Tuesday, July 03, 2012

FIJM Day 5: The Devil's Music

Monday was a slow day at the festival for me. Outside of the media events, I had no tickets and planned on just walking around the outdoor stages.

I missed the first portion of the Ron Carter press conference, stuck in traffic. I caught enough of it to realize that Carter is as cogent a speaker as he is a player. When asked about how he feels when journalists rely on his work with Miles Davis and don't ask him about the rest of his long and storied career, he gave a very diplomatic response: he used to get upset at the ignorance and lack of preparedness, but now he uses those situations to educate the journalists (and hopefully their readers) in the missing pieces of the puzzle. I had the chance to ask about his peak recording period in the late 60s/early 70s, moving between electric and upright, from Joe Henderson to Airto to Gil Scott-Heron, and his reply was simply that he tried to make each session sound like he belonged in that band. Brilliant advice to any musician.

I'm a big fan of media rehearsals. They give the media a behind-the-scenes view of the nuts and bolts of a large production, and also give the artists a specified time for flash-blindness. There was an open rehearsal for The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, written by playwright Angelo Parra and featuring Miche Braden. Walking into Cinquième Salle of Place des Arts, there was a beautiful set and ambient wash of light, while the techs were busy fixing follow spots and sorting out the sound. While in the media rehearsal, we didn't hear many full songs or even get a sense of the arc of the show, but it was enough to intrigue me into finding a ticket for the opening.

Braden has previously portrayed the lives of Mahalia Jackson and Ma Rainey on stage. Revitalizing the legacies of influential singers from bygone eras seems to be something of an artistic mission statement for her. She's got a big, soulful voice, that evokes Bessie Smith without being a strict imitator. Through the 90-minute show, the history of Smith's tumultuous hard living was elegantly interwoven with the songs. Surrounded by a trio of pianist Aaron Graves, Jim Hankins on bass, and saxophonist Keith Loftis, the musicians are also called upon to act a little bit. Loftis' raunchy duo with Braden is the one of the many high points of the show. The majority of it is raunchy, bawdy and hilarious, and Braden certainly knows how to play to the crowd. She also shows the emotions of Bessie behind the masks of alcohol and sex; in the final act, when Smith's life unravels, Braden cut to the core. Originally produced by the Penguin Rep Theater in New York and after a successful off-Broadway run, this is a show definitely worth seeing and a textbook example of how biographical musicals, or jukebox musicals, should be structured.

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