From on stage, back stage and the theater seats, the Performing Arts blog illuminates the intersecting worlds of dance, theater, and music.
Set to return to Minneapolis at Rock the Garden this summer, the Brooklyn-based indie-pop band Lucius will no doubt bring a fresh twist to their debut album Wildewoman. Released in 2013, the record was met with widespread acclaim; Rolling Stone called the quintet “the best band you may not have heard yet.” Featuring layered harmonies and […]
Set to return to Minneapolis at Rock the Garden this summer, the Brooklyn-based indie-pop band Lucius will no doubt bring a fresh twist to their debut album Wildewoman. Released in 2013, the record was met with widespread acclaim; Rolling Stone called the quintet “the best band you may not have heard yet.” Featuring layered harmonies and catchy pop aesthetics, Lucius creates a free-spirited ride through waves of carefully crafted instrumentation and substantive lyrics.
Usually seen adorned in matching retro outfits, lead vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig met while attending the Berklee School of Music and have been writing and singing together ever since. In their early days in New York, they moved to a Victorian house in Brooklyn that has served as both a music school and a recording studio over the years. There the duo met bandmates Peter Lalish (guitar), Danny Molad (drums), and Andrew Burri (guitar).
I had the pleasure of seeing Lucius last year during a blizzard one bitter February evening at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. The concert took place shortly after the release of Wildewoman, and I had spent the better part of the month listening to the album on repeat. I felt prepared to dance and sing along with my favorite songs (“Hey, Doreen” and “Turn it Around”), but I could never have anticipated what I experienced that evening. Their stunning visual presence and percussive surround-sound floored me. Wolfe and Laessig’s dynamic stage presence, alluring vocals, and deep lyricism were captivating. The joint percussive effort between all band members (both lead vocalists also play the drums while standing at the microphone) and the multi-instrumental score put an infectious spin on indie-pop music.
“Lucius is fueled by taut percussion—the quadruple drum assault…raised hairs,” Billboard wrote about the band’s performance at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival. At the Cedar, they encapsulated pop, indie, folk, and rock, with snapshots of a distinct ‘60s influence in every song. The album recording doesn’t do justice to the attack of live sonic elements and their symmetrical visual aesthetics. While they sent out invitations to shout back in a call and response throughout “How Loud Your Heart Gets,” I remember thinking, why isn’t the entire room dancing? It was as if the Minnesotan crowd on that cold winter night couldn’t match the spirited stamina and energy found on stage. Lucius was on fire.
It was not until over a year later, when I heard the announcement of the International Pop exhibition coming to the Walker, that I encountered the source of Lucius’ album cover and began to dig deeper into their music. I now believe that Lucius defies the categorization of just another millennial girl-pop band by leading an ambitious project to take pop in a new direction through the careful orchestration of aesthetic and sound. The strong female duo takes the visual representation of their music seriously; their lyrics, imagery, and public presence combine to present a fearless yet inviting feminism for all to enjoy.
You can currently view the original painting that inspired the cover of Lucius’ Wildewoman in International Pop. Based on Belgian artist Evelyne Axell’s 1964 painting Ice Cream, the pop/feminist connection is not coincidental.
Axell’s painting of this provocative and intrepid female figure was first unveiled a half-century before the album’s release. Lucius asked permission from the artist’s son for the rights to the image. He responded positively to the request, pleased to see the painting taking on another life after the tragic death of its creator, who died in a car accident at 37. As Lucius guitarist Peter Lalish recalled:
When we reached out to [Philippe Axell] to ask if he would be open to us using his mother’s artwork for the album cover, he immediately responded and seemed grateful that her artwork would be associated with pop culture 50 years after it was created… Finding the right artwork that would fit this album was a long process and it was the last step in finishing the record. To hear that from him felt like it had come full circle.
The painting seen on Lucius’ album cover is definitely worth a stop at the International Pop exhibition. Ice Cream occupies the gallery called “Love & Despair,” which curator Darsie Alexander notes features a collection of artworks that suggest “an emerging understanding of the body as a battlefield, and of culture as something to be shaped and made anew.” When asked whether or not the Lucius album cover was intended to be “suggestive,” Holly Laessig responded:
It’s not meant to say, ‘We’re sexual.’ It’s meant to say, ‘This is a painting that was done in the’60’s by a Belgian pop artist named Evelyne Axell.’ At the time, she was making a statement that was incredibly bold, and we think our show is bold, we’re strong women. There’s nothing shy about the way that we sound and the way we put ourselves out there. It’s a strong image. And if you’re looking at fifteen record covers on iTunes, what’s going to stick out to you? You’re not gonna see a dick—sorry, for lack of a better word. When I first saw that image, I didn’t even think about that. I literally thought, ‘Here’s this overly joyful expression. There’s this ecstasy in it.’
The bright, blissful painting certainly exudes a delicious ecstasy with its dizzying monochrome blocks of green, yellow, and blue shapes spiraling throughout the background. The fire red hair of the figure contrasts with the black and white brushstrokes that comprise the face. Through both a figurative and abstract approach, the face acts like a photograph collaged on top of the competing background shapes. The psychedelic shapes swirl around the face, privileging the emotive and individualistic quality of the woman featured in the painting. Her tongue shamelessly sticks out to lick up the drips of what looks like mint and strawberry ice cream. In Ice Cream, the figure’s eyes look down, sealed shut to reject a male gaze. Entirely focused on the task at hand, the woman remains unconcerned with the viewer. Axell presents a subject that refuses to pleasure the viewer and occupies a space outside the mediation of the male gaze. Unadorned and unapologetic, the woman takes pleasure in her own actions.
As her paintings gained credence in the male-centered Pop Art movement, her choice to focus on a self-sufficient woman in sheer pleasure was a deliberate, liberating gesture on the artist’s part. Axell strove to deviate from the representations of women generated by her male counterparts. The artist rejected portrayals of women that rendered them passive, sexualized, or objectified. She adopted Pop motifs, tropes, and aesthetics, while also undertaking a rigorous assessment of the representation of gender and sexuality in art. Lucius’ Jess Wolfe explains the significance of appropriating the painting for the album: “[Axell] was really at the forefront of the Pop Art scene in Belgium…She was obviously a feminist, and it was really important that that aesthetic and that feeling was sort of projected in the artwork. It might be bold for some people, but that was the point.”
Lucius’ music also adopts the feminist themes that the album cover conveys. Their performances serve as a positive example of audacious women holding ground in a male-dominated music arena. When asked why they were inspired to choose the name Wildewoman for their album, Wolfe mused how they wrote the song before they selected a record title: “We’re like ‘wildewomen’…A lot of the women we surround ourselves with also share those same qualities: very free-spirited, very much feminists, strong-minded, strong-willed and strong-charactered people.” She continues, “Holly’s mom used to call her a wilde-child, wilde-girl, and we were like, ‘Well, we’re like that. But a little older.’ So, it became Wildewoman.” The lyrics of the title track also deliver this message:
Her smile is sneaky like a fiery fox
It’s that look that tells you she’s up to no good at all
And she’ll say whatever’s on her mind
They’re unspeakable things and she’ll speak them in vain
And you can’t help but wish you had bolder things to say
She’s a Wildewoman.
Wolfe describes how some of their lyrical content originated from their childhood experiences: “Holly and I grew up sort of feeling outcasted and feeling like we were different than other people and didn’t really know how to vocalize that, how to feel comfortable.” She continues, “When we met, it was the first time we actually felt that we were in a place that we felt comfortable with ourselves, that we could really figure it out. And we just wanted to honor that sort of free-spirited, awkward, uncomfortable aspect of youth and growing up and being a woman.”
While offering resounding beats frosted with enduring lyricism and soft guitar chords, their initial music video for “Turn It Around” addresses feminist concerns about absurd standards of beauty. The music video lays bare the incredible pressure and stress of beauty standards idealized through popular culture and mainstream media by following a young girl’s coming of age story.
When asked outright whether or not their band is feminist, Laessig answers: “I think feminist in saying that we’re pro-women and on the side of women our band absolutely is feminist but not in the sense of the word that it’s like anti-man. Some people use that word in different ways.” Wolfe follows up, stating:
We want to be open to everybody. At least half of our audience is male, and I think they get it too, and we have such a diverse crowd at our shows, older men and women and young girls and middle-aged guys, and it’s not just in the U.S., and so we don’t ever want to abandon those people. Not to say that if we had strong feminist values or view-points that that would happen, but we just want to make it clear that any woman—I hope—should feel empowered and strong as a woman. And there [are] two of us, and a lot of the things that we’ve written about involve femininity and in that respect we’re feminists.
With public figures adopting and disavowing the “feminist label” left and right, I listen to Wolfe and Laessig’s response and recognize the weight that the branding of “feminist” entails for their band’s reputation. By providing the caveat that they don’t want to exclude anyone, I sense a desire not upset any potential fans. I wish that they could unapologetically take the stance of being feminists publicly without fear of excluding audience members. This comment is less a statement on their careful stance taken in an interview and more about the public arena that stigmatizes those that call themselves feminists. As Roxane Gay, author of the essay collection Bad Feminist, aptly puts it, “…celebrities are generally vigorous in their disavowal of feminism. They recognize the scarlet F that comes with publicly embracing it, the taint to professing a desire for gender equality.” I want Lucius’ statement about feminism to match the fierce feminist convictions they uphold on stage and in their lyrics. Ultimately, I appreciate Lucius’ welcoming presentation of feminist values, because their intoxicating indie-pop music speaks to broad audiences. Roxane Gay also reminds us that there are many ways to be feminist: “We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”
The feminism that Lucius puts forth on stage is bold and empowering, but not in your face. Just as Axell brought politicized concerns of sexual freedom into her works through the bold visual reinterpretation of women as subject in Pop Art, Lucius contributes to the movement of de-stigmatizing feminism. By embedding strong personal narratives into their lyrics and delivering them with ambitious performances that enrapture many, their music presents a feminism for all to enjoy.
Lucius will perform on Saturday, June 20 at Rock the Garden 2015. Ticket information available at walkerart.org
As we get closer to jazz pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper’s performances at the Walker on Saturday night, I continue to explore their artistic careers as they both embrace and challenge the establishment of jazz. Their concert will pay homage to the giants of black music that have influenced them, while also presenting original compositions pulled from each […]
As we get closer to jazz pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper’s performances at the Walker on Saturday night, I continue to explore their artistic careers as they both embrace and challenge the establishment of jazz. Their concert will pay homage to the giants of black music that have influenced them, while also presenting original compositions pulled from each of their extensive catalogs. Their historic jazz renditions will pick up where the old guard left off, gesturing to artistic legacies but never lingering. By traversing new terrain through their own compositions, both hold an inspiring capacity to respond to and expand upon the contemporary jazz milieu. Embracing the amorphous nature of genre, their music is a fresh look at the interdisciplinary history of jazz in the making.
Following last week’s profile of Jason Moran, we now spotlight the acclaimed jazz musician and two-time Grammy award winner Robert Glasper. Glasper also arrives at the Walker with a robust musical sensibility and international acclaim. While both artists attended Houston’s High School for Performing Arts, Moran graduated just before Glasper enrolled. Although they were not classmates, Glasper is quick to recall the influence Moran played throughout his high school career. He remembers teachers saying to him, “you might be able to be the next Jason Moran!” In a WBGO interview last year, Moran responds with equal humility to Glasper’s compliment by describing the incredible technicality and talent that Glasper possesses when playing the piano. Moran describes how he commands a “dizzying, rapid-fire precision,” when playing, as if the record was intentionally sped up.
Glasper identifies his mother, Kim Yvette Glasper, the powerful jazz, blues, and gospel singer, as his main musical influence. By age 12, he was already accompanying her on the piano at church and local Houston clubs. After high school Glasper studied at the The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Art in New York City where he began composing songs and developing his musical network. Like Moran, Glasper has never limited himself to the confines of straight-ahead jazz. In an interview with DownBeat, he refers to himself as “a big house of many rooms” with jazz being just one of them. “There’s a lot of other stuff in there,” he continues, “This is my way of putting all my rooms together and making a thought, and whatever you determine that thought should be called, I don’t really care. I’d rather somebody not be able to totally define stuff that I do, because that brings a certain normalcy to it. And jazz could use some abnormal shit, to be honest.” Synthesizing jazz, R&B, and hip-hop, Glasper translates multiple musical genres into formats that actively resist any definition and enable him to collaborate with songwriters, poets, vocalists, spoken word artists, and actors.
When collaborating with other musicians, Glasper privileges the collective over the individual musician. Moran agrees and notes the importance of finding ways to “maintain your identity” through other avenues besides solos. Remarking on the collaborative nature of Glasper’s live performances, Moran states, “Robert has taken [the Robert Glasper Experiment] to a place where the options that each musician has is really just to support each other, it’s not just to be the backup for the solo. And the solo is barely existent, and it was a really nice thing to hear. [It was] really generous, but fulfilling at the same time for all of us in the audience.”
While he has a definite fluency in the jazz idiom, Glasper also maintains a rigorous interdisciplinary approach to his work. He welcomes the diversity of talents that each contributor can bring. His critically acclaimed 2012 album Black Radio by the Robert Glasper Experiment stands as a testaments to this commitment. Black Radio (featuring collaborators Erykah Badu, Bilal, Lalah Hathaway, Yasiin Bey, Musiq Soulchild, Chrisette Michele, and more) won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Album. Through this multifaceted, creative exchange, Glasper presents a soulful critique of mainstream musical standards. Overcoming entrenched divides between musical genres, Glasper invents a new stage to proclaim the personal and political through his music.
Earlier this year, the 12-track album Black Radio 2 (featuring Jill Scott, Dwele, Luke James, Common, Marsha Ambrosius, Patrick Stump, Faith Evans, Norah Jones, Snoop Dogg, Lupe Fiasco, Emeli Sandé, Lalah Hathaway, Brandy, Anthony Hamilton), won the award for Best Traditional R&B Performance. Robert Glasper Experiment’s reinterpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children Of America” commemorates the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that occurred in December of 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. The actor and poet Malcolm-Jamal Warner contributed an original spoken-word poem to the song, and singer Lalah Hathaway provided the vocals. Glasper recalls the personal significance of this moment: “The very first time I performed that song live was during a Stevie Wonder tribute on the day the Sandy Hook tragedy took place…I’d also found out that a close friend lost his daughter in the tragedy. So when we did the Stevie song, I almost lost it. It hit close to home, because I have a four-year-old son.” Glasper manages to use his multidisciplinary aesthetic not only to expand cultural definitions of jazz, but to make statements of great personal and political import.
Just as Moran discusses the feeling of a “persistent jabbing” after viewing Adrian Piper’s work and a powerful “wake up” to make use of his personal history, Glasper expresses a similar need to intertwine the personal and the political into his music. He maintains an acute awareness of the social undertones of his music. Glasper notes, “Jazz musicians are becoming more comfortable with music that speaks to them personally. I think it’s very important that musicians feed off the fruit of the music that actually is the soundtrack of their lives. The only way to keep something relevant is to renew it from history and let it grow and change. When that happens, you start getting stuff like Black Radio 2.” He adds, “Black people have invented so many dope genres that everyone loves: Jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, rock, hip-hop, and the list goes on. I’m just visiting all those rooms. It’s my mansion; it’s our mansion. I don’t have to exclude anything.” Moran and Glasper’s music interrogates traditional musical forums and demonstrates how they hold all the more relevancy when placed in the context of the social and political terms of our times.
Glasper made his opinion of the contemporary jazz scene quite clear when he told DownBeat, “I’ve gotten bored with jazz to the point where I wouldn’t mind something bad happening. Slapping hurts, but at some point it’ll wake you up. I feel like jazz needs a big-ass slap.” In a similar vein, Moran spoke to his impatience with what he perceives as jazz’s limiting performance format. While the music grows from creativity and passion, the performance can often be presented in a rigid space. Moran and Glasper both manipulate the music, reconstructing jazz history in order to alter any expectations the audience may harbor. Or, as Moran phrases it, he wants to “wipe the slate clean” by beginning a performance with something you wouldn’t expect.
The collaboration between Moran and Glasper will be unpredictable; the musicians will take you into the folds of their compositions, both rigorous in approach and brave in its improvisation. Riding and resisting the rhythm, the two artists remain stronger together. Their music enriches the audience’s understanding of the living legacy of the historic figures in not just jazz, but also R&B, soul, gospel, blues, boogie-woogie, rap, and classical. The synchronicity and disjuncture of their chords creates an effortless relational composition that harks on the momentous movement of Glasper and Moran’s music. They will punctuate the room with recognizable melodies and rhythms, only to whisk the audience away in anticipation of a new kind of jazz in the making. Speaking the same language through their pianos, together they leave their mark on both music and culture. But let their music speak for itself.
Jason Moran and Robert Glasper perform at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater on Saturday, May 2nd at 8:00 pm (sold out) and 10:30 pm (limited tickets available).
Esteemed jazz pianists and composers Jason Moran and Robert Glasper take the stage at the Walker’s McGuire Theater on Saturday, May 2 at 8 pm and 10:30 pm for two exclusive US performances. Showcasing collaborative talent through an energized repertoire of jazz history, their duets pay tribute to a number of influential jazz geniuses. Honoring […]
Esteemed jazz pianists and composers Jason Moran and Robert Glasper take the stage at the Walker’s McGuire Theater on Saturday, May 2 at 8 pm and 10:30 pm for two exclusive US performances. Showcasing collaborative talent through an energized repertoire of jazz history, their duets pay tribute to a number of influential jazz geniuses. Honoring the contributions of artists such as Thelonious Monk, Sam Rivers, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ammons, and Meade Lux Lewis, the duo’s compositions and improvisations reflect the ever-changing landscape of contemporary jazz. Although they acknowledge the rich legacy of their jazz forebears, they also catalyze a fresh conversation about the very state of the genre. Through extreme virtuosity, humor, and poise, Moran and Glasper launch jazz into a new realm.
Moran and Glasper both attended Houston’s High School for Performing and Visual Arts, but only recently did they decide to fuse their individual musical inclinations into one performance. The pair made their debut at the 713–212 —> Houstonians in NYC concert in 2011. They came together again with force at last year’s 75th anniversary celebration of Blue Note Records in New York City. Through solos, duets, and improvisation, they alternate back and forth until the culminating moment when their music becomes one. You can still expect their individual personalities to emerge next Saturday night, as both hold acclaimed musical careers in their own right. Their divergent paths make the pair an unlikely but impeccable duo. They share a similar ambition: to take jazz in new directions.
As part of a two part series on their upcoming collaboration, I first delve into the artistic career of Jason Moran. Another post will follow next week highlighting the work of Robert Glasper.
As a Houston native, Jason Moran began playing the piano at age six, later moving to New York to study jazz at the Manhattan School of Music. While he cites Monk as his first inspiration, Moran’s oeuvre continues to break down boundaries that once divided jazz from other artistic disciplines. A 2010 recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award and the Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., his formidable artistic achievements continue to reach audiences around the world.
Moran is no stranger to the Walker. Since 2001, he has participated in a variety of distinctive performances here, including his collaboration with legendary saxophonist-flutist Sam Rivers; an evening with his trio The Bandwagon (drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen); and a postmodern jazz tribute to Thelonious Monk. In addition, his residency at the Walker resulted in the acclaimed 2005 Walker-commissioned piece, Milestone. While at the Walker, Moran did not limit himself to the McGuire Theater. He ruminated on the artworks in the Walker’s permanent collection, including performance and visual artist Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being; I/You (Her) (1974). His intensive research into Piper’s work, and other works in the Walker’s collection, resulted in a new concert form and evening of music. Throughout his composition of Milestone, Moran maintained close contact with Adrian Piper. He adopted her consciousness for the personal, political, and performative dimensions of art, later synthesizing this philosophy into his compositional strategy. He comments on how reframing traditional compositions within this collaboration allowed him to “tamper with the form [of jazz].” Milestone remains just one of many instances when Moran decided to push the boundaries of jazz.
As seen from his exchange with Piper, Moran does not limit his musical ambitions to individual acclaim. Instead, he takes unprecedented effort to foster collaborations with artists, musicians, poets, curators, and choreographers across disciplines. These include performances and compositions with Glenn Ligon, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, and Lorna Simpson, as well as a decade-long, ongoing collaboration with Joan Jonas. Moran has also worked with renowned contemporary visual artist Kara Walker, celebrated for the intricate silhouettes she affixes to gallery walls to create a landscape that interrogates racism in past and present. Walker illuminates a history embedded with enslavement, exploitation, and sexual violence. She performed with Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran in their multimedia work Bleed at the 2012 Whitney Biennial.
Moran forges thoughtful collaborations with contemporary artists that deal with charged interpretations of identity and society. His Hollywood debut earlier this year composing the score for the groundbreaking film Selma, with director Ava Duvernay, earned him a nomination for an Oscar. His work warrants consideration in the context not just of music, but also the pressing social and political issues of this century. In an interview with Daniel Schweiger following the release of Selma, Moran describes how he views the relationship between jazz and social practice:
Jazz and activism are so integral to each other, whether we think about the music of Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, the music of the vaudeville performer Bert Williams in the early 1900′s, or the music of Paul Robeson. That link, that defiance, that comes out of the origins of jazz and blues are what we know of black music in American. It has that kind of tension and history built in to it, a process of exploring sounds from James Brown to today’s artists like John Legend and Common, who perform Selma’s end song, “Glory”. So when I study jazz, I don’t just study just the music. I study its relationship where it was in the history. (Full interview found here).
Remaining cognizant of this momentous history and never losing sight of the trailblazers of jazz, Moran challenges the status quo of 21st-century music. His astute awareness of relevant events informs the bold collaborations he sparks with contemporary artists. Moran’s music carries underlying narratives of personal history; the power that emanates from his compositions allows sonic concepts to resonate with listeners. In a recent interview with Franz A. Matzner, Moran puts it well: “So for me via my relationship with musicians who have taught me so well over all of these years, there’s never been a demarcation between the music and the culture. Never!”
The much-anticipated documentary Looks of a Lot explores the shifts that Moran proposes for how we define jazz in 2015. Directors Radiclani Clytus, Gregg Conde, and Tony Gannon set out to complicate narrow interpretations of jazz by displaying the interdisciplinary sound Moran has created through his extensive collaborative efforts. Looks of a Lot provides a window into the far reaching impact of Moran’s artistic connections. The film explores Moran throughout the preparation of his multimedia presentation, Looks of a Lot, as seen at the Symphony Center in Chicago in 2014. His collaborators include the Bandwagon and Chicago sculptor Theaster Gates, reedist Ken Vandermark, Katie Ernst, and the Kenwood Academy High School Jazz Band. Looks of a Lot will be screened at the Walker Cinema on Thursday, April 30.
Stay tuned for part two of this series, on Robert Glasper, early next week.
Jason Moran and Robert Glasper perform at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater on Saturday, May 2nd at 8:00 pm (sold out) and 10:30 pm (limited tickets available). The documentary Looks of a Lot will be screened during Target Free Thursday Night on Thursday, April 30th at 6:30 pm and 8:00 pm in the Walker Cinema.