring leader of humor at these OFAM Summer festivals.
Clarinetist Ken Peplowski took over this festival from Dick Hyman in 2007. It’s taken a few years, but he’s whittled down the group of performing musicians to a fine troupe. Where once OFAM’s opening evening had many singers of uneven talent, this year’s had three pros : Shirely Andress, Ian Whitcomb and Siri Vic. (Clairdee, also a fine artist joins the festival in the coming days.) The players are a smaller group of solid jazzers than in the past. Mixing “legends” with the “up-and-comers,” the instrumentalists are : Ken Peplowski, clarinet and sax; Ted Rosenthal, piano; Terell Stafford, trumpet; Arron Weinstein, violin; Doug Miller, bass; Chuck Redd; vibes and drums (he only played drums on this night); Howard Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar.
I’ll be dealing with the voicalists in depth on other review pages, so for now I will mention that there were many outstanding performances from the players. The particular standout was a spur-of-the-moment program choice, Snowfall, a duet played by Howard Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar. It was the high moment of the evening.
Why Use Heavy Amplification ?
My biggest issue with the festival thus far is the use of amplification. Jaqua Hall has pristine acoustics, something I wrote extensively about when the Ralphs first purchased the church. This hall has one of the best natural acoustics in the region. It certainly matches Beall at the University of Oregon. As a recording engineer and producer myself, I would choose Jaqua over Beall on any day for all manner of recordings, especially Jazz.
Let me put this another way. Using a full PA system in a hall that has a wonderful natural acoustic makes no sense for some types of programs. Rock, use it. But Jazz ? Especially historical Jazz from a Paris club in 1920? This makes no sense to me at all.
The proof is in the sound: Other than a little bit of sound reinforcement on the bass, the guitar amps and a vocal mic, this program didn’t need amplifcation, and worse, its use was dertrimental to the mellow timbre of Ken’s clarinet and pushed the trumpet sound too loud by half. When I first heard Ken in this hall there was no amplification. Ken’s tone is a precious thing, and amping it into a hall that doesn’t need it is the wrong path. Ken might well send some trusted ears into the hall and give him a report. OFAM has an excellent sound man for Rock and Theater, but he doesn’t know anything about creating historical authenticity. Does he know the history. Is he a musician ? Does he no the difference between a solo and just a lessor counter line in the arrangement? Throughout the night there were problems. From a sound point of view the evening failed both as music and history.
Consider the piano. Paris clubs would have had an upright. The piano sound at the Shedd was too smooth, too velvet. What was needed was a thinner upright sound. The “smoothness” of the Paris sound is in the harmonies and the French-driven melodies, not a piano that sound that works for Chopin. The mic choice and placement is working against the violin also. The sound is too harsh. In technical terms, the sound man needs to eq out the mids and make sure the mic placement doesn’t catch a lot of junk sound from the swirling mids and highs that sadly bounce around the hall. Here’s the truth. The hall itself has a specific acoustic. It is a fine and natural acoustic. It is not the kind of hall you assault with a PA system. PA systems work best in dead acoustic space.
Amplification was a more serious problem for the Wed. evening show which featured Ian Whitcomb and Siri Vic. The voices sounded overly harsh in the digital amplification. Vic, especially, suffered from poor mic mixing. First off, whatever mic she’s using isn’t right for her voice. The sound is too harsh by far. She needs an older type mic with a warmer sound. A vintage vocal mic would do the trick — and that would help create a more accurate musical history. In any event, she should try some other mics during rehearsals and send some trusted ears into the hall to make sure her sound isn’t cracking the mids. (I’ll be discussing this show in a later piece, but want to mention this issue now.)
My strong advice here is that they try at least one of these shows with much less amplification. Just because you have gear doesn’t mean that you should it.
From a purely programming stance, the evening started out with too many slow tunes. A better choice would have been to open with a medley of perhaps three instrumental tunes and then move to the slower songs. It’s a good rule of thumb for any program to do a quick “slow-fast” chart of the evening. Throughout the programs thus far, it seems to me that the tempos are too slow and relxed. They are also often the same. I think someone should get a metronome and do some historical research. Tempos really matter. Why not settle on metronome markings for some of the tunes?
Don’t let my discussion about the problems overshawdow the success of the evening. It’s quite important that when I make a criticism I state it with clarity and suggest solutions. I make the criticisms because I repect the festival, the musicians, and, of course, the genuises who made the music who are on the other side of this life. We owe them, no ?
I’m going to be dealing with the musicians one at a time during this festival. I’ll be starting conversations with each of them. These conversations and interviews will continue in the weeks following the festival. This has always been an important part of the OFAM experience. The real gift from Jim and Ginevra Ralph is a festival that triggers thought, emotion, reflection and even new kinds of thinking. Art changes you. If it doesn’t, either you are the performers are dailing it in. An interesting question. We know what it means when musicians just ” dial in the notes.” But can an audience also just “dial in” a reaction ? The answer is yes. Consider the obligatory standing ovation. You’ve seen it, right? Everyone around you starts to stand. You don’t really want to. But eventually you do. So ? Well a real standing ovation is spontaneous. People jump out of their seats, not because they have to but because they can’t stop themselves. Let’s be real. There are plenty of performances that don’t deserve a standing ovation.
OFAM will get its standing ovations. And I think they will be deserved. Even in words of criticism you may read here, I am standing and clapping as I write. My standing ovation is an honest review, not the predictable feel-good thing you find from a cheerleading “music critic.” We owe arts outfits honest reviews. This was one.
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