Ailey II and Manuel Vignoulle's Breakthrough

Ailey II performing Manuel Vignoulle's Breakthrough (Photo by Eduardo Patino)
Ailey II performing Manuel Vignoulle's Breakthrough (Photo by Eduardo Patino)

For those who know Manuel Vignoulle's imagination, and how effortlessly he seems to express what he imagines in Dance, the chance to see one of his works performed by a Company like Ailey II is definitely news, the very good kind.

Breakthrough is a new work that Vignoulle created for Ailey II last summer, and they first performed it last October in Canada. Vignoulle has worked with a lot of great Dance companies; a graduate of the prestigious Conservatoire National Supérieur de Danse, he first danced with, and for the past several years has choreographed for, an impressive spectrum of great Companies. Not surprisingly, working with Ailey II has been an experience that he's appreciated quite a bit. "They're very athletic and strong," he says of the Company, "It was a pleasure working with them, I'm super grateful."

Breakthrough is characteristic of Vignoulle's carefully thoughtful approach to his art. Vignoulle describes it as a work whose story line is almost apocalyptic, but defiantly individualistic. "It's about individuals who live in a world where emotions and feelings are prohibited," he explains. "It's as if their bodies and minds have been numbed for decades, even for generations, and they have no idea what effect an emotion might have on them." The work tracks their struggle. "They want to feel something inside, to connect with an emotion, whatever the cost," Vignoulle continues. "The beauty is in these exhausted bodies fighting, and never giving up fighting, just for the freedom to feel what they feel."

breakthrough (Ailey II) from Alvin Ailey on Vimeo.

Ruthie Collins: Discovering the Old and the New Together

Ruthie Collins (Photo courtesy of Curb Records)
Ruthie Collins (Photo courtesy of Curb Records)

If Ruthie Collins turned out to be one of your favorite artists, which is entirely possible, there are probably two different ways that it could end up happening. How likely is it? Well, that depends. If you already like musical artists who are brightly imaginative, truly gifted singers, Country Music, or maybe all of the above, it could definitely happen. In any case, it could happen a couple of different ways.

The first way, of course, would be if you just heard some of her music. Because it's the first single from her debut Ruthie Collins EP, and since it's already being played a lot of places, the first thing you might hear would most likely be "Ramblin' Man", her unusually creative rework of Hank Williams Sr.'s 1953 classic. If you did, it might not take long before you got the idea that you'd like to hear a lot more of Ruthie Collins, even if you didn't know the rather amazing back story about how they made that recording. That's the story about how a very traditionalist Country Artist (Ruthie) on a respected Country Label (Sidewalk / Curb) ended up making a rework of a decades-old classic by one of traditional Country's most revered legends (Hank Sr.) that blends very traditional instrumentation (practically bluegrass) with cutting edge, EDM inspired production techniques. What?

That's Ruthie Collins. "I love vintage stuff," she says, "I love old-fashioned everything." She means it, too; Ruthie Collins is all about appreciating everything that a heritage is made out of. She's always on the lookout for forgotten treasures, like vintage furniture, classic Country Music, even an old-fashioned bottle of Dr. Pepper that she found at a small town gas station near Asheville, North Carolina, except that's not all there is to Ruthie Collins.

She's as comfortable, and as creative, in the high tech worlds of social media and cutting edge studio production as she is in the high touch worlds of gardening, sewing and crafts. If you see her on Pinterest or Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, you see a constantly updating collage of all the different things that she's so engagingly enthusiastic about, including a picture of a smiling Ruthie Collins (out on the road with her vintage Airstream, on an extensive radio tour in support of her new Ruthie Collins EP) standing in the sunlight at a gas station outside of Asheville with that bottle of Dr. Pepper.

That's the other way that it could happen, the other way that you might start thinking of Ruthie Collins as an artist you were really interested in hearing more from. True, if somebody just told you about it, it might sound like a contradiction or something. It might seem a bit far-fetched if someone told you that there's this really talented young singer and writer, from a traditional rural community, whose art can embrace such an unexpected panorama of priceless old ideas and brand new insights. In fact, though, what looks like some sort of contradiction is really a complex gift for creative synthesis. Besides the fact that it's all so much fun, it's also a fascinating insight into how Ruthie Collins finds the music that she shares, a chance to discover her effortless and natural ability to find things that work and put them together.

Real Music, Real Country, and What's Important to Mo Pitney

Mo Pitney (Photo courtesy of Curb Records)
Mo Pitney (Photo courtesy of Curb Records)
Mo Pitney (Courtesy of Curb Records)

Mo Pitney knows a couple of really important things about being Country, real Country. For that matter, Mo Pitney knows a lot about a lot of things Country, not least of all about Country Music. It's not just that the songs he writes, and the effortlessly authentic way that he performs them, make such a landmark impression on so many of the people who hear them. Mo Pitney knows quite a bit about the people who've already made Country Music mean so much to so many people, because all of that means so much to him. Still, even though that's important, it's not exactly one of the two really important things that Mo Pitney knows about real Country.

When Mo Pitney took the stage at The Grand Ole Opry last June and performed two songs, "Clean Up On Aisle 5" and "Country", the packed audience gave him a standing ovation, something almost completely unheard of for a young artist performing there for the very first time. In the months since, performing at The Opry several more times to the same enthusiastic reception, and visiting radio stations across the country in preparation for the release of his highly anticipated debut album, a lot of people have had a lot of very good things to say about his music, his easy-going manner, and his future. More than a few people think that Mo Pitney may soon be one of the most important artists in Country Music.

Is that important? As it turns out, it may not be important at all; in any case, it's not very important to Mo Pitney. That's not to say that the music he writes and performs isn't important to him, or that the people he works with, or all the people who love Country Music like he does aren't important to him. A lot of things are very important to Mo Pitney, it's just that being important isn't one of them.

Most of the things that are really important to Mo Pitney turn out to have something to do with music or with other people. You can't really separate them into those two categories, though, because so much of what he appreciates in music is interwoven with the way he admires the people who have made the music he loves.

How to Imagine a Symphony Orchestra: Mina Zikri and The Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago

Mina Zikri is a lot like other artists, or at least he's a lot like other promising, new artists who you might not know about.  When you see him perform, for example, not only is the intensity of his dedication is immediately clear, but as is often true with very creative performers, there's likely to be a sense of surprise in the blend of impressions that he brings to an audience.  Mina Zikri is doing something else that promising new artists sometimes manage to do.  He's quietly gathering around him a group of other artists, like-minded people inspired by what he imagines, and dedicated to making what he imagines real.

As far as being a lot like other artists, though, that's about it, because Mina Zikri is unique in so many ways.  His approach to his art is unique, his background is unique, and his journey from the music schools of Cairo to the classical concert halls of Chicago and the world is, and continues to be, a uniquely promising adventure.  Like many gifted artists, you get the impression that everything he does is part of a coherent, reaching vision, yet even in that there's something unusual.  Zikri's vision actually has a name; it's called The Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago, a group of richly talented classical performers that Zikri describes as 'youthful' rather than 'young'.

Mina Zikri conducting The Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago (Photo by Johnny Nevin)

Dylan Scott, and Where It All Comes From

Dylan Scott (Photo Courtesy of Sidewalk Records)

Dylan Scott says he's fired up, but even if he didn't say so, that's the impression you would have gotten anyway. He's so enthusiastic about so many different things that you could get the exact same impression, whether he was talking about songwriting, touring, recording, or even just being back home in Louisiana.

In this case, he was talking about his new single "Lay It On Me", but it didn't have anything to do with the fact that it sold so well the very first day it was out, because that part hadn't even happened yet. What he was talking about was the song itself, writing it, recording it, working on it, the whole personal, musical, shared adventure. "I'm fired up," he says, "and what I like about it is, it's just making good music and having a good time. Not worrying about the money, just worrying about the fun we're going to have."

Even if you happen to talk to him on the day that his third single is being released by Sidewalk Records, the forward-leaning imprint of Nashville's legendary Curb labels, he's not likely to bring up anything about the business, about his success, or even about his very promising future. It probably doesn't matter though; even if none of that comes up, you're still going to get a good idea of why so many people are excited about his music. That's because in everything Dylan Scott talks about, you'll hear the same effortless good will, and the same absolutely irresistible enthusiasm, that always seems to come through in the music that he makes.

What to Expect from Wray

If you'd like to hear some good new music, here's some news. There was a really good album made this year that you might not have heard, by a talented band that you may not know, that was released by an imaginative label you're probably not familiar with, from a vibrant music scene you're almost certainly unaware of.

If any of that sounds unusual, here's another surprise. The music scene where the label is that signed the band that made the album is Birmingham, Alabama, but (just one more surprise) that tells you absolutely nothing about what the record is like.

Wray is a three-piece band out of Birmingham whose album is a driving but dreamlike adventure through the collective musical imagination of David Brown, David Swatzell, and Blake Wimberly. Their music is sometimes referred to as 'power gaze', because it shares a mesmerizing and atmospheric richness with much of the music that is called 'shoegaze', but they drive it hard and never let it lose its power. In reality, what they're doing is much more complex than anything you can describe with a name, partly because of where their music comes from, and partly because of where they can take it.

Question Bedtime: The MC Frontalot Uprising

MC Frontalot Merch Images (Photo by Johnny Nevin)

Unless you already know who MC Frontalot is, it would be all to easy to miss out on his new album Question Bedtime. As a matter of fact, it would be all to easy to miss out on the entire MC Frontalot adventure, and that would be a shame, because his music is written so imaginatively and produced so effectively. It's a very unpredictable collection of creativity that MC Frontalot puts together, but he puts it all together so well that it would really be too bad to miss it al all.

A lot of people already know who he is; MC Frontalot's been making records and doing shows for a lot of people for quite a few years, and none of those people are likely to miss out on anything new he comes up with. If you've heard one of his other studio albums (Question Bedtime is his sixth), or if you're one of the tens of thousands of people who have seen his completely unique take on what a rapper can be on stage, you would already have a pretty good idea that there's way more here than what it looks like at first. If you had barely heard of him though, or maybe never heard of him, it would be all too easy to get the idea that this was just something that you already have a perfectly good category for. You might think that it's just comedy, or maybe that Question Bedtime is just a young person's record, or that the whole MC Frontalot story is just a novelty, and you could easily miss something that you might really enjoy.

In such a media rich but content poor world, it becomes common, and maybe even fashionable, for people to define, rate, and then file away anything new that they encounter. That might be the main reason why somebody who would have liked this album could miss it, because there are too many dimensions to what MC Frontalot is doing to be able to really define them. Besides, they're all wired together into such a precisely designed circuit that as soon as you start to classify some of it, you're bound to miss the rest of it.

Take his latest album for example. It's true that there are a lot of moments on Question Bedtime that are really funny, but it certainly isn't a comedy record, because it's packed to digital zero with so much lyrical wattage and so much musical power. It's also true that the musical tracks on the album are based on folk tales and stories for young people from around the world, some that you know and some that you don't, but the way MC Frontalot and his extensive cast of collaborators and co-conspirators rhyme their way through these stories, they just aren't like anything you ever heard before. There's a lot that's new in the way that MC Frontalot interprets rap and rhythm and writing and rhymes, and he puts it all together into an often (but not always) light-hearted approach that the press will call Nerdcore, but novelty this is not.

New Music from the Old School: Bob Eike, Billy Thompson and Soul Stew Records

Bob Eike's 1931 National (Photo by Johnny Nevin) Copyright 2014 Heart & Soul

There's an art to being an independent label, but the heart of the art isn't exactly what most people might think. It's not so much the ability to discover, produce and promote that makes a great independent record label. It's more a talent for appreciation. When you find an indie label that you want to follow, that you would want to hear more from, it's often because the people there not only appreciate the music they bring you, they also appreciate how good it is for for everybody who loves that music when that music can be heard.

There's a new label like that just outside of D.C. They call themselves Soul Stew Records, and they started releasing music last year, bringing a promising new touch to an old idea: find great music, and bring it to the people who love it. "We deliver blues, soul, roots, jazz, gospel, Americana and any other genre that is real and moves us," is the way they describe themselves, and Soul Stew's first two releases (both of them what most people would call the Blues) deliver a lot.

These are two albums that spotlight two very different sides of the Blues, though. Bob Eike's CD happy little songs about futility and despair showcases the acoustic side of the art's oldest traditions, although Eike's songwriting is so rich with forward-leaning imagination that he makes a familiar style feel like it's new right now. With a very different approach and a very different sound, Billy Thompson's new release Friend is a such a road ready, crowd driving, blues-rock jam that you could almost forget to tell your friends how accomplished the musicianship on it is.

This is new music for sure, but that doesn't mean it's not old school. Brightly creative, yet true to the best of two richly different blues traditions, both albums sound classic and proud of it. Both Thompson and Eike go back far enough to have seen plenty of what's real in music, and between them they've shared stages and studios with a roll call of great players. They're also old friends, and as artists they have a lot in common. Perhaps the most important quality they share is an unspoken understanding, an understated conviction, that whatever music you most love to play, that's the music that people will most love to hear.

How To Be Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas

Jessica Hernandez (Photo by Johnny Nevin, Copyright 2013 Heart & Soul)

There's a band out of Detroit called Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas, and just about everybody who sees them thinks they're seeing a promising new group with a cool new singer, but that's not quite all of it. When you take a good look at Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas you can see a lot more than just that, because what you're really seeing is an exorbitant take on where music can come from, an all-embracing vision of what music can be. You're looking at a stage full of gifted young jazz players tearing it up in a rock band behind a creative and talented singer, a singer who cares a lot about everything she does, and not so much about what anybody said she was supposed to do. It's quite a sight, and quite a sound, and even if it's already quite a story, there's bound to be a lot more where that came from. That's because Jessica Hernandez has a vision that's such a wild and complex collage of creativity that nobody can really guess what she might do next.

They covered a lot of the country last year, and since people who see them often tell somebody, you may have heard of them already. It's just as likely that you've heard some of their music; after signing with Instant Records, the label founded by songwriting, producing, and label icon Richard Gottehrer, they released a five song EP called Demons (after the Hernandez original that opens the record), and it gets played a lot. Since they're heading out on tour again right now (Atlanta, San Diego, Austin for South By Southwest and a lot of other places), they'll probably be wherever you are before too long. Until then you could listen to the EP, or maybe check out some of the unreleased tracks in their live videos (many of which will be on the full length album they'll release this summer). Either way, you'll probably start to see how much there is behind the little that anybody has seen yet.

Balancing a Vision: Hubbard Street's Alejandro Cerrudo and One Thousand Pieces

Hubbard Street Dancers in One Thousand Pieces by Resident Choreographer Alejandr

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Winter Series presents the return of Alejandro Cerrudo's full evening work One Thousand Pieces, premiered in 2012 for the Company's thirty-fifth anniversary. When the work was originally peformed, the response to it from Hubbard Street's audiences was even more enthusiastic than expected, and expectations were unquestionably high. Alejandro Cerrudo had become Hubbard Street's first ever Resident Choreographer three years earlier, and his ten previous works for the Company had steadily attracted attention and accumulated admiration, building expectations of similar creativity like the crescendo of a symphony. One Thousand Pieces was a very different undertaking though; exponentially more complex, it required the synthesis of so many creative and practical possibilities that it was hard to be sure if even Cerrudo could accomplish it. How he was able to do so, and do so successfully, turns out to be a study in the art of balance as much as the art of dance, balancing personal vision with practical reality, leadership with cooperation.

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