Saturday, September 14, 2019

Alex Wu and Trio

My sleep schedule has been all off lately. I usually sleep from about 4AM until 12 noon. This suits me just fine, as for more of my adult life than not, I've worked either nights or overnights. Now that I mostly work from home, I like being up late and doing a lot of my work during the quiet hours.

Over the last few weeks, though, I've had to alter my usual schedule, largely because of my daughter. She started her first real post-schooling full-time job a few months ago, and she knew from the beginning that at some point, they were going to be sending her to Huntington for training. She has her driver's license, and does fine driving locally. But she has a vehicle that's mostly held together with scotch tape and bubble gum, and she's still very nervous driving on parkways. She can do it at night, when there's not much traffic. But driving from the Patchogue/Bellport area to Huntington five days a week, mostly during rush hour traffic, is more than she can safely handle.

She has a friend who is training with her, but this friend doesn't drive or have her own car. At first, my daughter told me I wouldn't have to worry about it, as she'd be able to catch a ride with her friend's father or sister every day. I was skeptical about that, and for good reason. I figured that I'd better be ready, because sooner or later, she was going to ask me to drive her. As it turns out, her friend often spends the night at her boyfriend's house, and on the nights when she does that, he drives her to Huntington the next morning. And according to my daughter, he's a bit of a maniac -- not paying attention to the road, tailgating like crazy, and just generally terrifying her. (My daughter had a couple of accidents when she first started driving, so she's gotten kind of PTSD about these kinds of things.)

So like any good (wonderful, stupendous, magnificent!) father, I'd rather drive her myself and make sure she's safe than trust her to somebody who sounds a little risky. And truth be told, although I don't love getting up early, or spending all of that gas money, I do like having some time with her. Like a lot of young women these days, she basically lives with her boyfriend -- in fact, they're planning to get their first real apartment together within the next month or two -- so I value spending as much time with her as I can.

The downside of this, though, is that it's been playing havoc with my sleeping schedule. The last few weeks, I've found myself going to bed anywhere from 11PM to 2AM, waking up at 6 or 6:30, and trying to make up for the difference by taking afternoon or early evening naps. It's not really working. I'm tired a lot.

Anyway, earlier this week, I got an email from the South Country Library in Bellport advertising a free "Hispanic Heritage" concert at the library on Friday night. The artist was "Alex Wu and Trio", and was scheduled to feature music in a variety of styles, including flamenco, bolero, tangos, etc. The email also promised that "an authentic Hispanic dessert buffet" would follow the show.

Well, the price was definitely right, and the dessert buffet sounded pretty good, too. I don't know a hell of a lot about Spanish heritage music (for some reason, I was picturing salsa, although that genre was specifically not mentioned in the description.) But what I do know what I like. (I tend to like a lot of World Music in general -- Chinese, Indian, African, obviously Celtic). It sounded like a good way to spend a Friday night in a week where I was kind of low on cash. So I figured there was a 99% I'd give it a shot.

Friday was another one of those days when I woke up early. Sometimes my brain turns on in the morning, and I just can't get it to turn back off. This is especially true when I know there's already work in my mailbox. I had a long (and kind of ugly) home study sitting in my box that I'd made it three quarters of the way through the night before. But I'd stopped to eat dinner, and after that, I was just too sleepy to finish it. So when I woke up Friday, I decided to try to bump it off quickly before they sent me anything else.

My boss thinks my obsessive-compulsiveness is kind of funny at my job. I work like a maniac sometimes, trying desperately to empty my work folder, because for some reason (my crazy, obsessive nature), it just feels good to have that box completely empty. Of course, even on those rare occasions when I do empty it out, somebody sends me something else to work on within two or three hours anyway. So I'm like that guy in Greek mythology who keeps pushing his boulder up the hill only to watch it roll back down so he has to start all over again. I've always thought that that story was a great metaphor for life in general. That's just the kind of positive attitude I have. It's just a party being me.

Anyway, when I got up on Friday, I saw that the boys on Sputnik Music had also been really busy after I'd gone to bed the night before. As I mentioned here, I'm the host for the September Song of the Day list (and it looks like I'm going to be hosting October also). So I spent a couple of hours updating that before I even got back to my unfinished home study. (Luckily, my daughter has been temporarily working back in Patchogue for the last few days, so I didn't have to worry about driving her today.)

I worked on into the afternoon, and by 2 or so, I was tired again. I did the dishes and futzed around the house a little, making lunch and watching nonsense on YouTube. My plan was to lay down and take a nap at about 3, so I'd catch a few hours sleep before the concert. But somehow, it never happened. I did actually lay down at about 4:30 or so. But for whatever reason, my mind was just too active to fall asleep, so I was back up by 5.

I thought about passing on the concert, and if it had involved anything more complex than driving to the Bellport public library, I probably would have. But my drive to the library takes less than ten minutes, and I knew that the show (which had a 7PM start) couldn't really go past 8:30, because the library closes by 9. And to be honest, now that I've sworn off of album reviews for awhile, sometimes I struggle to find new material to keep the readers of this blog interested. So I decided to suck it up and go anyway.

My son brought my car back by 6:15. (I know that it puts a bit of a crimp in his social life when I actually need to use my own car, but I like to keep him on his toes -- I don't want him to feel that he's going to get to use it just anytime).

I grabbed a slice of pizza before heading to the library, because I didn't want to repeat what I will forever more think of as "The Bryan Ferry Error". Then I drove into Bellport, and found myself a spot in the library parking lot. (I would have gone later, but sometimes if there's a popular event there, the lot will fill up.)

As soon as they opened the doors to the downstairs area (at about 6:45 or so), I headed down and grabbed myself an aisle seat (kind of against the wall) in the front row. I listened as Alex and his vocalist finished their rehearsal, and watched the crowd file in. I'm always just a tad lonely when I go to these shows on my own, and I usually wind up texting someone in my family as I wait for the shows to start. (My kids usually totally ignore my texts, so it's kind of a solo thing, much akin to writing this blog.) This time, I texted Denise. Nothing very heavy, mostly just stuff  like "This crowd is all geezed out. I'm like the youngest one here." (Well, I was! In the youngest 10 percent, anyway.)

As I sat there, I thought to myself that I should have asked Denise to come with me. We used to go to all kinds of musical events together, everything from folk music shows to operas. But then again, sometimes after she's worked all week, she just likes to stay home and relax on Friday nights. And if she'd have really been interested, she would have probably mentioned it. (And I knew she was going out to one of her '80s dance parties on Saturday night, anyway.) I also thought I should have seen if Todd Evans wanted to come. We're always looking for local shows to go to together. I wasn't sure if this would have been his thing or not, but it would have made sense to ask. I think the reason I don't sometimes is because A. I don't even think of it until the last moment, or B. If I do ask Todd, or Rich, or anyone else to go with me, it sort of locks me into going if they say yes. And there's a part of me that always wants to keep that flexibility to blow off the show if I'm too tired (or lazy) that day. I guess that this is how people gradually become hermits.

As I waited, a library worker passed out a one-page program for the evening (bless his little heart!). It described the show as "Cantos de las Americas", and noted that the musicians for the evening would be Rachel Elezi, a classically trained soprano vocalist; Jordan Dodson, a classical guitarist; and Alex Wu, a pianist (and the person who had put the show together.) My first thought was that the act was misnamed -- if it's "Alex Wu and Trio", I would expect four musicians to be there -- Alex Wu, and three other people. In my mind, a whole story formed about how Alex had gone to the others and said, "I've got a great idea! How about if we call it 'The Alex Wu Trio'", and they'd responded, "Eff you, Alex! We're not naming the trio after you!" So eventually, they'd compromised on calling themselves, "Alex Wu and Trio." (I should bring a book to these things, or something, to fill the empty time. My mind is frightening when left to its own devices.)

The program was broken down into two main sections: Spain and Latin America. It featured a total of eight subsections, indicating eight different styles of Spanish and Latino music.

My knowledge of Spanish and Latino music usually divides into three frames of reference: Carlos Santana (and I told you about seeing him a few weeks ago), Reuben Blades, and Placido Domingo, each of whom I like. Yeah, I do know a little about other styles of Latin music. But it's a very little.

Here are some initial observations I made about tonight's musicians. 1. They were dressed more classically than not. Ms. Elezi (geez, I feel like the New York Times now) was dressed in a formal black gown, and both of the men were dressed in black pants and suit jackets (although they weren't wearing tuxes); and 2. I didn't get the impression that they played together in this formation all that often. When I entered the room, and Wu and Elezi were finishing up their rehearsal, they seemed a little loose. Elezi was trying to pin Wu down on something, like, "Well do I come in here or here?", and he was all like, "Whenever! Don't even worry about it." (I also noticed that the program was broken down in such a way that the three of them rarely performed together. Each of the men had solo numbers, and Elezi performed several selections with each of them individually. But they were only performing together as a trio in two of the eight sections of the evening's program, for a total of three songs.)

As for the crowd, 1. As I mentioned, they were old; 2. They were very white. For a concert celebrating Hispanic Heritage, there didn't seem to many Latinos actually in attendance, not even to scarf up those "authentic Hispanic" desserts; and 3. There were maybe 30 people there when the show started. This grew to a high of about 45 people during the performance. There were some empty seats in the back rows, but all in all, it wasn't a bad crowd for a Friday night.

The room was set up for the show with a fairly large open floor area at the front as a performance space, with a full-size piano more or less in the middle.

Wu opened the evening's entertainment by performing three solo numbers (and giving a little history before each one). These included a tango, a flamenco number, and a bolero-style song.

Now you've got to take this from where (or who) it's coming from. Which is basically an idiot. When I write about rock (or folk, or any of the genres I grew up on in the sixties and seventies), I'm in my element. I'm not a musician (by any realistic definition of the word), but I'm pretty knowledgeable about the history of the music, what it should sound like, etc. Within the genre of classical music, however, I'm skating on much thinner ice. I like a number of different styles of classical music, including opera, chamber music, etc. (On a cruise ship, I usually follow the classical trio around the ship, drinking tea and eating cucumber sandwiches and having a wonderful time.) But my knowledge here is at best at the level of a 5th or 6th grader whose parents have given them some minimal exposure to classical music since they were young. I know what I like, but in any kind of conversation with someone who really knows classical music, I'd only embarrass myself.

All of this is a prelude to saying that while Wu was the nominal leader of this group, I found him to be the least compelling of the three musicians. (And I write this banking on the thought that the poor bastard will hopefully never read this or have his feelings hurt by it, because how likely would it be? He's a Manhattan-based fellow who plays on Long Island every other year or so. I doubt that he, or any of his friends who'd be inclined to show him this write-up, are among the fairly select group that comprises Long Island Music Guy readers. He seems like a nice enough person, so let's hope that my supposition is correct. If it's not, my apologies Alex, old buddy.)

I don't think this was entirely his fault. My best guess (and remember, this is the guess of a classical music moron) is that the problem mostly rested with his instrument. The guitarist got to bring his own instrument with him, and of course the vocalist is kind of her own instrument. But Wu had to rely on the piano owned by the South Country Library. And while Wu wasn't hitting clunkers (that I noticed, anyway), the sound of the piano itself just wasn't that remarkable. It was OK. But that was it. It didn't have the full, rich, piano sound that I might have hoped for.

Anyway, the next portion of the show featured Elezi and Dodson playing together, and while maybe I was just hearing what I expected to hear to validate my own perceptions (idiot, remember?), it seemed like the crowd perked up to a new level here. Elezi's voice is absolutely gorgeous, and Dodson's style of classical guitar is subtle, but beautiful. Together, they played a Ladino lullaby (You up what "Ladino" means. She explained it, but I forget. I think it's a region in Spain.) entitled "Durme, Durme", and a song that was written by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca (which I think the progressive rock band Carmen might have based their most famous number "Bulerias" on, at least in part).

Next, Dodson left the performing area (they had a little room in the back that the three of them used to enter and exit the "stage"), and Wu came back out to join Elezi. Their two-song mini-set was one of my favorite parts of the evening, as they played "Cancion de la infanta", a sad number about the death of the Prince of Portugal due to a horsing accident, written by his Spanish widow (or fiancee, I think,); and a flirtatious piece called "Carceleras" from the zarzuela (the Spanish equivalent to an opera) Las Hijas del Zebedo. (My love of Placido Domingo did me well here, as thanks to him, I was familiar with zarzuelas in general, although not this particular one.) This piece was the highlight of the show for me.

At this point, Elezi and Wu left the performance area, and Dodson came out to begin the Latin American portion of the program, playing a jazzy little Bossanova number written by Antonio Carlos Jobim, the Brazilian composer who also wrote the more famous (at least here) "The Girl From Ipanema". He assured us that song's cheerful sound was belied by its lyrics, which featured lines that translated into English such as "Suffering has no end, but happiness does". (Sounds like my kind of guy).

Next, the full trio came out together for a pair of romantic pop songs, both of which I was familiar with, "Besame mucho", and "Cuando vuelva a tu lado" (which the English-speaking world knows as "What a Difference a Day Makes").

At this point, Elezi again left the stage, and Wu and Dodson teamed up for a track by that famous Hispanic composer Leonardo Bernsteino (I swear to God! This one cracked me up), and the song "America" from West Side Story. This was also a highlight of the night, although if I'd known ahead of time, I could have made it even better by slipping my son twenty bucks and letting him and his friends act out a little Jets vs. Sharks action in the area surrounding Wu's piano.

Anyway, somehow we moved on from there without the Trio playing such other Latino gems as "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina", with Wu doing another pair of solo numbers on the piano. These were a Caribbean-flavored song (from a Venezuelan composer), and an Argentinian Street Tango.

At this point, the trio reunited once again for the grand finale of the evening, none other than Placido Domingo's old favorite, "Granada". They then took their bows, to a nice round of applause from the audience. The show had lasted just a little more than an hour.

As they took their justly-earned cheers, I thought about that dessert buffet, and promised myself to go light so as not to ruin my weigh-in on Saturday morning at my Weight Watcher's meeting. I needn't have worried.

Because somewhere around the middle of the show, I'm pretty sure that someone from the library suddenly realized, "Oh crap! We promised these people an authentic Hispanic dessert buffet!" They then gave their lowest-level intern thirty bucks or so to run out to a bodega in Bellport, so as not to get hung by a battalion of hungry, sweet-toothed old white people.

That's the only explanation I can think for the lavish "dessert buffet", which consisted of a bag of small-sized muffins and two clear packages of plain-looking cookies, both of which were nicely displayed on plates (but which featured the packages prominently placed behind them, so we could see the Spanish-language description of the cellophane, and we'd therefore know that these were indeed "authentic Hispanic" deserts). These were placed next a large tray of glop which I won't even try to describe, plus a 2-liter bottle of soda and an even larger bottle of iced tea.

As the crowd swelled around the three musicians, I perused these Latino delights. Not being proud, I grabbed one of the plain cookies (the Hispanic equivalent of Stella Doros), and headed to the elevator. I then drove home, happily munching my galleta. (A little Spanish lingo for you there. Who says this blog isn't educational?)

All in all, it had been a pretty good night.