My life has a soundtrack. It has had one since my college days 40 years ago. An orchestra doesn't shadow me, following my cues, but my iPods and car stereo are surrogates. In 2009, I sat in my home office writing stories to the mutating repetitions of Philip Glass and John Adams, to the stately cello suites of J.S. Bach and to the deep grooves of organ-guitar combos led by Grant Green, Joey DeFranceso, Dr. Lonnie Smith and others.
When I drove around town, I played Buddy and Julie Miller incessantly. I also revisited the short glorious legacy of grievous angel Gram Parsons, ending with his sublime duets with the young Emmylou Harris. I became fascinated with a Danish CD of Count Basie's radio broadcasts from a New York club in 1941. What a great reminder that jazz was, first of all, popular dance music.
When friends came over, Bebel Gilberto, Stephane Grappelli and Toots Thielemans played dinner music, often followed by Patricia Barber, Doug Sahm and the equisite duets of Kenny Barron and Charlie Haden. Late at night, I was mesmerized into dreams by Brian Eno's ambient masterpieces from the '70s and Jon Hassell's Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street and by Morton Feldman's austere Rothko Chapel.
David Hajdu's stirring New Republic piece on the heroic French pianist Michel Petrucciani (he overcame a staggering physical disability to become a sublime player) turned me into a door-knocking proselytizer: You absolutely must hear Petrucciani's Promenade For Duke, his Ellington salute from 1993.
When it comes to new releases, I'm mostly oblivious. (Sorry Lady Gaga.) The only one that caught my ear was Willie Nelson's collaboration with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel. The songs were picked by legendary R&B producer Jerry Wexler just before his death at the age of 91, which only added to the poignancy of this exploration of American roots music.
But recorded music only takes you so far. My soundtrack is constantly recharged by live music. I saw more than 40 shows in 2009, some notable ones out of town.
In New York, I watched Van Morrison at the Beacon Theater and the Metropolitan Opera's Der Rosenkavalier at Lincoln Center. In Barcelona, I heard (for the first time) the ululations of a Middle Eastern-influenced singer and, of all things, the Bulgarian State Symphony's able performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. In a Paris bistro, I caught an Afro-French jazz singer leading a piano-bass duo through the Great American Songbook. Even better, I saw the marvelous cabaret singer Barbara Carroll sing many of the same songs at the Oak Room in New York.
What follows are my favorite concerts closer to home -- in Madison and Milwaukee and, as it happened, Fort Atkinson. But first a disclosure: I am a musical ignoramus. I can't read music. I can't play an instrument, and I certainly can't sing. So my opinions are grounded almost solely on my visceral responses.
Is jazz dead? No!
Diana Krall, June 28, Riverside Theater, Milwaukee
Diana Krall's early albums were too cool and coy for my tastes, but seeing her live utterly changed my view of this jazz chanteuse. Loose, funny and above all a sharp no-nonsense pianist with an exquisite taste for songs, Krall shows that a real jazz singer can still be mass-market popular.
Touring jazz bands are as rare as whooping cranes these days, but Krall drew just about a sell-out crowd. Sure, it helps that she's big-city hip with a shock of blond hair, a little black dress and bright red stiletto heels. Not to mention she has the cachet of being Mrs. Elvis Costello.
But Krall's jazz cuts no corners. She put her own stamp on the Great American songbook, moved effortlessly into Jobim and Nat Cole territory, and led a state-of-the-art jazz trio that featured Jeff Hamilton's impeccable brush work. Diana Krall is the star that the jazz world desperately needs to be popular again. Count Basie would understand.
The knife juggler
Jon Dee Graham, Nov. 6, Kiki's House of Righteous Music
Jon Dee Graham is one of the great Austin singer-songwriters, which is to say he's among royalty. He's also a knife juggler who, as his friend James McMurtry says, bleeds all over the stage. His songs are suffused with darkness and loss and personal failure, but there is every so often a ray of light, the chance of redemption and the glimmer of sanctifying love in his songs.
If Eugene O'Neill had been a country singer, he could have been gravelly voiced Jon Dee Graham: Both know the long day's journey into night. But unlike the guilt-besotted O'Neill, Jon Dee is a sardonic SOB, and he wears it like a coat of armor against life's imprecations. This little show -- before 40 or so people in Kiki's basement -- was the most riveting performance I saw all year.
The devil gets his due
Madison Opera, May 17, Charles Gounod's Faust, conducted by Laurent Campellone, Overture Hall
I'm a fool when it comes to opera. I love the sound of the music, and that's pretty much it. The lyrics seldom interest me, and the plots, with their creaky Brady Bunch lameness, can be wincingly bad. (True confession: I fell asleep at the Lyric Opera's humdrum, zzz-inducing Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci double bill in February.) But, wow, the Faust legend! Now, that's a story worthy of the Greeks. What can be more primal than a bitter old man trading his soul to the devil for a return to youth and a chance for sex with a young woman, whom he leaves pregnant and abandoned? (Today, we have a pill to facilitate that devilish transaction.)
The plot got me, and so did the cast and staging by director Bernard Uzan. I scribbled in my notes that Mexican tenor David Lomeli, as Faust, is destined for greatness. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger's Mephistopheles was ominous and unsettling, practically scary. The third act featured a shocking scene of Satan getting the best of a wimpy Christ who steps down from the cross. Bad move, Jesus. I'm surprised Bishop Morlino wasn't out front picketing.
Opera that makes you think is rare. This was a great night for the Madison Opera.
Music stripped to the bone
Buddy Miller, Oct. 27, Overture Hall
Buddy Miller writes and sings in bold primary colors. These are stark, almost Old Testament songs of love, loss, despair and spiritual yearning. All the better, they're framed by the high lonesome in Miller's voice and the Memphis reverb in his guitar.
A celebrated producer, sideman, singer/songwriter, and spouse/muse to the reclusive country angel Julie Miller, he has the gravitational pull of a dwarf star. This was the first time I've seen Miller live, and he delivered. He opened and played guitar for headliner Emmylou Harris. They did a fine duet on his and Julie's "Wide River to Cross," one of those death-haunted country songs that stands your hair on end:
I have stumbled. I have strayed. You can trace the tracks I made
All across the memories my heart recalls.
But I'm just a refugee -- won't you say a prayer for me?
'Cause sometimes even the strongest soldier falls.
Everything Buddy Miller does is stripped to the bone. As with the best writers, musicians and poets, every note counts. He traverses some of the same rough, dangerous terrain as Jon Dee Graham, but Miller seems anchored against the hard winds. I'm not sure Jon Dee is.
Stark, startling and challenging
Matt Haimovitz with Du Yun, Oct. 30, Café Carpe, Fort Atkinson
Music clubs come and go, but little Café Carpe has prospered for 24 years as a premier showcase for singer-songwriters and folksingers. (All praise to owners Bill Camplin and Kitty Welch!) But this was different -- an evening of avant-garde classical music with cellist Matt Haimovitz playing off Du Yun's weird electronica.
No melodies were to be heard, and I can't ever imagine playing this patternless music at home. (The stern and foreboding Elliott Carter was the only composer on the program I recognized.) But as performance music, it was brash, startling and as challenging as a slap in the face. I liked its audacity.
Haimovitz, an Israeli-born Canadian resident, is a powerfully important artist for classical music. Like precious few others, he's building the audience by pushing the music out of the conservatory and into the clubs. In 2003, Haimovitz had the nerve to put on a solo show at the dark rock mecca the Annex, featuring solo works inspired by Hendrix and compositions by the out-there Lou Harrison and Osvaldo Golijov.
The funny thing is that Haimovitz is also a marvelous straight-ahead player. His impeccable string trio work with Douglas McNabney and Jonathan Crow in Mozart the Mason and their Goldberg Variations transcription were on heavy rotation in my house. The Union Theater, which has marvelous knack for booking young talent, should bring Matt Haimovitz back to Madison.
Buzzed and blown away
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg with the Madison Symphony, John DeMain conducting, Oct. 25, Overture Hall
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is an athletic, uninhibited violinist. She threw herself into Astor Piazolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires" as if she were Jackson Pollock attacking a canvas. This was an exhilarating, almost exhausting performance, the music gyrating between moments of soft, exquisite lyricism and frenetic bursts of manic excess. Piazolla's tango nuevo is certainly one of a kind. I can't think of another composer who somehow combined classicism, avant garde experimentation, jazz improvisation and dance-hall music into one shockingly bold canvass. The performance left me buzzed and blown away.
Props to Maestro John DeMain for daring to program a late 20th-century master. The Madison Symphony usually plays it too safe, a strategy reinforced by local critics who seem to hate any piece composed after 1950. Salerno-Sonnenberg's embrace of Piazolla was a thrilling example of another world within the symphony's reach. I would love to see the maestro present Adams, Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt and other modern composers.
A 'Body and Soul' survivor
Andy Bey, Feb.13, Union Theater
Andy Bey is a survivor, and what a kick it was to see this great but almost forgotten jazz singer. He began performing in the 1950s and scored success with a quirky family vocal group, Andy and the Bey Sisters, in the 1960s. After stints with Horace Silver and Gary Bartz in the 1970s, his career fell into eclipse. Bey became a Euro expat and went more than 20 years without releasing a U.S. album, which may or may not have something to do with him being an out-gay jazzman.
At 69, Bey looked 20 years younger, and his voice was still a marvel. With a four-octave range he hit falsetto notes, but his signature groove was a deep baritone that recalled those smoky Johnny Hartman and Arthur Prysock albums.
A strong bop-minded pianist, Bey was accompanied by an attentive drummer and bass player. They never lost the melody, and Bey, who has hard-earned wisdom to share, displayed a social awareness in his lyrics that would have been cloying in a younger singer. His encore, though, was the classic "Body and Soul" made famous by Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday and others. Bey savored it like he owned it. I left the theater on a cloud, knowing I had seen a master.
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks, May 15, The Majestic Theatre
There's a weariness and unease in Dan Hicks' face that makes me wonder: What's the story? But 40 years after he retooled swing jazz with an eccentric American twist into his evergreen classics, "Canned Music," "I Scare Myself," and "Milk Shaken' Mama," Dan Hicks still has it.
I was fearful that I had walked into a den of ambered nostalgia, but swing jazz has an essential vitality that keeps it ageless despite its determinedly retro roots. The zoot-suited Hicks led a razor-sharp band of bass, guitar, violin and two female singers, who played with slippery bluegrass virtuosity.
I was struck at how Hicks, Ray Benson and the early Pointer Sisters all mined the same deep musical vein of almost-forgotten Americana and took it to very different places. Hicks, who seems like an unhappy soul, has created a lasting and joyous music. Go figure.
Is jazz dead? No! (Part II)
Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, March 28, Majestic Theatre
This was ferocious R&B with a jazz overlay. I haven't heard such a hyperkinetic performance since the R&B poseurs James White and the Blacks exploded on the stage of the old Merlyn's. But sax man Karl Denson is no faker. He blows hard and long Coltraneish solos against a fierce JBish rhythm section. All the better, this was mostly a crowd of hipsters rather than greybeards like me. Denson is another reason why jazz may yet again reach a popular audience.
I showed up late after seeing the New Orleans triumvirate Porter-Batiste-Stolz at Overture Hall and missed Clyde Stubblefield's opening act. But I got hugely lucky. The great James Brown alumnus sat in with Denson's young lions on the opening number, and they blew through the speed limit like a team of NASCAR racers. It was hard to tell who was happier when the jam ended -- the beaming Stubblefield or Denson's crew as they hugged the legend.
"If anybody recorded this, I want a copy," Denson pleaded. Somebody from the balcony shouted: You got it! Let's hope they connected. That homage to Clyde was one of the sweetest moments of the Madison musical year.
Genius skips a generation
Hank III & Assjack, Nov. 13, Barrymore Theatre
Like Matt Haimovitz, Hank Williams III defies the conventions of genre. The grandson of country's most storied legend, Hank III approaches country music with a thrash metal impudence. When the smoke clears and the last string is broken, what's left is a resilient mutant music.
Way beyond radio play and country's polite protocols, Hank III is an underground sensation. He sold out the Barrymore to a heavy mix of street punks and blue collar kids. Long before Steve Earle became an intellectual and an icon of the political left, back in his wild and lawbreaking "Copperhead Road" days, he might have drawn this sort of crowd.
The funny thing is that Hank's band Assjack, excepting its industrial-strength drummer, looked like it could have been backing Del McCoury. You had your slap bassist, banjo, fiddle and lap steel. But Assjack played Dexedrine fast and ear-plug loud. I headed for the exit late in the show as the sonic apocalypse threatened.
A wag once cracked that Hank III is evidence that genius skips a generation. (No "Monday Night Football" foolishness for him.) Hank III is rewiring country music in an altogether radical fashion. When he sang granddad's fatalistic "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," it sounded nothing less than a punk anthem for the young and the doomed. I suspect that Hank I, a devotee of reckless behavior himself and a dead man by 29, would have understood.
Yo-Yo Ma's radiant joy
Yo-Yo Ma, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart conducting, Sept. 30, Marcus Center, Milwaukee
What sticks with me about this concert is not the program. That had Yo-Yo Ma take a rapturous turn at Schumann's "Concerto In A Minor for Cello," while newly installed conductor Edo de Waart's expertly captained Mahler's oversized 5th Symphony. I was instead gobsmacked by Yo-Yo Ma's extraordinary stage presence.
A beam of heavenly light might as well have been shining down upon Ma. He so enjoyed making music, especially in his encore with MSO principal cellist Joseph Johnson. They began by playfully trading cellos and then ripping through a Jean Barriere duet with the glee of race horses showing off their stuff.
I'm tongue-tied trying to explain the delight created by Ma's presence. Did it stem from his virtuosity? Was it his beaming smile? Were we picking up on the essential goodness of his soul? His openness to other musicians? Was it all of the above? All I can say is that the orchestra seemed as enthralled by Ma as the sell-out audience.
I've seen such radiant joy in a performer only a precious few times before -- long ago shows by the jazz arranger Gil Evans at the Village Vanguard in New York and in Stephane Grappelli at the old Capitol Theatre in Madison. Like Ma, these were artists whose euphoria lifted everyone around them.
A glorious bar band
The Subdudes, Dec. 10, The Barrymore Theatre
Somebody explain to me why roots bands like the Subdudes invariably have article names: You know, The Silos, The Gourds, The Skeletons, The Jayhawks, and so on. Maybe it all goes back to The Band and Garth Hudson's Acadian accordion, Levon Helms' Arkansas twang and Civil War visage and Robbie Robertson's expansive vision of American roots music as a historic narrative transcending generations.
It's high praise to say that the Subdudes are nothing more than a glorious bar band. Their twist to Americana is intricate multi-part harmonies with a touch of gospel, a tincture of gumbo, and a percussionist who illustrates the truism that the smaller the kit the better the drummer (he had it down to a tambourine used as a drumhead and a tom-tom).
The encore came with the band standing in the middle of the audience, unamplified and harmonizing in almost a doo-wop, street-corner way. Formed in 1987, the Subdudes have had their ups and downs, broken up and reformed, and enjoyed only middling success. But as the five members stood in a circle harmonizing they seemed to take as much pleasure in the communal moment as the audience.
I'll also remember 2009 for Merle Haggard at the Crystal Grand Theatre in Wisconsin Dells (July 11). Nearing his last lap as country music's best crooner, Hag's sensitive almost vulnerable handling of several ballads was exquisite.
Boz Scaggs' stop at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee (Sept. 23) was a disappointing oldies show that ignored his newer and less commercial work. But he redeemed himself by encoring with "Loan Me A Dime," neatly illustrating the difference between that timeless classic and a stale oldie like "Jo-Jo".
Guitarist Charlie Hunter, accompanied only by a drummer, pushed the jazz edge at a lightly attended show at the Majestic (May 6). Somehow he managed to lay down a bass line with his thumb while blasting a stuttering lead guitar around the Elvin Jones-ish drummer.
Talk about the generational connection of roots music: Nobody lives it better than Luther and Cody Dickinson (and Chris Chew) of the North Mississippi Allstars. The sons of a fabled Memphis producer, the Dickinsons connected the old and new of southern boogie in a powerful show at the Majestic (Feb.6).
Meanwhile, there was no more important event in the Wisconsin musical world than conductor Andreas Delfs, after 12 years, passing the baton of the Milwaukee Symphony to his A-List successor Edo de Waart.
Delfts finished his tenure with a stunning performance of Mahler's gargantuan "Symphony of a Thousand" at the Marcus Center (June 14). An adoring audience called the maestro back for so many bows that I lost count. My memory of the exuberant Delfs will always be of him leaping in the air as he conducted, as if he was launching a three-pointer at the buzzer.
Finally, my favorite evening of the year came May 1. I started at the Chazen Museum opening of its impressive underground comix exhibit (Biff Blumfumgagnge's electronic noodling provided the cocktail music), moved on to B-Side to buy several discs, slid into my seat at Overture Hall to be blown away by John DeMain and the Madison Symphony and Chorus' super-sized mounting of Verdi's "Requiem" and finished the evening honky-tonkin' at the High Noon Saloon with Robbie Fulks and the cast of alt country stand-outs he assembled to promote his new 50-song download.
Verdi...Fulks...together? Now that's a soundtrack to remember.