Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Big Ears Festival 2016 is crazy good

I don't normally cut-and-paste press releases into here, but this lineup is so amazing I had to share.

Thanks, Kid Logic Media.

October 20, 2015 – Knoxville, TN – The internationally acclaimed Big Ears Festivaldeclared “the most ambitious avant-garde festival to emerge in America in more than decade” by Rolling Stone – is proud to announce its most expansive, groundbreaking line up to date, bringing together musical leaders and innovators from the worlds of classical, jazz, electronic, folk, hip-hop and beyond for the weekend of March 31 – April 2, 2016 in venues throughout downtown Knoxville, Tennessee.   

Heralded American composer John Luther Adams – winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music as well as the 2014 Grammy Award for “Best Classical Composition” – will serve as Composer-in-Residence at this year’s festival. Hailed as “one of the most original music thinkers of the new century” by The New Yorker, Adams’ work combines rich musical experience with his love for the natural world, especially the wild Arctic landscapes of Alaska, where he lived for nearly 40 years. Several of his key works will be performed during the Big Ears weekend, including his powerful, sweeping orchestral masterpiece, Become Ocean, in a concert by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Steven Schick.

Big Ears will also present at least two very special rare performances during the weekend. New music icons and Big Ears alumni Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass will present the American debut of their unique collaboration, thus far heard only once this past summer in Italy. In addition, the legendary 1972 minimalist/industrial rock creation by violinist/filmmaker Tony Conrad with German “Krautrock” legends Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate, will be heard live in its only concert performance in 2016.

The remainder of the weekend will see dozens of concerts by a virtual who’s who of the world’s most iconoclastic and visionary music artists. Composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton will perform with two of his ensembles – a ten piece group and a trio; his former associate, composer/trumpet virtuoso Wadada Leo Smith will perform duos with leading jazz pianist, Vijay Iyer; while the wildly acclaimed young saxophonist Kamasi Washington – collaborator with Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus – will present his soulful, spiritual jazz.

Guitarist Marc Ribot returns for a couple special concerts, and jazz guitar wizard Mary Halvorson will present a solo show as well.

The Irish supergroup, The Gloaming, will perform, along with young British folksinger, Olivia Chaney; leading American folk and alternative rock artists like Andrew Bird, Yo La Tengo, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Angel Olsen, Joe Henry, Lambchop, and Circuit des Yeux will be in attendance as well.

Icelandic producer/composer Valgeir Sigur∂sson will be bringing his Bedroom Community compatriots Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, and Sam Amidon for a show commemorating their 10th Anniversary as a label and musician’s collective; and fellow Iceland native composer Ólafur Arnalds will present his electronica collaboration with Janus Rasmussen, Kiasmos.

Widely acclaimed new music ensemble eighth blackbird will make their Big Ears debut, presenting Bryce Dessner’s new work Murder Ballades during their performance, and Australia’s musical shamans, the Necks, will return to lead Big Ears on another kaleidoscopic musical journey.

There will be groundbreaking electronics from Nicolas Jaar, Ikue Mori, and Andy Stott; maximum minimalism from drone legends Sunn O))); future thinking hip-hop and beyond with Shabazz Palaces and Hieroglyphic Being; Saharan Desert electric guitar jams from Bombino; and even more musical exploration with avant-garde sonic explorers Phantom Orchard and Wolf Eyes.

There’s more to come, including other special performances and details to be revealed in the coming weeks.  One thing is certain: Big Ears fans will be fully immersed in an unforgettable weekend of astonishing music-making of all kinds.

Weekend passes, individual day passes, reserved seat tickets for Tennessee Theatre performances, and the “Sonic Explorer” VIP Pass all go on sale Friday, Oct. 23 at 12 noon eastern.

Full details on the Big Ears lineup – including the daily artist breakdown – as well as all ticketing information can be found at www.bigearsfestival.com. Installations, interactive experiences, panels, discussions, and undoubtedly a few surprises will be revealed leading into the festival. All this and more information can be found at www.BigEarsFestival.com, by “liking” Big Ears Festival on Facebook, by following @BigEarsFestival on Twitter, and by joining the newsletter.

Daily Lineups:
Thursday, March 31, 2016
Knoxville Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Steven Schick performing the Music of John Luther
Adams, Bryce Dessner, and Philip Glass with Guest Cellist Maya Beiser 
The Gloaming
Yo La Tengo
Andy Stott
Tony Conrad
Wolf Eyes
Marc Ribot
Xylouris White
Zeena Parkins & Tony Buck
Olivia Chaney

Friday, April 1, 2016
Andrew Bird
Anthony Braxton Tentet
Outside the Dream Syndicate (Tony Conrad with Faust)    
Nicolas Jaar (DJ)
Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith
eighth blackbird with Bonnie "Prince” Billy and Bryce Dessner 
Yo La Tengo & Lambchop
Shabazz Palaces
Steven Schick
Joe Henry & Marc Ribot
Phantom Orchard
Chris Abrahams
Molly Nilsson

Saturday, April 2, 2016
An Evening with Laurie Anderson & Philip Glass
Sunn O)))
Bedroom Community 10th Anniversary: Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, Sam Amidon, & Valgeir Sigurðsson
The Necks
Kiasmos (Ólafur Arnalds & Janus Rasmussen)
Angel Olsen
Anthony Braxton Trio
Kamasi Washington
Mary Halvorson
Hieroglyphic Being
Circuit des Yeux
Ikue Mori

Friday, September 25, 2015

Maria Schneider on her hometown of Windom, leading the band and working with David Bowie

Maria Schneider by Briene Lermitte
Minnesota native Maria Schneider recently released a luminously beautiful new album, "The Thompson Fields," on the fan-funded label ArtistShare. We spoke with her shortly before her appearance at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Read it on MinnPost.

Sonny Knight onstage at 67: "It's like life started all over again for me"

Sonny Knight and the Lakers by John Whiting
We caught up with Sonny Knight at the Monterey Jazz Festival, just before his Saturday performance with the Lakers on the Garden Stage. Read it on MinnPost.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The 58th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival: What to see and hear

Geri Allen
From Friday at 6 p.m. when the gates open, through late Sunday night when the last notes sound and the final stragglers, the diehards, those who don’t want the music to end (count us in) make their way down the shadowy tree-lined paths toward the exits, the Monterey County Fairgrounds will be the jazziest place on the planet.

At the 58th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, which happens this weekend (Sept. 18-20), jazz by many of the world’s top artists will rise to the sky above the open-air Arena and the Garden Stage, pour through the doors of the Night Club and Dizzy’s Den and curl around listeners crowded into the small, intimate Coffee House.

Jazz conversations, panel discussions, jam sessions, workshops, mixers and a film will take place throughout the grounds. Everyone you meet at a concert, in a line or around a picnic table will be a jazz fan, aficionado, performer, supporter, producer, journalist, educator, student or at least curious and willing to listen. No one you meet will claim not to like or understand jazz, or insist that it’s dead.

Monterey is a magical weekend, and addictive. This will be our 11th year, and we come all the way from Minnesota. We’re not the only ones who travel a long way to soak up the ambience of the place and the excellence of the programming, which is never the same but poses the identical hair-pulling, teeth-grinding dilemma year after year: what to see and hear? Because with 500 artists and 109 events on eight stages over just two-and-a-half days, it’s about choices. It’s also about chance and happenstance, following your ears and letting yourself be tempted, sidetracked and surprised.

But you have to start somewhere. So here’s what we like best this year.

Wynton Marsalis
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Why have a single Artist-in-Residence when you can have a whole band? Led by Wynton Marsalis, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is 15 exceptional soloists, ensemble players, composers and arrangers. They’ll play together in the Arena on Saturday night, then take over Dizzy’s Den on Sunday with a performance by JLCO saxophonist Walter Blanding and his sextet, followed by bassist Carlos Henriquez and an eight-member band (including guest percussionists) in a concert of his original music, ending with an everyone-but-Wynton jam session that will sound some of the Festival’s final notes. On Saturday afternoon on the Jazz Education Pavilion, JLCO saxophonist Ted Nash will lead the MJF High School All-Star Combo. On Sunday afternoon in the Arena, Nash and Marsalis will perform with the Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra.

Béla Fleck and Chick Corea
Chick Corea. Ageless and tireless, endlessly inventive and enormously creative, this year’s Showcase Artist is someone for whom the term “living legend” is an understatement. Any opportunity to see Corea play live is a gift. He’ll perform in the Arena twice: on Friday night with his superb trio Trilogy, with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, and on Sunday night, again in the Arena, in duo with virtuoso banjo player Béla Fleck, who has transformed the way his instrument is perceived and played. No one should have to choose between the two events – both are unmissable – but if our feet were held to the fire, we’d probably go with the Sunday night show because it’s not a piano-bass-drums trio. Except missing McBride and Blade is dumb.

Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet + 5: “The Forgotten Places.” One of our can’t-fail faves each year is the MJF commission. We don’t know a thing about this yet, except that Akinmusire wrote at least part of it at the Glen Deven Ranch in Big Sur, where Bill Frisell wrote his 2012 commission, a luscious hour-long suite he named “Big Sur.” We’ll hear Akinmusire’s new work on Saturday evening in the Arena. The eloquent young trumpeter/composer will also perform with his quartet in the Night Club later that night.

Geri Allen Presents The Erroll Garner Project: Concert by the Sea. This is both a live performance and a major CD release. Recorded on a reel-to-reel machine near Carmel in 1955, two years before the first Monterey Jazz Festival, Garner’s “Concert by the Sea” is one of the most popular jazz albums ever released. Almost 60 years later, it has finally gotten the serious and loving archival treatment it has long deserved. On Friday, the same day as this concert, Sony Legacy releases “The Complete Concert by the Sea,” with 11 previously unissued tracks from the original performance. Pianist Geri Allen, who counts the old album as one of her major influences and co-produced the new one with Steve Rosenthal, will lead a celebratory concert also featuring pianists Jason Moran and Christian Sands, guitarist Russell Malone, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Victor Lewis. On Saturday afternoon, Dizzy’s Den will host a panel discussion about Garner’s legacy with Allen, Rosenthal, UCLA professor (and Thelonious Monk biographer) Robin Kelley and Festival board member Jim Costello, who was at Garner’s original “Concert by the Sea” performance. The discussion will be moderated by Erroll Garner Jazz Project manager Jocelyn Arem. The Festival has gone very deep on this, and for those who are interested, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dig in, learn from the experts and come away knowing a lot more than you did going in. Meanwhile, there’s good information on the Festival’s website, plus an article by Nate Chinen that will appear in Sunday’s New York Times but is available now online.

Sonny Knight and the Lakers
Sonny Knight & The Lakers. This is a straight-out hometown shout. Sonny Knight and the Lakers are a Minneapolis soul band, touring behind a new album recorded live at the Dakota, a club where we have spent countless nights and too many dollars, and issued on the Minneapolis label Secret Stash Records. We’ll see them on the Garden Stage on Saturday afternoon. Look for this to be one of those concerts where the crowd builds and overflows onto the sidewalk. Like the Davina & The Vagabonds show two years ago. Ahem, they’re from Minneapolis, too.

Monty Alexander Trio. We can’t remember a Festival year when all six nighttime sets at the Coffee House were given to a single pianist. With John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums, Alexander will take us to Jamaica and back again. This is an old-fashioned residency, something that hardly ever happens anymore outside New York, and what a treat that it’s happening here.

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls. After several excellent albums and heady collaborations with artists including Vijay Iyer, Kadri Gopalnath, Rez Abbasi, Bunky Green, David Gilmore and Steve Lehman, second-generation Indian-American saxophonist Mahanthappa hit one out of the park with “Bird Calls.” Inspired by Charlie Parker, but without any covers or tunes built on Parker’s chord changes, it leaped onto Top Ten lists everywhere and earned Mahanthappa a triple crown in the latest DownBeat Critics Poll: Jazz Album of the Year, Alto Saxophone and Rising Star-Composer. Mahanthappa plays with fierce energy and intelligence, and his current quintet – 20-year-old trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (Arturo’s son), pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist François Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston – is amazing. They play Sunday night in the Night Club. Earlier that day in Dizzy’s Den, Mahanthappa joins Ravi Coltrane for a conversation about John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” hosted by Ashley Kahn.

As always, Monterey is jam-packed and there’s so much more. Her Majesty Dianne Reeves in the Arena on Sunday night. A Jaco Pastorius party led (and arranged) by Vince Mendoza, in the Arena on Friday night. Terence Blanchard’s new E-Collective in Dizzy’s Den on Friday night. The enchanting Lizz Wright in Dizzy’s on Saturday, touring behind her soulful, sensual new album “Freedom & Surrender.” The first public performances of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour band of jazz all-stars, Saturday in the Arena and Sunday in the Night Club. The incendiary Latin rhythms of the Escovedo clan on Saturday at Dizzy’s and Sunday in the Arena. And the grand finale? Superstar trumpeter Chris Botti in the Arena, sending lambent golden notes into the night.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Six reasons to hit the Iowa City Jazz Festival this Fourth of July weekend

Charles Lloyd is the superstar headliner
of this year's Iowa City Jazz Festival, July 2-4
Photo by John Whiting
We love the annual Iowa City Jazz Festival, held over the Fourth of July weekend, and go whenever we can. It’s a road trip from Minneapolis, but you can take a detour en route and visit a Frank Lloyd Wright site or two: Cedar Rock in Independence, the Wright-designed Historic Park Inn Hotel and the Stockman House (with interpretive center) in Mason City.

You can get lost and stumble across a farmers’ market. You can get distracted by wind farms, green fields, and silos, forget to pay attention, and end up crossing the Dubuque Bridge into Illinois. That adds a lot of miles. Don’t ask how I know that.

But if it’s a nice day, the drive can be the perfect head-clearing transition between life in the city and three days of music in a charming university town in the heartland.

Here’s why this year’s festival is so worth attending.

1. Awesome headliners. This is the festival’s 25th year, and the organizers have gone all out to make it truly memorable. These are the headliners, in alpha order: Ben Allison Think Free. Brian Charette Trio. Dave Douglas and High Risk. Julian Lage Trio. Charles Lloyd Quartet. Rudresh Mahanthappa Bird Calls. Becca Stevens Band.

In a word, wow.

2. Variety. Let’s look more closely at the headliners.

Ben Allison Think Free: A bassist-led band including Jenny Scheinman on violin and Rudy Royston on drums.

Brian Charette Trio: A B3 player/pianist-led band including Rudy Royston on drums.

Dave Douglas and High Risk: A trumpeter-led electro-acoustic quartet, with a DJ. Apparently this comes out of an earlier ensemble called Keystone, which we saw at the Walker in 2010, so we’re really intrigued.

Julian Lage Trio: A guitarist-led trio. Vibraphonist Gary Burton knows how to pick guitarists for his band; Lage was the successor to Pat Metheny and Larry Coryell. Lage is a beautiful player. 

Charles Lloyd Quartet: A saxophonist-flutist-guru led band. Lloyd is one of our most important living musicians, a jazz giant and newly minted NEA Jazz Master whose influence is far-reaching and whose music is profound. Festival committee chair Don Thompson told the Iowa City Press-Citizen: “I’ve dreamed of having Charles Lloyd play our festival since I became involved many years ago.” Lloyd’s band: Gerald Clayton, Joe Sanders, Kendrick Scott. We’ll see them in Minneapolis a few days before Iowa City, because missing a live Charles Lloyd performance is not an option, and seeing him twice in one week on two different stages is an impossibly rare opportunity.

Rudresh Mahanthappa Bird Calls: A saxophonist-led band, a fusion of modern jazz with South Indian classical music. Mahanthappa is a Doris Duke Performing Artist and a very powerful player; Bird Calls is his take on Charlie Parker. Can’t wait to hear it live.

(Too many saxophones? No. Lloyd and Mahanthappa are totally different. What they have in common is knock-your-socks-off excellence.)

Becca Stevens Band: A ukulele-playing-singer-led band. Kurt Elling has called Stevens one of his favorite jazz vocalists. Her new album, Perfect Animal, the one she’s touring behind and will feature in Iowa City, leans more pop than jazz, but her band is so tight, her voice and style so appealing that it’s all about good music. (We saw her in Minneapolis earlier this week and liked her very much.)

Also on the main stage: Atlantis Quartet. The popular and beloved Minneapolis modern jazz group recently won a prestigious McKnight Musician Fellowship. We’ll be cheering especially loudly for them. They write strong, solid original music and they play it very well.

There’s more. Following Dave Douglas on Friday night, Ron Miles and his group Whirlpool play at the Englert Theater starting at 11 p.m. Miles is a brilliant, elegant trumpeter-cornetist who often plays with Bill Frisell. (They played Iowa City together in 2009.)

And this, recently added: Charles Lloyd’s wife, artist and filmmaker Dorothy Darr, made a documentary film about Lloyd called Arrows Into Infinity that chronicles his life in music, his spiritual journey, his great friendship with the drummer Billy Higgins and more. The film screens at the Iowa City Public Library at 2 p.m. on Friday, to be followed by a q-and-a with Lloyd and Darr.

3. Smart scheduling. The headliners are on the main stage. No one else plays during their performances. In between the headliners, who perform every two hours, three side stages light up with local musicians and young musicians. 

Guitarist Steve Grismore, a co-founder of the festival, plays with his trio on Thursday. The electro-jazz ensemble Koplant No plays Saturday. So does the Dakota Combo, a group of high school musicians from Minneapolis. View the whole schedule here.

4. Location, location. Iowa City is compact, idyllic and scenic. A university town on the Iowa River, it’s lovely to walk around, with shops and galleries (AKARIowa Artisans Gallery) and restaurants, patios, and places to sit. 

The city is home to the University of Iowa, which is home to the world-famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so all along Iowa Avenue you’ll find bronze plaques in the sidewalks with authors’ names and passages from their works. The city is one of just eight UNESCO-designed “Cities of Literature” in the world, and the only one in the United States.

The festival takes place on a lush green lawn in front of the Old Capitol, and on Clinton Street and Iowa Avenue, which are closed to traffic and open to aimless rambling. Following the final headliner (this year, Charles Lloyd), there will be fireworks over the river, visible from the festival site. The fireworks are always a perfect ending to the festival.

As a university town, Iowa City is full of students. It can be noisy at night, and the bars are usually ear-splitting and overflowing. If you’re not in your early 20s, there will be moments when you feel old. That’s just how it is. On the other hand, it’s kind of nice to be among all of those short shorts, halter tops and beards, even as a tourist.

And – this is one of the small miracles of the Iowa City Jazz Festival – you can take your chair to the festival site mid-morning, set it up where you want it, return hours later for the music, and your chair will still be there. 

Only once have we had cause to doubt that. Last year, we spent the last hour or so of the final night wandering, meeting friends, and taking photos. We returned and our chairs were not where we had left them. They had been moved about 10 feet and turned to face the fireworks. Two strangers were in them. We walked in their direction, they saw us, stood up immediately, and said “Sorry, we thought someone had forgotten them.”

Iowa City, never change.

5. Good fair food. Seriously. You can buy fried stuff if you want, but you can also buy amazing grilled and roasted stuff, and Indian food and other spicy, tasty edibles. You might want to make a dinner reservation for one night, but you can eat well on the street, without a reservation.

6. It’s free. Because of the generosity and civic-mindedness of many sponsors and supporters, every second of music at the festival is free. So thanks to the University of Iowa Community Credit Union, and MidWestOneBank, and Integrated DNA Technologies, and Oaknoll Retirement Community, and everyone else who stepped forward and put money in the bucket. Volunteers will be carrying buckets through the crowd during the festival, if you feel moved to make a contribution.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Interview with an astronaut: Talking with NASA’s Michael E. Fossum

Mike Fossum by John Whiting
NASA astronaut Mike Fossum is in St. Paul this week to help launch the Science Museum’s new exhibition, “SPACE: An Out-of-Gravity Experience.” If you’ve ever thought that being an astronaut is all glamor and glory, “SPACE” will disabuse you of that notion. It’s hard, exacting, dangerous and sometimes smelly work. And yet there are men (and women) who dream of going into space and eventually become part of what is truly an elite group.

Mike Fossum is one. He grew up poor (he didn’t tell us he’d grown up the grandson of sharecroppers, but we overheard him telling someone else), he prayed, he tried and tried again, and now he’s one of the few. To be honest, it was a thrill to speak with him. I’m not often star-struck, but I was around him.

PLE: How long are you in St. Paul?

Mike Fossum: I’m just here for a few days. The main events are today, associated with the opening of the new exhibit. Then back home, back to Houston.

Did I hear you say you were ready to return to the Space Station again?

I am ready. I have a chance. We’ll see. My doctors and my wife are conspiring against me.

I was reading your biography and learned that you have traveled some 77 million miles in space. I can’t get my head around that.

It’s kind of hard to even imagine. But you make enough trips around the planet – sixteen a day – and they add up over 194 days.

And now I realize I’m talking to a real astronaut and my mind has just gone blank.

[Laughs] I’m a normal guy with an outrageous job.

I’m in the generation where we followed everything the astronauts were doing. We watched the launches in school.

We watched them together.

And now it seems like there’s almost an indifference to the space program. What would you say to people to get them excited about it again, or at least pay attention?

Come to see [the “SPACE” show at the Science Museum]. Hear President Kennedy giving us his challenge to go to the moon, which was an outrageous challenge – we had barely launched rockets, to go to the moon in that amount of time took huge national resources, and we know there were geopolitical reasons for doing it, too. Then come through and see some of what the space shuttle program did. It was built to deliver big pieces of space stations to space, and it finally did it. Then see what we’re doing now with the space station, some of the science exhibits that are in here.

Then dream about where we’re looking for the future. Can you see yourself on Mars? There will be human footprints on Mars someday. I hope that there’s an American flag on their shoulder.

About motivating kids: In a lot of ways, they think space is impossible. I was born in Sioux Falls and grew up in one of the poorest parts of the country, down on the Mexican border in South Texas. This was an impossible dream for me, too. I found a way to get through college – it took an Air Force scholarship to help me pay for college, then the Air Force gave me opportunities to go to graduate school, and then I worked in flight test and went to test pilot school. I tried to take the best advantage of my opportunities – to study hard, to do well, to stand out as one of the best.

Maybe motivating school kids to study the science, technology, engineering, math, the STEM fields … but it’s not just about grade school kids. All of us are inspired by this. We did an astronaut selection about two years ago, and we had 6,000 people apply to be astronauts. These are people at the peak of their professional careers. They’re in math, science, engineering, medicine. There were teachers and test pilots. All are working their hearts out to be the best that they can be, and this is one of the things that’s inspiring them. I know it inspired me to reach a little deeper, to dig in and try a little harder to be the best, to be as good as I could be.

All of these people want my job. And there are people who don’t want my job, but they want to be part of something that’s big, huge, outrageous. Putting mankind, putting humans on Mars is an outrageous challenge. And it is hard. We do need the financial support to do it. And the nation has a lot of priorities for how we spend our money. I recognize that. I’m not saying it should be budgeted differently. I can’t make that claim. But it’s the reality of what we do.

But there’s a lot of good that comes from space, too. We’re learning so much now. We have over 2,000 different scientific investigations completed on the space station. Some are to help us develop systems that support the people that keep us healthy for a six, seven or eight month trip to Mars and back again. Some are to research what’s going on here.

The classic one is osteoporosis, bone loss. Without gravity, you begin losing bone ten time faster than a 70-year-old osteoporotic woman. We find that with the right exercise regimen – I came back [from 164 days in space] with essentially no change to my bones and muscles. I exercised, and I also tested a medicine. With the accelerated effects in space, you can test a medicine that would take a long period of time to investigate and prove side effects, prove benefits on the ground.

Mike Fossum by John Whiting
How many astronauts are there now?

There are only 42 active astronauts right now. We have eight junior guys in training that aren’t yet certified as astronauts. That’s down. Not that many years ago, we had 135 astronauts. We were flying 30 to 40 a year in the space shuttle. Right now we’re flying four a year on the space station. It’s a longer grind. It’s a two to two-and-a-half year training flow for a six-month mission. Shuttle missions were about a one-year training after you completed all of your initial training to get ready for assignment.

When you’re not flying, we’re all very, very busy. We’re supporting the development of the Orion capsule, which we tested back in December with great success. That’ll be our exploration vehicle to go further, beyond Earth orbit. I’m supporting the real-time operations on the space station right now. I work with crews in training, I work with the crews on orbit, I work with the mission control team and the mission managers as we’re juggling priorities, working through challenges. There are big meetings going on right now to see if we’re ready to do a space walk tomorrow, for instance. If I was in Houston, I would be doing that. I’m involved with those kinds of things.

Boeing and SpaceX are two companies that were selected to build human ships to get us to and from the space station so we will no longer be reliant solely on the Russians and their Soyuz space craft. That’s a good thing. The Russians have been great partners. There’s a lot of other challenges right now, including with our partnership, but we’re fortunate to be working with them.

I was a cold warrior. I spent the first half of my career as a cold warrior. Now I’m speaking Russian and walking across Red Square at will – not speaking Russian real well, but I can get by. It’s a dramatic change to the way things were. It’s an example of where we can cooperate and work together. We have 15 nations all bound at the hip, that are working together on this, and we need each other. The U.S. and Russia can’t walk away. The space station cannot function without both of us. We both bring critical things to the mission that have to be there to continue the mission.

In some ways, you could say, “Boy, what a dumb decision,” but in other ways, that’s how we saved some money, saved some costs, and we’ve got to find a way to get along. If you think about Earth as a spaceship, wouldn’t it be better if we just had to find a way to get along and resolve issues? Because it’s just imperative. Instead, we sit across borders and cause trouble with each other.

Out of all your high moments, and there have been many, what stands out for you as the highest?

For me, it was the first launch. I applied to over seven selection cycles over 13 years. I interviewed five times before I was selected. That set a record. Five interviews was a record. Somebody’s tied it. It’ll be hard to beat it, and I don’t wish that on anybody.

I have a passion to pursue this. Beyond passion, for me, it’s a calling. It’s a spiritual calling, that I was supposed to reach in this way. I never felt any guarantee that it would work out the way I dreamed it would, that I prayed it would.

Are you a religious man?

I am a religious man.

What faith, if you don’t mind my asking?

I’m a Christian. Lutheran.

I was Missouri Synod Lutheran.

I’m Missouri Synod Lutheran.

(We shake hands.)

After all of those years – 13 years of applying, the years before that dreaming, but now getting serious about it, working my heart out, trying to do as well as I could do in the educational opportunities and career opportunities, being selected as an astronaut – we had an accident that slowed things down, and it was eight more years from the time I was selected until I was strapping in.

Mike Fossum by John Whiting
Which accident?

Columbia. And so now, finally, it’s the Fourth of July in 2006, we’re sitting on the pad, we’ve had a couple of [delays] due to weather, but now it’s looking real, the weather’s good and the systems are coming up. There was some down time and I took a nap on the launch pad, sitting on four million pounds of explosive rocket fuel. I took a nap because I could feel the prayers lifting us up, and I felt – okay, I can release it for just a few minutes here.

I took about a 15-minute nap, and then it’s “Hey, Mike, wake up! We’re getting close!” Because you’re rush, rush, rush, and you’re in there, and now it’s like, what do you do? There’s some time built in for that purpose – not naps, but in case they need to work on communication or something.

So. Here we are. The engines come to life. I’ve dreamed about it forever. This ship that is now a living beast, you can feel it rumble as the main engines come to life. They do a quick gimbal check of them, and you can feel that – the ship itself does kind of a twang, it pushes over because the engines are at a little bit of an angle, they’re doing some quick checks in just a few seconds.

Then the solid rockets light and you are off like a scalded dog, as we say down in Texas. And you feel this incredible surge underneath you, and as you’re burning fuel you’re getting lighter, and so the pressures build and build and build. Eight and a half minutes later, boom, the engines cut off, your arms and your checklist float up off your lap, and you go “Wow!”

But I couldn’t just sit there and go “Wow,” I had a job to do. My job was to jump out of my seat quick as I could, grab still and video cameras and get to the window. We needed to get pictures of our external fuel tanks as they floated away, looking at foam damage to see if we’d been hit by any big pieces.

The tank wasn’t in view yet, so I’m sitting there looking out the window of the shuttle at the North Atlantic, and there’s this blue ocean with a dappling of white clouds, an impossibly black sky, and this curved horizon with a little thin band of atmosphere that’s very visible. And I realized with a shock, this isn’t a picture, this is not a video, it’s my eyeballs looking through some glass at God’s creation down below. And I thought, this is what it looks like when God’s looking down, and I said a prayer of thanks for making the dream come true, for getting us here safely, and – now I’ve got work to do, there’s the tank.

You had three launches?


I hope you get to go back.

Me, too.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Our two cents in the 2014 Twin Cities Music Critics Tally, with reasons why

The cover of the Chris Bates Good Vibes Trio self-titled debut  recording
For the past few years, Chris Riemenschneider, local music columnist and reporter at the Minneapolis StarTribune, has invited me to join the annual Twin Cities Music Critics Tally, in which a bunch of us post our Top 10 lists of local releases and our "No. 1 sign the local music scene was alive and well" during the year in review.

Earlier this week, after hearing Karrin Allyson, an exceptional jazz singer with strong local ties, at the Dakota (with Laura Caviani at the piano), we headed to Icehouse, where JT Bates's Monday-night "Jazz Implosion" series featured the Regional Jazz Trio (Anthony Cox, Michael Lewis, JT) and guest trumpeter Greg Paulus, in town from NYC to visit his family for Christmas. On Saturday we were at Jazz Central Studios for the CD release of "Twin Cities Jazz Sampler: Volume One," an audio snapshot of a big part of the Twin Cities jazz scene. Jazz happens every night in many places. To find some tonight, or tomorrow, or any night, check the Twin Cities Live Jazz Calendar on the Jazz Police website.

Here's my Top 10 list for this year's Critics Tally, with reasons for my choices. This is not a ranked list. The lion's share is original music, with a few original arrangements of someone else's music. All albums but one are self-produced on microlabels.

Patty and the Buttons, “The Mercury Blues.” Because button accordionist Patrick Harison (Patty) is always worth watching. His music is both old-timey and fresh, and this album of all original songs made me laugh out loud and want to dance. The band: Harison on accordion, vocals, steel guitar, washboard and uke; Keith Boyles on bass; Tony Bailuff on clarinet; Mark Kreitzer on guitar. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Courageous Endeavors, “Prototype.” Because this is a very impressive first and probably last outing by four well-trained, opinionated young dudes. It's all new, original music by the band members, full of ideas, energy, unexpected twists and solid grooves. I say "probably last" because the group's co-founder, bassist Brian Courage, has relocated to NYC after two years in the Twin Cities, during which he showed up at everybody's gigs, played with almost everyone, earned respect and made a lot of fans and friends. With Nelson Devereaux on sax, Joe Strachan on piano and Miguel Hurtado on drums. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Firebell, “Impossible Vacation.” Because this is an altogether lovely album of fine writing and playing, melodic and musical, thoughtfully put together, well-recorded and worth close, quiet attention. The trio Firebell - Park Evans on guitar, Graydon Peterson on bass, Jay Epstein on drums and exquisitely shimmering cymbals - has played together since 2009, but this is their first CD. It's mostly originals, plus two unexpected pop hits, dusted off and shaken up: "Beyond the Sea," made famous by Bobby Darin in the late 1950s, and Del Shannon's "Runaway." Buy it on Shifting Paradigm Records.

Chris Bates Good Vibes Trio, “Good Vibes Trio.” Because it's just so good, and how can it not be, with Bates on bass, Dave Hagedorn on vibes and Phil Hey on drums? Over the past few years, Bates has been on fire, playing in multiple bands, showing up on MPR podcasts, emerging as a leader and making two exceptional albums: 2012's "Chris Bates' Red 5: New Hope" and now this. It's a satisfying mix of originals by all three and new arrangements of lesser-known tunes by David Berkman, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and others. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Chris Lomheim, “Timeline.” Because Lomheim on piano is poetry, both as player and composer. His body of work is relatively small - "Timeline" is only his third album in 20 years - which makes it even more precious. Full of gorgeous lines, laced with real emotion, this is elegant, ethereal listening: piano trio perfection, with Gordy Johnson on bass and Jay Epstein on drums and cymbals. Buy it from the artist.

Dean Magraw and Eric Kamau Gravatt, “Fire on the Nile.” Because the first time I heard about this project - just Magraw on guitar and Gravatt on drums, two seasoned masters of melody, improvisation, and music history, turned loose in the studio to do whatever they wanted - I did the happy dance. That Red House Records took a chance made it even better. (Red House is a traditionally singer-songwriter label.) Magraw calls his music "Heavy Meadow." Gravatt spent years on the road with McCoy Tyner. The results of their collaboration are unpredictable, playful, serious and joyous. Buy it from Red House.

Adam Meckler Orchestra, “When the Clouds Look Like This.” Because Meckler's original compositions for a whole lot of instruments are tuneful, atmospheric, lush and cinematic. Parts here and there, and the whole title track, seem inspired and informed by Maria Schneider, which I mean as the highest possible compliment. The musicians are (deep breath) Adam Meckler, Tom Krochock, Sten Johnson, Cameron Kinghorn and Noah Ophoven-Baldwin, trumpets; Keith Hilson, Nick Syman, Mason Hemmer and Jenn Werner, trombones; Nelson Devereaux, David Hirsch, Ben Doherty, Shilad Senn and Angie Hirsch, saxophones; Steven Hobert and Joe Strachan, piano; Trent Baarspul, guitar; Adrian Suarez and Pete Hennig, drums; Graydon Peterson and Chris Bates, bass. Buy it on Bandcamp.

The cover of "Ghost Dance," a sweet year-end surprise

Casey O’Brien: “Ghost Dance.” Because this came as such a sweet end-of-year surprise. It almost didn't make the list; I learned about it second-hand and listened at the last possible minute. (It wasn't officially available until December 14. The CD release is set for January 5 at Icehouse.) So glad I did, because it's a beauty. O'Brien on bass, Nathan Hanson on saxophones and Davu Seru on drums play eight of O'Brien's original compositions. This is music of seeking and finding, pensiveness, tenderness, and a spirituality reminiscent of Charles Lloyd. Even when the tempo speeds up, it takes its time. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Peter Vircks, “What You Believe Is True.” Because it has everything: great writing, playing, band, spirit and soul. With Ron Evaniuk on bass, Kevin Washington on drums and Brian Ziemniak on piano, guests Schoen Oslund on guitar and Michael Nelson on trombone, Vircks plays eight of his own compositions and one by Evaniuk - some straight-ahead, some funkified. This is Vircks' first CD as a leader, and it's one with broad appeal. Buy it from cdbaby.

Jeremy Walker, “7 Psalms.” Because it's profound, majestic and brave. Even those of us who knew Walker's story - a career as a saxophonist sidelined by Lyme disease, the switch to piano and a renewed focus on composition - could not have predicted this evening-length work for jazz quartet, solo voice and choir, based on the unabridged texts of seven psalms. Allow me to quote myself, since I couldn't say it any better if I tried: "Inspired by Johnny Cash and John Coltrane, Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Radiohead, Walker wrote new music for the ancient Hebrew poems that are cries for help, howls of frustration and shouts of joy: 'Have mercy on me, O Lord.' 'How long, O Lord?' 'Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing.'" With Jason Harms, soloist; Walker on piano; Brandon Wozniak on alto saxophone; Jeff Brueske on bass; Tim Zhorne on drums; and the 7 Psalms Chamber Choir led by Brian Link. Buy it from cdbaby, amazon or itunes. 

The cover of Jeremy Walker's "7 Psalms"

My No. 1 sign the local music was alive and well in 2014:

“Twin Cities Jazz Sampler: Volume One.” Released Dec. 20, conceived by trumpeter Steve Kenny and crowd-funded through Kickstarter, the Sampler symbolizes the resilience of jazz at a time when making a living at it seems especially hard. The Artists’ Quarter has been dark for a year, and the Dakota, like many jazz clubs, has opened its doors to all kinds of music, yet jazz is heard across the Twin Cities every night, from Jazz Central to Icehouse, the Black Dog, Studio Z, and now even Orchestra Hall. Buy it at cdbaby.

The Sampler includes tracks by the Adam Meckler Orchestra, Chris Bates Good Vibes Trio, Courageous Endeavors, and Chris Lomheim Trio. You can check them out, along with several others, then go out and hear them play live at places like Jazz Central, the Black Dog and Studio Z.