Eugene Weekly : Music : 8.6.09

Greening the Concept
Oklahoma! and so much more
by brett campbell

Remember when critics hailed the development of the so-called concept album — variously identified as commencing with In the Wee Small Hours, Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper, Tommy, take your pick — as the big transformation of rock from disposable pap to Major Artistic Statement? Then came the backlash, and pre-concept album rock was hailed for its unpretentious freshness. A similar phenomenon happened two generations earlier with musicals. In 1927, the great composer Jerome Kern teamed with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein to create Showboat, whose elements all contributed to tell a powerful story, rather than the plot being a mere contrivance to stitch together some hit tunes. As it turned out, Showboat spawned plenty of great songs, and this summer’s Oregon Festival of American Music continues its tribute to the American songbook with a Thursday concert featuring songs from Showboat and other Kern and Hammerstein hits. The trend toward so called “integrated” musicals culminated in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 Oklahoma, and OFAM’s full staging of that classic continues through this weekend at the Hult Center.

Glenn Marla
Silas Howard

Over the years, OFAM has made a strong case for the dizzy, once-dismissed pre-integrated musicals such as those perpetrated by the Gershwin brothers, and the festival’s Aug. 6 evening concert includes glorious songs (including “Fascinating Rhythm,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and more) from several of them, plus a generous selection of the finest tunes (“Summertime,” “Bess You Is My Woman Now” and so many more) from perhaps the pinnacle of American music, the Gershwins’ opera Porgy and Bess.

The festival concludes with a tribute to the great songbook interpreter Billie Holiday on August 7, and a recreation of two more landmark moments in American music: the celebrated Spirituals To Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall, staged by legendary producer John Hammond and featuring swing-era immortals like Count Basie’s orchestra and Benny Goodman’s quintet. Of course, we won’t hear those titans, but in these and the other OFAM concerts, we’ll hear the songs interpreted by a stalwart crew of local and imported musicians with special expertise in this music. Unless otherwise noted, all concerts take place at the Shedd.

On August 15, the Shedd also hosts a fundraising concert supporting that other great downtown arts and music institute, DIVA, and featuring three terrific musicians’ musicians. Eugene discovered the percussive guitar techniques and wide ranging styles (flamenco to Celtic and more) of Justin King before he won wider acclaim and tours with stars like Al Green and B.B. King. San Francisco fretless bassist Michael Manring broke into national consciousness during his tenure at Windham Hill records, where he appeared with some of the 1980s’ finest acoustic ensembles and led one of the best, Montreux. He’s also explored more adventurous territory in stints with Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith and is one of the best bassists on the planet. And flugelhornist Jeff Oster (who also wields a sweet trumpet) has forged a sturdy reputation among fans of acoustic jazz and instrumental music. 

DIVA itself hosts three touring boundary busting artists on August 11. Multimedia artist Heather Acs somehow embraces working class Appalachian and Mexican imagery, string theory and more in her nonlinear storytelling. Performance artist Glenn Marla comedically explores a transexual perspective on childhood memories and how we see our bodies. Silas Howard (from the band Tribe 8) recounts another trans trail through San Francisco’s queer punk world and Hollywood glitz. 

Even though the music season traditionally dries up along with front lawns this time of year, August boasts some excellent concerts showcasing a wide variety of global rhythms. On Aug. 14, Cozmic Pizza hosts Zimbabwean mbira mistress Patience Chaitezvi playing the mesmerizing music of southern Africa’s Shona people. The next evening, Cozmic features Oakland’s wild and wonderful neo gypsy Fishtank Ensemble, led by French fiddler Fabrice Martinez, which traverses Transylvanian gypsy tunes, Parisian hot jazz, flashy flamenco and more. The similarly hard-to-pigeonhole acoustic band Taarka hits Corvallis’ Bombs Away Cafe on Aug. 7. And on August 10, Eugene’s own tango mavens, Mood Area 52, host a house concert at 840 West 3rd that also features a couple of should-be-better known Bay Area artists: compelling composer/multiinstrumentalist Mark Growden (who’s earned accolades by scoring music for dance, film, and theater) and singer Kim Boekbinder, from Vermililion Lies, a sister act that uses typewriters and toy pianos along with more common instruments in its cheerfully quirky folky tunes.

One of the summer’s best jazz shows features a pair of up and coming young ensembles. Eugene’s saxman Hashem Assadullahi and trumpeter Douglas Detrick have both released excellent new albums this year, and their collaborations have been ever fruitful. At Cozmic on Aug. 7, their quintet opens for the New York-Boston based Mark Zaleski Band, another promising pride of 20-somethings who have no trouble integrating the jammy Medeski Martin and Wood sound with vintage bop stylings from a half century earlier.