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From Isolation to Normalcy, the Arts Provide a Vital Pulse

“Healing Power: The Music of Carla Bley,” is an extraordinary record that quickly shot to the top tier of my highlights of the cultural year. (Sunnyside)

I don’t get around much anymore. Sure, the pandemic era threw us off our game. But I think there’s something more than that. We got used to cooking at home, to hiding out, to downloading music, to streaming movies (and even a play or two this year), and to reading yet more books day in and day out. It’s almost as if we’ve settled into social distance as a way of life. Click the like button and move on. Take another nap.

OK, so I lied a bit. I do get out from time to time. Colson Whitehead read last spring to a full house in Liberty Hall in Lawrence. Kansas City Rep’s “The Royale” dazzled with its boxing beat. Tango Lorca celebrated 25 years of music with the all-too-rare reappearance of violinist Christine Brebes, who long ago resettled in Buenos Aires. I geeked out big time last May when the Bob Dylan Center opened just down the road in Tulsa. I could bore you silly about the Hemingway conference that took us to Wyoming and Montana in July.

But now, with the sizzling fall arts season well under way — and all of it thrillingly in-person — we can celebrate the resumption of the Kansas City Symphony’s conductor audition concerts, the lineup of contemporary plays at the Unicorn Theatre, the photographer Julie Blackmon’s astounding suite of theatrically domestic photos, “Metaverse,” at the Haw Contemporary gallery, and so much more. (On the day I write this I’ve also just impulsively landed theater tickets for a quick New York jaunt in November — Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” and Samuel L. Jackson in August Wilson’s “Piano Lesson.”) How can we not be grateful for the opportunities in our midst for uplift, spirited creative growth and communal joy?

I’m tempted to celebrate a bounty of local things in this season of thanks — from Chef Carlos Falcon’s red snapper ceviche at Jarocho’s to the arrival of Courtney Crappell, the dynamic new dean at the UMKC Conservatory.

But for now, I’ll focus on one. In the scheme of things, it’s a small one, but it represents the act of applauding the often undersung achievements of our community of art makers.

Like Christine Brebes, another musician who lives away but returns home to Kansas City maybe once a year, is the jazz guitarist Steve Cardenas. Cardenas brings lyrical elegance, a luscious tone and a brainy heft to his playing. I’ve followed him for years and celebrate his continued achievements in New York, where he lives, and around the world. I’m often reminded of my utter failure when, about three decades ago, I thought that taking guitar lessons from him would be a good idea. I was like a kindergartner in his post-graduate seminar. Totally lost. Still, I remain rather awed, not only by him but by the considerable jazz guitar talent spawned in Kansas City, from the Basie band’s Freddie Green and Eddie Durham in the 1930s to contemporary pickers and composers such as Pat Metheny (of course), along with Rod Fleeman, Danny Embrey, Matt Hopper and the young and awesome Justus West, to name a few.

Earlier this year Cardenas played a superb trio gig at the RecordBar — one of the first in-person shows of the year — with a Kansas City supporting cast of bassist Forest Stewart and drummer Brian Steever. A few months later, Cardenas released an extraordinary record that quickly shot to the top tier of my highlights of the cultural year.

The disc “Healing Power” (find it on Bandcamp and elsewhere) celebrates the music of Carla Bley, who, at 80, is a long-hallowed jazz pianist, composer and bandleader. Cardenas brings Bley’s often adventurous music alive in another appealing trio setting, this one featuring guitar, bass (Ben Allison) and saxophone (Ted Nash, also on clarinet). So it thrives on the bejeweled interplay of the players rather than a drummer’s propulsion. And it holds up to repeated listening. I’m particularly drawn to Bley’s “King Korn,” which, even with Cardenas’ guitar standing in for Bley’s piano, strikes like a warm tribute to Thelonious Monk.

Overall, from the opening, ringing notes of Bley’s sauntering ballad “Ida Lupino” to the slow and bluesy title track at the close, “Healing Power” plays like a dream.

And, seems to me, at this moment in time, we could all use some healing.

KC Studio

KC Studio covers the performing, visual, cinematic and literary arts, and the artists, organizations and patrons that make Kansas City a vibrant center for arts and culture.

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