Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Pause, with Anniversary Thoughts

Ann Starr, Self-Portrait in the City, 2001
acrylic on tracing paper
painted at Virginia Center for Creative Arts
Anniversaries aren't merely recurring dates on a calendar. You feel them in your bones. You know when they arrive because your body and mind tell your time; they express your summary satisfaction in a deep, internal sigh; or they hint the need to move on in a straightened shake of your moral shoulders.

I experience both of these now that Starr Review is a year old. At the end of August, 2011, I thought, "Why don't I write about art the way I'd really like to?" The immediate comparison was to writing for print news media, with limitations on frequency, low word counts, and single photos in black and white. I had few opportunities to write like a lover—to reflect the artists' excellencies back to them; to detail and recommend the particular virtues of the the work to others in non-technical language, enticing them, too, to look closely, even if from afar; and to communicate the many dimensions of delight, idea, solace, and growth I find in routine, self-directed encounter with art. I don't get paid anymore, but I am richer.

Art—when I've been present for it, made it, written about it, puzzled my way into new forms—has always been the most fertile medium for my life; the greenest pasture whenever the fence hasn't been too high for me to get to it.

So, I am happy indeed that I've received the great gift of a month's free residency in September, in the company of four other artists at the Anderson Center at Tower View in Red Wing, Minnesota. I'll spend my time on a book manuscript, a memoir about the leading role art has played for me, though one more often submerged than declamatory.

I have one more review in the works, which I'm looking forward to posting first thing in September. Beyond that, I'm not certain that I'll do anything else in Starr Review until October. The chance to devote myself to my other project is a rare gift, not to mention that the Center has only one internet connection on the grounds. This is another gift of the place (and of other colonies where I've worked): It keeps one as far as possible from distractions of the world, of which the Internet is undoubtedly the greatest.

Thank you for your readership and for your interest in the subjects I've chosen for the Review. I hope we'll find many a mutually enjoyable experience in the year to come!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Mark Bush's Portraits

Mark Bush, Daniel. 
Acrylic on canvas, 36" x 18"
Selection for BP Portrait Award 2011 Exhibition,
National Portrait Gallery, London
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries
Mark Bush: London 2011 occupies for the moment a corner of the Hammond Harkins Gallery space in Bexley, Ohio. The black and white portraits on display have nothing whatsoever to do with London, England, nor with London, Ohio, for that matter. One cannot blame owner Marlana Hammond Keynes for the implied whoop in her title, however, for Bush was among the fifty-five painters chosen from across the world to show in the British National Portrait Gallery's BP Portrait Award 2011 exhibition. If you visit the "Exhibitors" link on that site, you can survey the excellent company the young graduate of Columbus College of Art and Design is keeping. The BP Portrait Show is among the most elite art competitions.

Bush works in the realm of "photographic realism," a style I find more and more intriguing for its many artifices. His black and white portraits are rendered with minute attention to the range and nuances not only of grays, blacks and whites. Those remaining hairs on Daniel's receding scalp? They are enumerated, elaborated and each given its proper color and position. This degree of vigilance to detail goes beyond any normal idea of the photographic, however. Could a camera have caught each hair just so and have simultaneously captured every other near-microscopic detail—every single articulated stitch in the gloves, every fold of flesh at each knuckle, the precisely trimmed edge of his cropped head? Perhaps, but the issue is focus. Our human eyes cannot focus on every detail of a scene this large all at the same time, yet Bush gives us the impression that this is indeed what we would catch in the blink of an eye; it's the look Daniel would give to an unwanted click of the camera lens, or an interruption that makes him drop a stitch. The "camera eye" is the gift of this huge collection of focal points, impossible to attain in reality. That we call this impossible hyper-focus "realism" is the most outrageous thing about such painting.

The amazing thing to me is that every detail of this canvas forces us viewers to notice the painter's determined acuity and strong will. This canvas shudders with purpose. It puts the shutter to shame. Whatever Burns has captured of Daniel, he reveals with equally intensity about himself.

Hammond Harkins does not have the BP portrait on the wall, but it has a selection of Burns' portraits that demonstrate, within his self-imposed discipline of black-and-white acrylic-on-canvas, a fascinating range of effort. All of his portraits are penetrating, realistic images of people in poses of the moment, yet Burns nevertheless seems to be studying several different artistic approaches to his subjects. He seems to be dedicated to exploration at this early point in his career.

Mark Bush, Mr. Norman
Acrylic on canvas, 42 x 32"
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries
Georges de La Tour, 1640,detail
Magdalen with Smoking Flame
LA County Museum of Art

A portrait of one of his teachers at CCAD, Mr. Norman is set in darkness, as if lit only by a candle or flashlight—twenty-first century Georges de La Tour. It is painted not in blended brush strokes, but almost entirely in daubed and smudged paint. The painting suggests Chuck Close, with the face-to-face composition and the lack of line in creation of the image. The facial surface is rendered in a way that gives Mr. Norman's skin the look of roughly modeled clay, or the tough hide befitting a man whose eyes, brow, and mouth suggest, in momentary surprise, a deep combination of searching and knowing.

The weave of the subject's woolen or flannel shirt, too, is rendered in a grid of daubed paint. Close likes to compose his subjects on a centered grid. While Bush attains a similar intensity of gaze and horizontal position of this subject, he has still pushed Norman to the side of the canvas, so he hasn't emulated Close's centering technique. But I can't help but wonder if the simple checked plaid doesn't refer to Close's grid, a sort of homage from the closet, as it were.

Mark Bush, True Grit
Acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30"
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries
True Grit, a portrait of the artist's father, might be said to have many characteristics of a Close portrait—the centered face, the size of the face within the borders, the straight-ahead gaze—but the tough intimacy is Bush's own. The face is half-disguised by the cigarette-holding hand. In truth, it may be better said that the hand constitutes the bottom half of the face; it is as important an identifying element as the deeply furrowed brow and the eyes with such far-away, dim reflections of light in them. Smoke and mirrors? Those mirrors take some searching for, but the hand holding the stubby cigarette is big and awfully interesting and hardly disguises the story of the man.

Here, as in the portrait of Mr. Norman, Bush's rendering of his subject's aging flesh becomes a study in abstraction the more closely he pursues the realistic. The details of the man's furrowed knuckles appear as soft swirls of cloud or distant fogs; his eyes and forehead are painted with such surface detail that they are like a geographer's aerial photograph of the earth, a small patch of one human's skin transformed into uncharted lands, rather as Edward Weston used his camera in 1930 to turn a green pepper into an object of mysterious sensuality.

Bush's realism invites other comparisons too, but again his work is his own. In portraits of a little boy and a pretty, blonde young woman, he enters Norman Rockwell territory. The subjects may be his familiars, but their appearances would have put them right into a casting book for Rockwell: the all-American good looks, the innocent, pretty, and expressive child; the fresh, wholesome femininity of the blonde.

Mark Bush, Hear Me Roar
Acrylic on canvas, 26" x 18"
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries
Hear Me Roar is indeed difficult to distinguish from a photograph. The realism with which Bush has rendered the face and hair are uncanny; it is only the evidence of the canvas' surface supporting the paint that verifies for the viewer that this is, truly, painted: Bush has eliminated the traces even of brush strokes. If anything betrays his hand, it's that the letters on the child's shirt are so clear that they appear to be from a competing reality. But the child's hand right hand is in motion, another trick the painter has used to heighten the illusion of veracity.

What grabbed me about this is that the child, while being a model, adorable little boy—the tousled hair, the Cupid lips, his posed participation in the eternal motif of boys growing into their roaring powers—departs from it too in his expression. At first, I was indeed ready to credit him with the Rockwellian mischieviousness, that position of innocence at the moment when it is disabused, or is caught in naughtiness learning its lesson. Examples abound, like this, gleaned from the famous No Swimming cover (below) that I saw in the Dayton Art Museum's show of Rockwell covers for the Saturday Evening Post in January 2012.

But Bush's little boy is markedly different, for where I thought I saw at first a glint of mischief in the cant of his eyebrows, there is nothing of the exaggeration that is Rockwell's hallmark. Bush, if anything, works against the type. He sets up the composition to have us respond stereotypically to the subject, as we do of every little boy. We are prepared to take, from the outset, the fundamentally patronizing position of an adult.

But this child is a human being first. He is thinking something over; he is considering. Although his right hand and arm are moving, his mind is elsewhere, sizing up something or someone who doesn't realize that she or he is being watched. What do children do, anyway? They keep tabs, they look around and they figure things out on their own. Bush's child is realistic in that sense too: He is doing what real children do most of the time.

The pretty young woman of Just Peek is a similar case of thwarted generic expectation. In this 20 x 16" novelty portrait, one expects the subject to be the girl's flirtation coyness. As in Hear Me Roar, the painting is almost entirely lacking any evidence of brushwork. But do her eyes really relay a come-hither or laughing message? Although her eyes are wide open, the corners aren't wrinkled, the forehead isn't creased by the lifted brows, and there is no evidence of drawn muscles as there would be in an exaggerated or "cute" expression. In fact, there is a real intensity and an unnerving directness. Perhaps the scarf is not the veil of coyness, but is held protectively before her, as a screen. Like the Rockwell boy immediately above who has just learned the unfortunate truth about Santa in The Discovery, this woman appears to confront something shocking: The viewer, perhaps, into whose eyes she stares.

I am eager to follow Bush's development. I'm excited to see that someone of such skill is able to apply it in different ways, and has such control not only over his materials, but over the many possible ways to travel. The self-awareness and independence his work shows are refreshing; they are the marks of a young artist who knows what he's got and is good enough to see how far he has to go—how many discoveries await him on that long career ramble.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Outside and Inside: A Look at Chad Sines

Chad Sines,  Spiderman, 2010
paint on wood, 36 x 24”
Courtesy of the Artist 
Showing through October 14 at the Ohio Art Council's Riffe Gallery in Columbus, Outside in Ohio, is an irresistible show of work by Ohio's untrained artists from the 19th century to the present moment. Mark Chepp, emeritus Director of the Springfield (Ohio) Museum of Art, curated the outstanding show. 

Elijah Pierce, Good Versus Evil, c. 1930s

wood, paint, cloth, 31.5 x 21.5”

Springfield Museum of Art

 William Hawkins, YMCA, 1981-2

paint, Formica, 39.5 x 29.5”

Springfield Museum of Art
 "Outsider" is a term that still puzzles many—"You mean, 'folk art?'" It's puzzling because it's necessarily come to include many kinds of art that used to boil down to folk art. These days it refers to all sorts of things related by only one fact: The creators of the works were never formally trained as artists. They did not benefit from going to art school, auditing courses, or formal apprenticeships to others. True, the painter William Hawkins knew Elijah Pierce; Levent Isik got to know William Hawkins. All three of these have immense reputations, are the subject of monographs and articles, and their works fetch top dollar. But these were "outsiders" who knew one another and learned from one another. Don't ask me why this is different from their working side by side in a studio at the Art Institute, one master observing and consulting with another, but there you have it. 

 Red Canyon Appaloosa, c. 1990s

carved, painted wood, 18.5 x 25.5”

Springfield Museum of Art, Gift of Barbara and
Art Vogel

Outsiders, then, comprise many genres—folk art, memory art, the art of the insane or art brut, traditional crafts, etc. etc. But it also incorporates people working consciously within the mainstream of contemporary art trends without what they themselves see as the advantages of learning aided by teachers familiar with available materials, techniques, and tools.

Chad Sines, Three-Toed Sloth, 2010

paint on wood, 24 x 24”

Courtesy of the Artist

Chad Sines is one in this latter group of people. His work in Outside in Ohio caught my eye at once: four paintings on different subjects that make an uncannily coherent show-within-a-show. Their palettes immediately relate them. Three of these are from 2010—Spiderman, Three-Toed Sloth, and Untitled (Elephants). Uncle Sam, the simplest, with red, white and black only, is from 2003, though it is thoughtfully hung directly above Three-Toed Sloth for an amusing comparison. The paintings are both 24 x 24 inches in size, and there is an ironic similarity of form and pose between the iconic embodiment of the United States and the blue-painted sloth. Uncle Sam lies splayed on his belly with his feet in the air; his face—his eyes and mouth especially—no more distinguished than the sloth's, his look as lidless and vacant. Each figure appears infantile, as a creature in a primary phase of development, figuring out how—or if—it will use its muscles. We know the sloth, of course, as the icon of an animal into which graceless indolence is programmed. But Uncle Sam? The figure of Might Makes Right? The image of national pride rocking like a tot on his tummy in what appears to be the get-up of a carnival barker is shocking: It's embarrassing but we can't help laughing behind our hands. 

 Chad Sines, Uncle Sam, 2003

paint on wood, 24 x 24”

Collection of Mark Chepp and Charlotte Gordon

Sines made these, as he continues to make all of his paintings, with materials abandoned at construction sites. Uncle Sam, a painting of no inconsiderable intrigue, consists of very little, but Sines' gift is for getting a lot from a little. He mixes colors only where he represents the character's hair, beard—and the fur on his boots? What's that about? Since when does Uncle Sam wear fur-topped boots? Santa Claus does, though...So through this simple device, Sines adds another level of idea to complicate the worlds of meaning into which we dip as we consider this work. It also makes conspicuous the absence of blue.

The photograph of the whole painting obscures another feature that's very evident in person, this being that the red paint is glossy, the white and black are matte, so there is the interest of surface contrast to spur our imaginations too. Uncle Sam in satin, fur, and a big bow tie? A figure from a minstrel show or burlesque? Does this suggest that his pose is that of a comic taking a prat fall?

Sines allows his paint to drip and blur; his brushwork is casual; he demonstrates no interest at all in finesse or technique—unless we understand him to be a smart painter who is deeply aware of folk and outsider art traditions and knows how to use them to convey what he's interested in doing. He invites us to assume that we are dealing with primitive or naive material by the way he presents Uncle Sam,  but the image is, if you look carefully, no more primitive than you allow your own thinking about it to be. I think he makes this point even in the way he signs and titles the painting in lettering of equal size and weight. Given the many ambiguities and curiosities in the presentation of the figure, must we accept that one or the other of those painted names describes the subject? Is it really more definitively Uncle Sam than Chad Sines?

Both Uncle Sam and Three-Toed Sloth live right on the surface. There's no reason to wonder what's going on underneath. In the painting of the sloth, in fact, the large, flat  gray area that surround the sloth works two ways: Because of a possible trunk at the bottom, it probably represents the tree the animal lives in. But because the paint is applied without any differentiation of shade or texture, it also appears to be an effacement of whatever lies behind—it's not a representation, but a block that prevents our seeing anything that might add depth to so emphatically two-dimensional a vision.
Chad Sines, Untitled, 2010
paint on masonite, 48 x 48”
Courtesy of the Artist

In 2010's Untitled and Spiderman, Sines gives us lots of action both on and beneath the surface. He still withholds the normal visual hints about spatial placement, though. Where we expect white to indicate closeness and black to create distance, the colors are simply design elements like the others in this composition. While he describes two (one-and-a-half?) elephants among the shapes here, it's an open question whether he had elephants at all in mind when he started, or whether they emerged and fueled a finishing idea: I think the latter is more likely. In this work we see Sines' interest in the painting process. He's left his history in thin layers that expose their predecessors, colors and dimension both. There are brush strokes still visible, and we can look into the chronology that allowed him to keep his few colors unmixed as he left time for them to dry—and for him to look and ponder—between application of  layers. This is basically a non-representational painting with an ironic commentary applied. What's the use of abstraction? seems to be a tongue-in-cheek question, the elephant in the room.

Spiderman is also spatially mysterious. This may be because the painting, composed around the large figure in an iconic, dynamic, descending pose, shows us a Spiderman whose reality appears to be the central question of the piece. Once again, as in Untitled, we can't count on the disposition of dark and light areas in certain quantities to give us our bearings. Where the greatest patch of pure white lies, in the lower right, it appears to recede: This is where Spiderman is supposed to be popping forward toward us, out of the mists of our need. That we perceive his forward motion is due to Sines' use of black outlining, which gives the figure definition and propels that right arm, the strong jaw, and bullet-shaped head forward—and away from the background. That would be the "real" Spiderman, but then he dissolves at what might be his strongest point, the fist, the point of the missile, which is a beautiful mess of mixed paints with lines and dots, perhaps not a representation of anything at all.

In fact, over most of the surface, the figure coalesces rather than presents itself in defined form. Those relatively few black lines have a disproportionate impact, once you get into the details and note that the left side of the form has only a blurry edge at best, and that the face, on close inspection, is really composed as much of our expectations of the icon as it is by the bare hints Sines has actually committed to paint. What's there is a series of attacks and effacements, splatters and revisions that convey just enough information for us to surmise, from everything given, that this is Spiderman's face.

That Chad Sines' wonderful paintings are in Outside in Ohio is an excellent example of the breadth and inclusiveness of the term "outsider." Outsider art that you'll see in a gallery or show, even at its most naive in appearance, is always great art: There would be no reason to care about any art that didn't compel us with its mutually supporting technical finesse and human insight.

Sines, though, is an interesting case in labeling. He's always wanted to be a painter, even from childhood, despite the unpromising visual and cultural environment in which he grew up. When he graduated from high school in Newark, Ohio, in 1993, he had been highly praised in his art classes, had work accepted and a prize awarded to him in the Governor's Show. He was admitted to art schools, but a DUI (drunk driving citation) and probation immediately after graduation impeded his plans. He married young, had two children, and worked two jobs to support his family and send his wife to college; but he managed to paint through it all, collecting scrap wood and paints from the construction sites he worked. He never made it himself to any sort of higher education until after divorce, when he enrolled at Ohio State. 

Sines had a student job working at the Wexner Center for the Arts, in the bookstore. He used the books as a library in slow times and increased his art literacy in contemporary art to overcome the minimal background he was aware of. Today he's finishing his degree in sculpture at the University of Kentucky. "I didn't want to study painting," he told me, "because I like what I'm doing. But I keep wanting to add to it. I know there are things I could be doing with other media. I really wanted welding and practical knowledge of fabricating. I want to build a bigger, better body of work."

Sines is indeed a very practical artist. He works hard with what he can get in the life circumstances he has. He's never lacked ambition or seriousness about either his work or the career he wants; he's comfortable saying out loud that his goal is to make it into the Whitney Biennial. His current portfolio is a Saatchi Online Profile, accessible by searching "Artist Chad Sines." 

I like the perspective Sines' trajectory gives me on my own, ongoing debate about the value of art school training. I'm a skeptic, but Sines makes a solid point for the practicality of going to learn processes and techniques it would be otherwise difficult or tedious to master. And it's certainly the place to learn how people negotiate the for-profit art world. Glancing through Sines' on-line portfolio (never the way to see work), I'll admit that I like the Riffe Gallery's Outsider Sines better. But Outsider Sines wasn't a student, and to be a student is to sort through a huge menu of possibilities and choices; of having before you the whole great world of errors to commit and having enough information to make them. Insider Sines, going this route, will take a while to educate himself, which is a process of making everything hyper-conscious. I hope he will regain eventually the ease of expression and depth of insight shown so convincingly by Outsider Sines.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Two Days with Bill Dobbins: Things Are Looking Up

Those of us who dragged through this searing July in Columbus rebounded at month's end, refreshed by the heart-lifting, musical two-day visit of jazz pianist and arranger, Bill Dobbins.

Bill Dobbins at the Bungalow Jazz keyboard.
Dobbins is by title Professor of Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York where he has worked twice: from 1973-'94, and again from 2002 upon returning from eight years in Cologne, Germany where he directed the WDR Big Band. As a performer, as an arranger, and as a band leader, Dobbins has probably worked with more contemporary jazz artists than not, as his Eastman bio suggests.

When he comes to Columbus—it's getting to be an annual affair—Dobbins gives an intimate, theme-based piano trio performance at the Bungalow Jazz series, and is guest artist with Vaughn Wiester's Famous Jazz Orchestra. Here he's Bill, with a friendly twinkle in his eye and a gracious willingness to sit down with any of his many fans who wants to talk—especially if there's an anecdote to share about high school days in Akron, or someone extends one of his early vinyl records for an autograph.

Dobbins is connected to Columbus through Vaughn Wiester and his Famous Jazz Orchestra, a twenty-one piece big band. (Disclosure: Wiester—"weester"—is this writer's brother.) Wiester is a trombonist and arranger well-known in Ohio and adjoining states; he is deeply studied in big band literature and is a passionate collector of orchestral scores. He is acquainted with many other eminent arrangers, such as Bill Holman, Slide Hampton, and Med Flory—people who arranged music for the likes of Count Basie, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, and Frank Sinatra. When possible, Wiester commissions new arrangements from these writers. 
Dobbins, Wiester, and fan, Bill Miller

Famous Jazz plays once a week with no rehearsals. The band's composed of amateur musicians; music students and educators from public schools, colleges, and universities; and several professionals. The common denominator is that each member is a sight-reading ace who's happy to receive ten dollars for the evening's fun. Part of the fun is playing music that Bill Dobbins wrote exclusively for them. It's an experience few musicians working outside a professional environment in New York or Los Angeles will ever have. 

Wiester has commissioned Dobbins to arrange for FJO two classics of the Bill Evan piano trios, 1961's Waltz for Debby and 1966's Turn Out the Stars, both works of lyrical emotion expressed through long, light lines. I wondered how such gem-like works could bear the weighty presence of a big band. Gerry Mulligan's Rocker, another commission, is well-known from the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool recordings (1950), basics of the jazz canon. Dobbins has also arranged Antonio Carlos Jobim's delicate bossa nova, Passarim, for Wiester.
Vaughn Wiester's Famous Jazz Orchestra, early July, 2012

Dobbins' arrangements reflect his view that the rise of ego has done the world no good, for he keeps a low profile in his writing. He does not repossess the tunes he touches; he does not render them novel, "new," or "updated." He explained that he adheres to basic harmonies, embellishing them and coloring them in a personal manner, but trying to keep such interpretation within the spirits of the originals. 

It's not only the original harmonies that Dobbins tries to remain true to when he arranges, but the weights and the spirits of the works as well. He follows closely the musical movement of Turn Out the Stars, and he follows the emotional movement just as accurately. Much of the success is in his choice of voicings as he expands a piano trio into music for twenty-one pieces, twelve of them brass. The addition of musical lines neither adds excess bulk nor blurs any sound. What Dobbins adds is both obvious and transparent at the same time. His arrangement is so thoroughly informed by knowledge of the original and by concern for the composer's purposes that his expansions and elaborations fit seamlessly. As a result, it  hardly seems that he has arranged, but more like he collaborated with the composer. Is this what Evans would have written, had it occurred to him to write Turn Out the Stars for an expanded big band? An impossibility of course; but in the way that fiction has of revealing truth through possibilities, I'd say, Yes.

You can hear full performances of Dobbins' arrangements of Turn Out the Stars and Rocker played by the Famous Jazz Orchestra by clicking on these title links.

As a tot, Dobbins often stayed with an aunt who owned a piano. His Pentecostal preacher father and his mother would go on the road for long periods, leaving him not merely to his fascination with the music he heard, but successfully to apply his own hands to the keys when he could barely balance on the stool. When he was eleven, Dobbins was thunderstruck upon hearing George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on the radio. He walked downtown the next day to buy the sheet music, and memorized the whole piece over a weekend. His family supported his passion and talent for music, but he and his father "locked horns," as he calls it, when it came to his first love, jazz.

It's not as if the world made it easy to study jazz in the late 1960s anyway. At Kent State University—as in nearly every music department nationwide—there was contempt rather than curriculum for jazz. Dobbins considers this to have been his good fortune. He studied composition with Fred Coulter, whose pedagogy was deep study of classical Western composers by means of writing compositions "in the style of" the greats he would specify, from Bach through Berg.

The traditions and basic musical language Dobbins learned so thoroughly in this manner he considers fundamental to jazz, and regrets greatly that so few young musicians trouble to learn it. He is firm in asserting that, "There's nothing in jazz that didn't exist before it. Look at Bach's use of syncopation." Thus, Dobbins sees jazz as evolutionary rather than innovative in nature, having emerged organically as something unique—a fusion of local music and African—wherever the slave trade went: to Brazil, Cuba, or Louisiana.

Dobbins and pianist Abhik Mazumder before a lesson
"It's a new Dark Age for music," Dobbins believes. Both jazz and classical music are being forced underground, since young people learn too little to perpetuate the accumulated culture of the past. Innovation is valued too highly over preservation, which he connects to discovery, exploration, and community—that is, to qualities not based in ego. Such an idea connects directly to Dobbins' brilliance as an arranger whose discernible presence in the music of a predecessor is suffused with exquisite understanding of the methods and the emotional scope of the composer's work.

Dobbins' prizing of community over ego and careerism is exemplified by the story he loves about a big break during college days. He had a jazz band that played weekly off-campus at Eddie's Stag Bar. Bill Dobbins named the band after himself, not so much as an act of ego as one of responsibility. He was careful to avoid any possible link between the good name of Kent State University with a bar band.

For an independent band of collegians to be invited to the 1970 Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival was amazing; for them to be invited not only to play, but then to backup legendary trumpeter Art Farmer was even more amazing. Of course they would go.

But it takes a lot of money to fly a band of around fifteen people from Ohio to Switzerland. Kent State refused to have anything to do with it and wouldn't find a penny for them. When the patrons of Eddie's Stag Bar learned of this outrage, they began their own collection and ultimately raised the cash for the students to make the trip. Lesson for Dobbins: The people who love the music will do the job; don't look to institutions. "It was the power of community."

Dobbins recollects, too, his first period at Eastman, 1973-'94, when he was under the pressure of building a dossier of performances and writing on a tenure-timetable. New, elite academic artists face the task of getting famous when opportunities for their work to be heard are few, and even then audiences are sparse. Artistic life under these circumstances is struggle.

But in 1995 Dobbins accepted an invitation to become the principal director of the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany, where he and his wife remained for eight years. "Within four months, I was on national television!" he still marvels. With no particular effort from him, the band leader, their concert hall was filled to its twenty-five-hundred capacity for every program. 

Jim Rupp
His applause for the strong cultural connection Germans have to music carries with it grief for the lack of same in the U.S. In other countries, audiences sometimes sing along with music they know at choral concerts. Where Americans would be very uncomfortable with this, finding it rowdy or inappropriate, we really have very little widely shared musical literature. The hymns on which Bach based some of his cantatas are still sung in German churches today. "When we hear Bach, we can't know any of that," he says. "For most of us, it's simply old, academic stuff."

The night before his guest appearance with Famous Jazz, Dobbins performed a Gershwin program at Becky Ogden's Bungalow Jazz House Concerts (where we recently reviewed Ron Busch and Jack Schantz). Developed as a solo concert at Eastman last spring, here Dobbins performed it with bassist Andy Woodson and drummer Jim Rupp.

The lesser-known verses of Gershwin's songs are as interesting to Dobbins as the famous choruses, and he introduced several tunes with recitations of verses. Gershwin's lyrics, he assured me, are always in his head when he plays the music. I was happy to hear this, since I know this music as song, inseparable from words. Being so, the performances were redolent of the sense of the song played. In "How Long Has This Been Going On," I found Dobbins' solo introduction—the first two-and-a-half minutes of verse, chorus and bridge—especially poignant. The lyrics are these:

As a tot, when I trotted in my little velvet panties,
I was kissed by my sisters, my cousins and my aunties.
Sad to tell, it was hell, an inferno worse than Dante's.
So my dear I swore,
"Never, never more!"
On my list, I insisted that kissing must be crossed out.
Now, I find I was blind, and oh my! how I lost out!

I could cry salty tears; 
Where have I been all these years?
Little Wow, tell me now:
How long has this been going on?

There were chills up my spine,
And some thrills I can't define.
Listen sweet, I repeat:
How long has this been going on?

Oh, I feel that I could melt:
Into Heaven I'm hurled!
I know how Columbus felt,
Finding another world,

Kiss me once, then once, more.
What a dunce I was before. 
What a break! For Heaven's sake!
How long has this been going on?

Bill Dobbins
Ira Gershwin's verse presents a silly image of the smitten man as a baby discovering his sexuality in confusion and denial. What follows, in compact lines chopped by internal rhyme, are expressions of the undeniable sensual daze when he finally falls from the fog into the flames. And Dobbins captures every detail of emotion, latent and expressed, in that brief statement, before the tune takes shape in the trio performance. The verse is played skippingly, yet not without ironic adult awareness: The minor chords on "Dear" and "more" hit like the sensation of chewing on cracked teeth, coming as painful surprises. During the bridge, when the lover knows how Columbus felt in discovery, we understand by the dissonance that it's with mixed emotions, not entirely comfortable. Dobbins beautifully controls tempo, slightly rushing and then dragging for emotional effect, slowing considerably once he gets to the chorus, where the jokes of the verse are dropped and the ecstatic pain of discovery begins.

Listen to Dobbins' opening of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" HERE

Similarly, in the piano statement of "Soon," opened here by Dobbins' remarks, he sets a tune with ebullient, hopeful lyrics in among some unexpectedly dark harmonies. He doesn't do so with any irony, but with a rich, suave tenderness. He suffuses his interpretation with a felt understanding of the inevitable hurt in hope, of the difficult patience of yearning, of the inherent fragility of romantic beginnings. I sing the lyrics in my head whenever I hear this tune, but Dobbins' voiceless arrangement fills it with meaning I'm not sure that a vocalist could attain—with the rich, exotic colors that give an allure more majestic than domestic. The "little ship" is a luxury liner with a pensive and passionate captain, afloat on a sea of deep, complex undercurrents. Ira's words were never meant to stand alone, but the tune, in Dobbins' hands, is far from wordless.

Soon, my dear, you'll never be lonely,

Soon, you'll find I live for you only.

When I'm with you who cares what time it is

Or what the place or what the climate is?

Oh soon, our little ship will come sailing
Home through every storm, never failing,
The day you're mine this world will be in tune,
Let's make that day come soon.

You can listen to this opening of "Soon" HERE.

Andy Woodson
Dobbins goes to town with Woodson and Rupp on "The Man I Love." He sets it to a Latin rhythm; but even more interesting is that he prefaces it with "Blue Lullaby," also known as "Prelude No. 2."  Recognizing harmonic kinship, he melds the two. 

The entire performance will play when you press the link, featuring fantastic playing and a lot of fun once "The Man I Love" gets established. Solos by Woodson and Rupp are fast-paced and thrill-packed. Again, though, Dobbins responds to the mood of the "Blue Lullaby" when he opens, sweet and simple in the right hand, with thunder rolling in from the left. The melody sounds like a plain, bluesy folk tune, but this baby's sleeping through tough times. The bridge features some moderate-tempo ragtime, but not too buoyant; its return to the chorus produces the piquant blend of moods that seems to be a Dobbins specialty.
There's a thirty-second adjustment of keys and motif; and by the time he's turned us around, Woodson and Rupp are in—all three are in, playing "The Man I Love." Dobbins doesn't rush it into the heady romp it becomes, though. He retains in the harmonies the dark underpinning of doubt: "Some day he'll come along,/The man I love.../And when he comes my way/ I'll do my best to make him stay." Nothing's given.

Enjoy the trio performance of "The Man I Love" HERE.

At the end of the first set, Woodson and Rupp sat out while Dobbins played his solo arrangement of "Rhapsody in Blue." Of course we were all thrilled: It's bound to be the highlight of any Gershwin piano program. Any music is hair-raising when I'm seated a yard from the open piano, feeling in my chest cavity the resonance of every hammer on string. But to have that privileged position for this performance was the more extraordinary since I felt that I'd never really heard this "familiar" music before then. For instance, the stride elements that I commented on to Dobbins, had always been there, but in the orchestra, he explained. Placed in the piano, though, I heard them laid bare so their contextual significance leapt out. The structural clarity of the "Rhapsody in Blue" piano arrangement makes its jazz elements particularly vivid, pared away from orchestral grandeur. Dobbins had written the arrangement originally for a Hindemith symposium, in acknowledgement of the composer's awareness of jazz. It's an excellent way to make the point.

HERE is Bill Dobbins playing his arrangement for solo piano of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."  

Dobbins told me that we can expect him back in Columbus next summer, probably again on the last Sunday and Monday of July for gigs at the Bungalow House and with Famous Jazz Orchestra. With each return there is greater excitement for his visits, across a broader spectrum of listeners. Last year he did an Ellington/Strayhorn concert, and Gershwin this year. He's in the process of researching and writing a book on Bill Holman, whom he is interviewing over time. Whatever he brings us will be beautiful and will make us think again about inherited and shared music. Be sure to keep and eye on the websites linked above for dates.

If you come, you'll see his glow and his smile of satisfaction at the end of every tune he plays. Even—or, especially—after one as demanding as "Rhapsody in Blue," he can barely be said to rise from the bench because he springs from it, raising his left hand to his right shoulder. I asked if his shoulder hurt and he was surprised by the question, having been unaware of the habit. Perhaps it's an anchoring gesture, a way to be sure he doesn't float off. For, by the end of a performance, he is the opposite of exhausted: He looks and sounds as if he has been administered the finest, most bracing tonic. His connection with keyboard and music is not the sort that pulls any power from him, but returns even more than he puts into the energy loop. He shares accumulated surplus energy with his audience the way a happy child offers slices of birthday cake.

Here's a bonus track, the Bill Dobbins Trio at Bungalow House Jazz Concerts on July 29, 2012, playing George Gershwin's "S' Wonderful," bossa style.

With many thanks to Tom Johnson for his recordings from Vaughn Wiester's Famous Jazz Orchestra on Monday, July 30, 2012: FJO performing Dobbins arrangements of "Turn Out the Stars" and "Rocker;" the Bill Dobbins Trio performing "Blue Lullaby/The Man I Love." Other recordings, and photographs are my own, with thanks to Becky Ogden and Bungalow Jazz House Concerts for making them possible.

Tenor soloist on "Turn Out the Stars" is Bryan Olsheski, for whom Dobbins wrote the part.
Soloists on "Rocker" are Jim Powell, trumpet; Michael Cox, alto sax; Bob LeBeau, baritone sax. Drummer on "Rocker" is Steve Schaar. Dobbins is pianist on both "Turn Out the Stars" and "Rocker."

Personnel for FJO on July 30, 2012: Saxes: Kent Englehardt, Michael Cox (altos); Matt Wagner, Alex Burgoyne (tenors); Bob LeBeau (bari). Trumpets: Erik Gimbel (lead); Larry Everhart, Jim Powell, Bob Larson, Phil Winnard. Trombones: Ryan Hamilton (lead); Matt Ellis, John Hall, Bill England (bass), Tony Zilincik (tuba). French horns: Scott Strohm, John Busic. Guitar: Aaron Quinn. Bass: Terry Douds. Piano: Jim Luellen. Drums: Jim Leslie. Guest (piano) Bill Dobbins. Guests with Dobbins Trio: Andy Woodson (bass), Jim Rupp (drums). Leader, solo trombone, cowbell: Vaughn Wiester.