New Music: Piazzolla, Jess Jocoy, Angie Goeke, Watershed Band



Astor Piazzolla (1921-92) is a renowned figure in Argentine music. It wasn’t always that way; some felt he tinkered too much with tradition. He was, however, the leading figure in nuevo tango, meaning he took classical orchestral-based tango, stripped it down, and merged it what he learned about dissonance and counterpoint from composers such as Stravinsky, Gershwin, and Bernstein. Ten years after his death, his widow set up a foundation dedicated to his music. An offshoot is Quinteto Astor Piazzolla whose Operation Tango takes the maestro to new levels. Pablo Mainetti now mans the bandoneon (a full-sounding concertina) and like Piazzolla, melds it with melancholy piano, sorrowful violin, guitar, and double bass. Other selections, such as the title track, are filled with big drama in which we can definitely hear Gershwin’s influences even as you reach for your sexy duds and dancing shoes. Every piece on Operation Tango will make your heart break or leap, depending. Alas, it’s hard to find selections for viewing. I recommend viewing parts of this concert. If you like it, you’ll love the new record. The five members are faithful to the style Piazzolla pioneered for more than a decade and take full advantage of improvements in sound technology to make the maestro’s compositions sound even richer. ★★★★★




I was tempted to spotlight Jess Jocoy as my artist of the month as I really liked where she is heading. Let There Be No Despair showcases a maturing voice with deeper patina that gives contrast to her higher tones. The title track sentiment says it all. Jocoy’s response to the Covid lockdown and other worldly traumas has been to accentuate the positive and replace gloom with hope. To do this, she put herself in other people’s shoes and assumed the role of a storyteller. “I Will Be Glad” is an ode to the small joys we are given. In a simple line such as I’m with my mother every day and I wear the traits more than ever, she projects into the future–even returning to the dust from which she came–and suggests we should be grateful for small moments of bliss. She imagines herself as a deserted barren woman in “The Gardner”: My body couldn’t do her sacred duty as a woman. But instead of wallowing, Jocoy’s protagonist tends a garden in the unforgiving climate of Montana, a substitute way of making and preserving life. My favorite track is “Living in a Dying Town,” a bittersweet take on returning to a town where everything’s changing and there’s no reason to stay. Yet she also honors those who put down roots and remain. There’s good songwriting throughout, but a few things make Let There Be No Despair fall short of a career-altering album. First, the arrangements are similar and cries out for a signature song that makes you want to sing along or dance. Jocoy is Nashville-based and hopes to make it in country music, but too much of the album is reflective in ways more in accord with folk music. She could also benefit by becoming more of a song interpreter and tamping down her desire to impress. She has chops and range, but she is often overly dynamic and doesn’t articulate clearly. A few good hooks and more variety would push Jocoy to the next level. ★★★★     




Angie Goeke grew up in an Austin, Texas, church-going musical family and counts Ella Fitzgerald and Willie Nelson among her musical influences. This tips us off that her blend of Americana will fall on the jazz/bluegrass/country side of the ledger. Her debut full release If I Were Honest reflects that, if we toss in a bit of folk music as well. Goeke is trying to work things out, not preach. “So I Pray” is a fragile song in which she warbles to Kaitlyn Raitz’s cello as she catalogues … Lies and betrayal …. The fear, the fights, the shattered wine glass on the wall/Everyday those dark shadows come to call/So I pray. If anything, it’s too pained, as it’s often hard to make out the lyrics, but we get it. What might be harder to get though, is where Goeke wishes to position herself in the musical world. There’s nothing wrong with being eclectic, but the risk on a debut is being claimed by everyone or no one. She compares herself to the liquid in “Whiskey in a Teacup,” fiery with a kick and the song is a country rocker, yet “Leftovers” is more music hall than country. The piano-based title song trends toward torchy songbird and “Fly Baby Fly” is a sweet supportive song about her kids. See a pattern? I’m not sure if producer (and country artist) Mary Bragg did Goeke any favors by allowing her to spread her wings too broadly. ★★★




The Columbus, Ohio-based Watershed Band has released Against the Grain, their 10th full-length album. If you’ve never heard of them and wonder why, it’s probably because they formed when several band members were still in middle school, and because they are not a conventional rock band in any sense. Lead singer/lead guitarist Colin Gawel owns a coffee shop and bass player Joe Oestreich is an English prof at Coastal Carolina University when he’s not on the road with the band. They also sound more like a bluegrass/country/soft rock ensemble than the sort of outfit that blows you away with crunchy loud electric solos. “Someday” has a decided bluegrass helter-skelter feel and “Bluebird” a slice of folk rock. Much of “King of Spades,” especially its harmonies, evokes The Beach Boys, and “Fire Catcher” opens with a bit of banjo for a song that merges grass with some rock-style vocals. Since they are mostly on rock’s quiet end on this album, why not a love song like “You?” ★★★


Rob Weir


Art Road Trip: New Mexico I


Museum of Albuquerque

Albuquerque, New Mexico

[Click images for bigger file size]


One of the joys of traveling for art fans is that it provides opportunities to see works you seldom see in your own backyard. The Albuquerque Museum (MoA) is less visited than it should be, perhaps because it’s a hybrid that also tries to spotlight some of the city’s history and its people, but it’s mostly an art museum.


Like many museums that can’t or simply don’t give into the temptation to launch expensive blockbuster shows, the MoA had assembled a small but innovative special exhibit when I visited in April. In this case, it was to a color: indigo. The blue pigment, which ranges from near black to purple, originally came from plants. (Today a lot is synthetic.) The very word is linguistically linked to India, since Europeans often imported it from there. Here are a few items from the show.  


Sashiko Farmer's Coat (Japan)

Laura Anderson Barbata "Little Jaguar"


If you’re an Easterner such as I, another striking feature of the MoA is noticing how the aesthetics of art produced in the West differs from those of the East. There is, for instance, art made by Native Americans. Much that one sees at the MoA is of recent vintage, but rooted in older forms. It was my first immersion into the work of the talented Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (b. 1940), a Native-American woman enrolled in three Western tribes. (Ironically, her BA is from Framingham State in Massachusetts.)  She is an activist who works in numerous media and has a cheeky sense of humor and a modernist sensibility. Spend some time looking at “Herding” (1985), as it takes a few moments for its lines and symbols to come into focus. Nor is her “Albuquerque” (1998) the first thing that springs to mind when you hear that word.






Names can be deceptive in the West, given centuries of intermarriage. Fritz Scholder has links to California’s Luiseno peoples, hence his “Man in White Suit” (1983) is not a form of cultural appropriation. The same is true of Alan Hauser, an Apache. His “Mountain Spirit Dancer” (1993) is an eye-catching small sculpture that differs from much of his largescale work one sees in Santa Fe galleries. 


"Man in White Suit"



New Mexico was where the atomic bomb was first developed and tested. It played a big role in defeating Japan, but it’s important to remember the effects it had one those living downwind of Los Alamos. Tony Price wasn’t an Indian, but his metallic “Atomic Firebird” (1994) is a subtle reminder of literal fallout. In a more amusing vein, but packed with the suggestion that Natives are often so marginalized they might as well be aliens, is potter Diego Romero (Cochiti Pueblo), whose “Mayans from Mars” (1995) makes you chuckle and consider. 


"Atomic Firebird"


"Mayans from Mars"


The West is just flat out big, thus it’s hardly surprising to see how humans represent the land, the elements, and surviving in their midst. Carl Von Hassler gave us adobe, laundry, and dust in “New Mexico Landscape” (1920) and Carl Redin “Village in Moonlight” (1920s). Peter Hurd offered commentary on the precariousness of humans in that big landscape in his “A Shower in a Dry Year” (1969).


Von Hassler




As you might have surmised, sculpture is well represented at the MoA, both inside and out. Paul Suttman was from Connecticut, but his sculpture at the MoA with the catch-your-breath title “Braque Visited by the Conquering Venus Armed with Apples of Discord” (1991) is either a cool mashup of modernist sensibilities or a parody thereof (your choice). I also quite liked Ron Cooper’s “Labyrinth of Gravity (1990).”






If, after a while, you get homesick for the East, Andrew Wyeth will cure it. The MoA has a painting from his “Karl” series, this one from 1948.


Andrew Wyeth




Rob Weir


All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days Reconstructs a Tragedy



By Rebecca Donner

Little, Brown and Company, 576 pages.





Rebecca Donner faced a problem I have known. How do you write history based on family lore, fragmentary evidence, and lacunae? The answer is to start with what you know for certain, fill in where possible, and make logical inferences where sources fail.


The topic of Donner’s work of non-fiction, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, is embodied in its subtitle: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler. That woman was Mildred Fish Harnack (1902-43), who was Donner’s great-great aunt. She was the only American woman executed via Hitler’s direct order.


Mildred was born in Milwaukee, the daughter of lower middle-class parents. She obtained degrees in English literature from the University of Wisconsin, where she met a German national, Arvid Harnack, a Ph.D philosophy student. They married in 1926 and made the fateful decision to move to Berlin in 1930, she to teach and to work on her own Ph.D. The Harnacks were idealistic and allied with socialist groups. Their political values–feminism, women’s suffrage, worker rights, and anti-fascism–were safe enough in 1930, but became increasingly dangerous when Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933 and began to dismantle whatever democracy remained in Germany’s post-World War I Weimar Republic. The Harnacks were among the first to warn that Hitler was an existential threat, not just a loud-mouthed buffoon.


The Harnacks tried to play it safe whilst quietly building domestic opposition to Hitler to undermine him. What came to be called The Circle was a loose organization of dedicated idealists like Mildred and Arvid plus various diplomatic personnel that offered clandestine support. Caution aside, The Circle proved no match for the Gestapo. Moreover, some of their contacts, including those in Josef Stalin’s NKVD, proved so incompetent they mentioned names in cables without encrypting them or using aliases. The upshot is that the Harnacks were arrested while trying to flee from Germany in September 1942. Arvid was executed and Mildred was sentenced to six years of hard labor, a sentence vacated by Hitler. On February 16, 1943, she was guillotined.


These are the bare facts, pieced together from snippets in archives, mentions in official documents, newspaper reports, diary slivers, and ephemera. Missing are most of Mildred’s letters, which were burned by her older sister. Those lost sources are tragic from a historical point of view, but perhaps not from a literary one. Donner’s reconstructed history reads like a novel, albeit a sometimes disjointed one. Donner had to range far afield to give context for inferential leaps, thus a wide array of characters appear, many of whom are not household names. For instance, one of Mildred’s most effective couriers was Donald Heath, Jr. the young son of an American consul/spy in Berlin. He came to Mildred to be tutored and left with documents to be passed to contacts. We also meet Martha Dodd, the gadfly daughter of the American ambassador, who spied for the Soviet Union.


There are so many others that, when added to a narrative that is often non-linear, can seem confusing. Don’t worry about all the names. Instead consider Donner’s succinct account of how the Nazis came to power with blitzkrieg speed and how they undermined democracy via methods distressingly similar to Donald Trump’s tactics: rambling digressions, eliminating non-loyalists, manufacturing internal and external enemies, and justifying repression in the name of making Germany great again. (You could even find parallels between the 1933 Reichstag fire, Kristallnacht, and the storming of the U.S. Capitol.)


I found Donner’s subtitle overly dramatic. One could easily argue that The Circle was more a figment of idealistic imaginations than a conspiracy capable of taking down the Nazis. The Circle was effective for a time as a spying operation and in aiding a small number of Jews, but the Harnacks were as a reckless as they were restless. They were correct in their dire warnings and brave in mien and action, but the overall impression is that of a dedicated band of amateurs up against a machine too powerful for their ilk.


But let us give credit to Donner for assembling a thrilling collage. If you had any doubt that Hitler and Stalin were monsters, Donner will dispel them in simple (though not simplistic) language. More’s the pity Hitler wasn’t eliminated earlier and that it took six years of war and more than 70 million deaths to accomplish what the Harnacks could not.


Rob Weir