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Wednesday, Nov 13 1996
San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus
(KAO Info Systems)

I liked opera until I read translations. What before had sounded like a bunch of flittering, intertwining, head-sung melodies (in the case of the Italian variety) or like the lowing of seismic, potato-fed sirens (with the German stuff) was suddenly revealed to be what it truly was: pretty music with incredibly silly lyrics. Translate the Italian, and you've got people stuck trilling for 12 minutes on phrases like "pass the salt": Pa-ah-ah-hah-ah-hah-aaaaah-aaaaas the sa-ah-aha-aha-aha-al-al-al .... Anglicize Gstterdämmerung or some other Teutonic love-death behemoth and you wonder how the audience ever kept from wetting itself during performances at the Bayreuth Festival: Transcendent bliss this murky death potion on my lips/ Everything is going blaaaaaaaaack .... And then there's 20th-century opera material, actually written in English: Heard once on PBS, from a man and a woman writhing about on the floor in thrift-store togas (and apparently speaking of cunnilingus), "Raise my silver chalice to your lips that you might drink of it." While you're at it, smell my flower.

Similarly, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus sounds great -- there's inestimable vocal talent among those scores of tenors, baritones, and basses. By sheer number and volume, any chorus so large wields more pine-felling power than the Tunguska Blast. And the packaging of NakedMan is rather savvy, targeted for both gay and general audiences (leaving aside the rippling pair of nates that fold out to wall-covering proportions when you unpack the liner notes). But mother mercy, the libretto! The silly, silly words! Take this subtle missive from the track titled "The Dragon": "In a cave I keep a dragon/ In the dark/ You may call him Sexuality/ Sometimes he escapes and/ Roams the park." Perhaps in search of green eggs and ham, or even cruising for Sam-I-Am. Let's follow the bouncing ball through "O disturbing boy": "O disturbing boy/ When the Goddess made you/ Did she hesitate, perplexed/ Over the question of your sex?/ Did she choose?/ Did she submit to her creation/ And its power to confuse?/ Soft of skin/ Large of hand/ Girl and boy/ Unfinished man." Everybody now!

Perhaps all librettos sound like candied dung when divorced of their melodic component -- and perhaps the best course of action, when listening to this otherwise worthy product, is to take heed of the pop listener's plan and ignore the words. Either that, or have someone translate them into the indecipherable language of your choice.

-- Michael Batty

Ecstatica 1: A Sound Track for Lovers
"The 90's: Decade of Sextacy!" cry the liner notes. "Let's co-create an ecstatic neo-tribal post-dysfunctional multi-dimensional generation!" Signed, The Silbeys. Oh, let's. "[A] sound track for your personal love voyage ... primal, passionate, playful ... surging forward like a wild untamed river ... traveling through seven sensual soundscapes to a blissful completion!" Aah. (Nothing like an untamed simile.) Paul Ramana Das Silbey, not his wife/fuck-buddy, Marilena, seems to be the real brains -- er, should I say balls -- behind this operation. Or is it a "journey?" Or is it a swingers club? Included are instructions on how to become a member, and an order form for Paul's other projects, including a video of him and Marilena doing it! (As if that tongue kiss on the cover isn't enough.)

I plug the CD in the player, wincing, wondering if it, like the cover-art tongue kiss, will start emitting bursts of St. Elmo's fire; if I'll be dragged into some virtually real menage a trois with these "sex and spirit advocates." A synthesizer farts in outer space for an interminable moment, and I take a breath. Eventually a boinky-bink-boink melody materializes, aiming to be saucy. My head fills with cartoon space elephants in silver hot pants waving ray guns. This is the first track: "Seduction Into Ecstasy." And how. Its "Suggested Mood" (as listed in a helpful column between song titles and track lengths in the liner notes) is "Turning On." For eight minutes and 22 seconds. The cartoon space elephants start in on the heavy breathing. No nature shows for me, thanks. I move on to the next track, "Heartbreath," with its suggested mood: "Tantalizing." Da-dump da-dump da-dump, accompanied by gurgling sounds. I see my organs -- heart, spleen, pancreas, liver encased in viscera, sucking and pumping and filtering bodily fluids. Next. "Passion Dance: Hot & Sweaty." Sbee-yow, sbee-yow, like interstellar bees traveling near the speed of light (wearing wraparound shades, of course) -- sbee-yow -- returning to Earth backward in time, to the -- aack! -- '80s! A thwacking machine beat commences: boom-bock, boom-boom-bock. I try to imagine how a pair of lovers (your average straight, white New Age boomers) would, you know, perform to this positively inept digitized burlesque. I recall that the answer is readily available in the Silbeys' video. Eeew. Next. "Pleiadian [sic] Journey: Hypnotic." Ocean surf. Yawn. Next. We reach the 10-minute rhapsody, the track, one could say, of seminal importance, the literal climax (his or hers? -- both and everything, a shuddering simultaneous oneness, I'd guess): "Earth Orgasm: Ecstatic." Bee-yer-oing. Didjeridu? Didjeridon't!

-- Curtis Bonney

San Francisco Jazz Festival CD Sampler 96 Volume 1
(Jazz in the City)

Knitting Factory What Is Jazz? Festival 1996
(Knitting Factory Works)
Corporate sponsors have turned jazz fests all over the world into big business. This year's megaconcert series in the Bay Area, lauded by the Chicago Tribune as "the biggest and most acclaimed jazz festival in the United States," boasted no less than three dozen deep-pocket benefactors -- and that's in addition to about 100 foundation grants and other charitable contributions. Even the fiercely alternative (yet interminably strapped) Knitting Factory wheeled an oily deal this past summer to expand its annual multiband extravaganza into the freshly christened Heineken What Is Jazz? Festival. This seemingly obligatory behavior poses a crucial question: Does the music thrive or suffer under these conditions?

The S.F. Jazz Fest has grown in 14 years from a grass-roots, shoestring operation to a million-dollar-plus production. The 14 recordings on its promotional CD, chiefly culled from major label albums, illustrate a diverse yet rarely challenging program. The first three tunes by sure-fire favorites Sonny Rollins, Charlie Haden, and George Shearing, respectively, set a distinguished yet conservative tone. The remainder of the disc is peppered with a healthy melange, including honey-dripping vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Diana Krall, chillin' Hammond B-3 master Jack McDuff, and 75-year-old Afro-Cuban bandleader Chico O'Farrill. Of the four so-called "young mavericks" on the sampler, only Leon Parker and Peter Apfelbaum hit with a modicum of adventurousness. The most imaginative tune, from AsianImprov bassist/composer Mark Izu, is relegated to last place in a sequencing move that underscores the festival's commitment to high-quality but largely tame jazz.

Fiscally infused by Heineken, What Is Jazz? 1996 is nonetheless anything but tame. Recorded live at the Knitting Factory, the 10 standout contributors include venerable veteran composer/improviser Horace Tapscott, funky fretboard wizard Charlie Hunter, and intrepid independent pianists Matthew Shipp and Myra Melford. Club and festival founder Michael Dorf says the event is a celebration of "jazz as a borderless, continuously changing genre." A most ambitious success story, the recent What Is Jazz? Fest showcased more than 100 sundry acts with a near-common vision: high-energy vitality and invention reminiscent of the music's original vibe. But Dorf and company couldn't have pulled it off without the corporate patronage, proving that sometimes, big-time sponsorship may be necessary even for music that typically resists such bedfellows.

-- Sam Prestianni


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