THIS WEEKEND IN OMAHA: 04.11.14

by Max Sparber in , ,

It can’t be easy being in a family where everybody seems to be famous. There is Ellis Marsalis, Jr., who quietly, from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, became the educator for an entire generation of jazz musicians, including Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., and  Nicholas Payton. Ellis literally fathered four musicians as well. There’s trumpeter Wynton, who has managed nine Grammys in his career. There is saxophonist Branford, whose career included playing on Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and leading the band on the Tonight Show. There’s drummer Jason, an NEA Jazz Master award-winner.

And then there is trombonist Delfeayo, who perhaps followed his father’s lead most closely, and will be at the Holland Center on Saturday, thanks to Omaha Performing Arts. Delfeayo has done a lot of work as an educator, cofounding the Uptown Music Theatre in New Orleans. He’s also a producer who has had an enormous amount of influence in the way contemporary jazz is recorded, with its focus on the sounds of acoustic instruments.

This Saturday will see the opportunity to see Delfeayo as a performer and, unsurprisingly, he is superlative. He doesn’t record often, with his last album dating back to 2011, but it’s a good sampling of what he is capable of. Called “Sweet Thunder: Duke and Shak,” it was a new recording of music composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, inspired by William Shakespeare. Delfeayo interpretation both respected the original work – he recorded with an octet, as Duke did – but added elements of New Orleans hot jazz to Ellington’s stately swing.

I’ve never met Delfeayo. I met Branford briefly in Minneapolis. I wandered by a church, and there he was, inside, speaking about the importance of studying civics in school. I mention this by way of segue, and I realize it is an odd one, but segues are never fun when they are invisible.

And so, here it is, the segue: I also have never seen “War Horse,” now at the Orpheum, but I once took a class in puppeteering from the people who created the titular horse. They are the Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa, and they were at the Walker Art Center with a show called “Zeno at 4 a.m.” This was based on writing by Italian author Italo Svevo, and consisted of a distressed puppet in a bad bedevilied by troublesome dreams, or perhaps hallucinations, that the troupe projected behind him. These were abstract and nightmarish objects engaged in confounding motion, and were created from scissors and bottles and other things you might find in a rubbish bin; these were manipulated on a nearby table and filmed lived, forming the projection.

I’ve also seen Handspring’s production of “Woyzeck on the Highveld,” which set Georg Büchner’s tragic play in South Africa, acted out by appropriately mournful seeming puppets. So they have a particular talent in taking literary works and bringing them to life with objects, and it’s no wonder they were tagged to create the life-sized horse puppet that stars in this adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel. The story tells of a workhorse purchased to work on the front lines during World War II, perhaps humanity’s ghastliest war, and the horse witnesses the worst of it.

This is the sort of thing that puppetry is especially good at. The play’s horse, Joey, is a metonym for the human experience of war. He must be our witness, and yet be enough of a blank for us to project our own experiences onto him. And yet, still, he must be a believable horse, despite visibly being made of steel, leather, and aircraft cables and having live puppeteers visible onstage operating them.

From the sound of things, they accomplished this task admirably. I base this in part on reviews for the show, which have burst with praise, and from the throngs of playgoers I see downtown emerging from the play, who look gutted. Usually people don’t have much of an emotional reaction to aircraft cable, much less sobbing at the fictional adventures forced on the cable. Sometimes puppetry is so very like magic it’s indistinguishable.

It’s actually a bit too much to take in all it once, which is how I like my art. I am a notoriously fast gallery attendee, speeding through with just a darting glance at each piece of art. It’s usually because I am making a bee line for the wine table, and I typically return to investigate any art that intrigued me.

But I never feel this is the way to get to know a piece of art. Admittedly, unless the artists goes for especially complicated composition, there’s often not a lot of immediate information to get from, say, a painting – years ago I interviewed Steve Joy, then the curator for the Bemis Center, and he opined that painting is a shallow medium. I don’t know that it always is, but it can be, and so sometimes it seems like a glance is enough.

But I am a lifetime museumgoer and have my own art collection, and if there is one thing I have repeatedly found, it’s that seeing a piece of art for years, especially by living with it, changes your experience of the art dramatically. Favorite pieces fade, while works that seemed oblique or awful become comforting and prized. And it’s not just that we change over time, and so our tastes about art change.

It’s that art changes us. It may be a shallow medium, but a shallow culture of Clostridium botulinum can still produce enough botulism to do you in. And it is often the art that seemed least interesting or most alienating that carries with it the strongest poison. Stare it for an hour and you might find youself liking what you previously hated. Stare at it for a week and it may change the way you think about art. Stare at it for years and it might change who you are.

I’ve had it happen to me. When I first saw Gedi Sibony’s art, I was a rooster in a top hat who people through coins at to dance on a hot plate. Look at me now.

The Joslyn Museum is offering a similar opportunity to experience the long-term effects of art this Saturday, part of a national movement called “Slow Art Day.” The setup is simple: Look at five or more pieces of art for 10 minutes or more, and then discuss. It really doesn’t seem like that much of a challenge, but 10 minutes can have its effect. I expect when people meet to discuss, the art will have had its effect.

I expect they will be gutted.

That last sentence was something we call a “button” in the writing game – just a little phrase that ties everything together and makes a piece of writing feel like it’s deliberate and crafted, rather than a sort of typed form of babbling. Usually you don’t highlight the button, but leave it there without comment and congratulate yourself on once again using the tricks of writing to punch up your column.

But I say what’s the fun of a button if it’s invisible.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at maxsparber@gmail.com.

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