Jottings from a pop culture junkie

At 84, David Amram is ever the musical polymath, playing French horn, piano, percussion, flutes of all manner from around the globe — all with four additional musicians (bass player and three percussionists) on the postage stamp-sized stage of what he lovingly refers to as the Cornelia Street Stadium.

(For those who haven’t been to the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, the joke stems from the fact that the music room downstairs squeezes in about 35 people. The miracle is that Amram, whose bags and instruments cover the floor of the tiny stage, hasn’t broken his neck in those 10 years navigating between the piano and the center-stage microphone throughout the evening.)

David Amram at Cornelia Street Cafe, January 4, 2015; bassist Rene Hart behind him. Photo © 2015 Ira Mayer.

David Amram at Cornelia Street Cafe, January 5, 2015; bassist Rene Hart behind him. Photo © 2015 Ira Mayer.

With the turn of the calendar, Amram the symphony and chamber music composer, jazz musician, verbal improviser, first-ever composer-in-residence with the NY Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, world music celebrant, social commentator, and educator marks 10 years playing at Cornelia Street on the first Monday of every month. Last year, the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center held a mini-festival of sorts celebrating Amram’s life in music in recognition of his donating his papers to the Library.

Having not heard him perform in many years, seeing him the first Monday in January this year was a reminder of just how far his musical, social, political, and personal interests range, and how they all intermingle. I first reviewed his album “No More Walls” and met Amram in the early 1970s; his music is still about tearing down walls, crossing borders, manning the barricades of progressive politics, mixing the past (his years as part of what he doesn’t like calling ‘The Beat’ generation) with a brief exegeses on scat as the Cro-Magnon antecedent of rap.

On a blistery cold night right after New Year’s, Amram probably wasn’t joking that he feared the number of musicians might outnumber the audience. But that wasn’t the case at all, and those of us who ventured out — many of whom seemed to know Amram from some part of his life — were treated to a delightful ramble:

  • The classic jazz of “Take The A Train”
  • Recollections of the clubs he played with Charlie Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie
  • The “Waltz from ‘After the Fall’” which he wrote for the Arthur Miller play about Marilyn Monroe
  • Commentary on the benefits of being a vegetarian
  • Celebrations of Jack Kerouac — performing “Pull My Daisy” and accompanying six Kerouac poems read by actor/director Michael Kelly, and actors John Doman and Suzanne Hughes
  • Improvising behind contemporary poet and actor Frank Messina reading selections about 9/11 and baseball
  • Playing a Chinese flute that gave a warm glow to his closing (and plenty of other flutes throughout the evening, sometimes, in a trademark bit of showmanship he’s also been doing for years, playing two at a time)

The night was all of a meandering yet highly crafted patchwork piece. Amram’s is a worldview rare to encounter today. You can encounter it next Feb. 5th at the Cornelia Street Stadium and hopefully for many first Mondays thereafter.

Rene Hart, bass
Kevin Twig, drums and glockenspiel
Eliot Peper, bongos
Adam Amram, congas

The documentary, “David Amram: The First 80 Years,” is available on-demand on Vimeo (and due soon as a DVD from Newport Classics).

Amram’s latest symphony is due next month, this one based on songs by Woody Guthrie.

Plenty on Youtube, including “Waltz from ‘After the Fall’” and “Pull My Daisy”.

One of my favorite Amram performances was when he and the late Steve Goodman improvised a song based on “Moby Dick” at the 1974 Mariposa Folk Festival. A recording of the workshop is in the York University Libraries, available exclusively for academic research because of a lack of clearances. Goodman recorded an abbreviated version under the title “Moby Book” on his album “Jessie’s Jig and Other Favorites.” The song is available here.

Frank Messina’s book of poetry about the NY Mets, “Full Count,” is available here.

Cornelia Street Café:; for show reservations: 212-989-9319.

© 2015 Ira Mayer.


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