Sunday, October 31, 2010

This and That

I haven't done any new blog posts lately because I have been busy with "this and that" a lot and I keep forgetting to take my camera with me. Of course, some of my recent activities didn't lend themselves to sharing photographically, namely the colonoscopy, the removal and replacement of a large molar filling, and the recent upper GI and small bowel follow-through test. I suppose I could have taken a pic of the flu shot, but it was very brief. I have to say that I am grateful to the ability of modern medical technology to identify and diagnose (and sometimes even treat) important potential problems with my body. But I also have to say that the sadistic, cruel, unusual, and tedious preparations and procedures themselves are no fun.

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In addition to invasive bodily tests, I have been busy attending a number of great local music gigs. Since we all know here in Illinois that the pleasant weather can't last (patchy frost a couple of nights), now's the time to get out and enjoy ourselves, especially before daylight savings disappears into the sunset.

So, after The Music of Djano Reinhart (posted here), we took in Bate Calado, a Brazilian group, at V. Picasso. They play sambas like Desafinado but with a little more contemporary (i.e., loud and fast) sound. They are fun though and we enjoyed the evening.

A cool thing happened actually. I had written on the wall of their Facebook Fan Page (BTW, if you haven't joined my page as a Fan, please do. The link is on the right-hand side listing of links on Susan's Blog) and so I guess a thumbnail pic of me was displayed. The singer for Bate Calado was a different one than I had seen when I saw the group last, this past winter, so I didn't know her. At a break, she came up to me and thanked me for coming and said she was glad to see me. I suppose I had a puzzled look on my face, so she added, "I recognized you from Facebook." Wow ... my physical reality and my virtual reality met! Such a world of technology we live in, I guess.

The next gig we attended was at the Iron Post. Kevin Hart was going to be there. He's a dynamite vibraphone player from Peoria who used to play around Champaign-Urbana from time to time. We found out once we were there and had ordered our cheeseburgers that he wasn't playing -- he was coaching some students who were playing.

As the set went on, a bunch of local musicians were drifting in. I was amazed to see so many terrific professional musicians showing up just to support the efforts of these students. Then, to our surprise, the second set turned out to be a group headed up by Jordan Kaye, guitarist extraordinaire and leader of the Music of Django Reinhardt, called something like Early Jazz Group. Wow! Carl Johnson, incredible clarinet player and saxophonist; Barry the trombonist, also from the New Orleans Jazz Machine like Carl; Nick Schroeder, wonderful trumpeter (especially great with the bluesy mute); Paul Asaro, incomparable stride piano player who tours nationally and, it turns out, also plays horn (coronet, I think); William Hope, guitarist and player of the Cuban laud from the Sandunga band that plays guajira son; and a banjo player, tuba player, and bass drum plus singer whose names I didn't catch.

They were absolutely terrific. They did some great old tunes like Canal Street Blues, Frankie and Johnnie, Jazz Me, and, the last piece, St. Louis Blues ... a wonderful rendition that brought the house down. Thanks, guys! Although some of the musicians were fairly young people, maybe grad students at the U of I's famous music school, several were oldies like us, so it was nice to hear how several decades of musical experience ... coupled with skill and talent, of course ...  make a difference!

Then, after a quick trip home to feed the hungry five felines, we went on to V. Picasso to catch Desafinado, the Brazilian jazz group par excellence that we've been following for at least 10 years. They started late because of trying to fit onto a small stage, and the sound was a little different than usual because of some band members who were new and others who were not able to be there, but the music was great as always. Elis Artz's vocals are always so spirited, and she is so radiant, you can't help but get caught up in the music and the Portuguese lyrics. George Turner was sitting in for Greg Jahiel on guitar and gave a very impressive performance. As always, Tom Paynter's flute and melodica were a joy. Luciano Costa, Brazilian mandolin player from the Bate Caldo group, joined in. He was having some trouble with the electronics at first but got that straightened out and did some great work. Joel Caracci was on drums and Karim Yengsep from the Bossa Nuevo band was on bass.

Just before Desafinado came on that night, Lara Driscoll was finishing a set of jazz piano, and George Turner joined her for a couple of numbers. It was mellow and very good, so we decided to catch her playing again last night at V. Picasso. This time she was appearing with Carlos Vega, a wonderful saxophonist who played a few times with Desafinado some time back. For a few numbers, Chip O'Neill, U of I jazz director, joined in as well. Lara and Carlos did an especially nice version of "Moonglow" and "Bewitched" in honor of Halloween. I enjoyed the music a lot and, since the restaurant provides paper placemats and pencils, had a little fun doing a humorous drawing of the band and another more "surrealistic" style drawing as well.

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In the realm of nature/outdoor/garden activities, we have been enjoying the fall color, both in our own yard and around town. We did a little tour of Urbana residential streets near us the other day, where many trees are changing leaf color gradually (and losing leaves as well), and the fruiting trees (like the red-berried hawthorns) are filled to the brim with bright round tiny berries. My guess is that it's been such a strange summer and fall weather-wise that those trees got a bit nervous about their survival and so decided to put out a lot of seed for future generations of their species (nature is so smart!).

We also had a bit of an out of town nature trip last week. We had been wanting to explore a new nature area over north of Danville, about 40 minutes away, called Heron Park. I had gotten directions for getting there from our dental hygienist who commutes from Danville and has two little boys who like the outdoors. Our friend Bob was in town and the three of us were going in his car. We loaded up my four-wheeled rollator (if folds) into the trunk and were ready to leave, even though it was windy (we had a wind advisory that day) and not very early. At the last minute, the intrepid Panther, our sweet black cat, managed a daring escape. I spent 20 or 30 anxiety-filled minutes trying to find him, calling his name pitifully, and waiting for him to reappear. Thankfully, he did, and we went on our way.

Heron Park is a fairly new place with a wonderful expanse of wooden boardwalk (wide enough for the rollator and with a rail to help steady David on his feet) all around the park over the shallow bottomland waters. There is an observation tower, and I could even go to the first level of it with the rollator! It was so cold and windy and late in the day, however, that most of the wildlife was probably hunkered down in the reeds and whatnot to stay cozy. But we did see a couple of mallards, a bunch of tiny birds on the muddy flats that I thought might be sanderlings, a lovely white swan, and -- big treat -- a pair of sandhill cranes! Nice show of foliage changing color along the interstate going back home.

In our yard, the Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa)  has changed color and the Japanese maples are gorgeous. This year the Fothergilia shrub has turned bright red, and several viburnums and hydrangeas have color on their leaves. The hostas have turned a cheerful yellow, but there's still lots of green and even blooming annuals still around. The crabapple is full of tiny orange fruit, and the firethorn (Pyracantha) bush is covered with berries. The chokecherry trees fruited a lot earlier this fall, and the robins feasted and then spattered my car windshield with the results (ugh!). But I have been quite surprised by the endurance of the annuals (and a few blooming perennials like the butterfly bush and the fall anemone). Frank the supergardener's hypothesis is that the dryness has made the plants tougher against the frost compared to the usual rainy fall here.

Well, that's about it for now. I will try to remember to bring my camera with me next time I do something that might be sufficiently interesting to share because I know my readers like photos. Write a comment and let me know what the autumn is bringing your way.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

About town

We've been very fortunate with the weather here in Champaign-Urbana lately. It's been sunny and cool, with low humidity, for a number of days in a row. The trees are starting to change color, but we haven't really had a killing frost here in town. We took advantage with a trip to the University of Illinois Arboretum, the Idea Garden (sponsored by the Master Gardeners' program), and Homer Lake, part of the Forest Preserve District.

In the afternoon on Sunday we enjoyed some time indoors in the sunny lovely space of the Urbana library, listening to Mean Lids' delightful performance of Irish music for the violin and flute. Then in the evening, we went to hear a group called "The Music of Django Reinhardt" at the Iron Post.
We have enjoyed this group before, several times. The composition of the band is pretty fluid. One time there was a super trumpet player and a clarinet player and a drummer. Another time a fantastic stride piano player named Paul Asaro joined the group for the evening. Often Ben Smith (also in Mean Lids) plays fiddle. Tonight a guy from Nashville, Paul Kramer, was in town with his fiddle. Jordan Kaye on guitar and Josh Houchin on bass seem to be the regulars.

What kind of music do they play? Well, it's always spirited, often nostalgic or poignant, and frequently toe-tapping. Jean "Django" Reinhardt was a Gypsy jazz guitarist who started playing jazz in Paris in the 1930s. Despite playing with two fingers as a result of an injury in a fire, he was an incredible guitarist and a formidable composer. He teamed up with Stephane Grappelli on violin for quite a while and the music was amazing. His influence has been considerable, both on jazz musicians of the past and present and on a number of musicians who don't primarily play jazz.

The local band plays a lot of Django originals, of course, but also some good old songs from the thirties and forties, such as "Stardust" and "Sweet Georgia Brown" and so on. There was a pretty good sized audience there, many with white hair, who knew these tunes pretty well. We had a fine time.

I took several photos, but I'm having some upload problems right now in Blogger. Maybe I can add the other pics later. Tomorrow night, we go to hear Bate Calado, a Brazilian samba group.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Big Night Out on Campus

Saturday night on campus ... and David and Susan were there! At the Courtyard Cafe in the Illini Union, two great bands were playing: Desafinado for Brazilian samba and Sandunga for guajira and Cuban son. Here's the fascinating backstory:

Despite the fact that David and I both spent an embarrassingly major portion of our adult lives on the campus of the University of Illinois (as graduate students and academic staff in various jobs over the years), we were no longer in the habit of going up to campus very often. Frankly, things on campus had changed a bit since I came to Champaign-Urbana in 1963 (what a surprise!).

Time was, for example, when I had taken or taught a class in almost every building around. French was actually a popular language in U.S. universities once and before the Foreign Language Building was erected (during my two-year absence teaching at Drake in Iowa), the classrooms were spread all over. Since then the demand for la belle langue has, regretfully, diminished considerably, and the campus has expanded and spread out very far in all directions with tons of brand-new science and technology labs that I have never had occasion to set foot in!

Campus town, the area of stores, restaurants, bars, and apartments near the student union, has changed as well. It used to be a couple of blocks of one- and two-storey places serving some typical campus needs -- a malt shop, bookstore, barber, florist, and a few bars. In the sixties, there were coffeehouses, import boutiques, and head shops. Now it looks like just another chunk of suburban Chicago: towering high rise apartments, ethnic fast-food chains of all sorts, fitness centers, hair salons, tatoo and piercing parlors, smoothie stands, and tons of bars.

The automobile traffic has quadrupled in the past twenty years alone (ah! the perspective of age ... maybe the only good thing about it?). Believe it or not, students didn't used to be allowed (imagine a word like that even!) to have cars on campus; freshman couldn't live in apartments rather than dorms (which had curfews and rules and weren't coed!). Now every apartment with four students includes four cars, as well as numerous and sundry other vehicles: bikes of all types, skateboards, rollerblades, scooters, etc. It requires grim concentration on the part of conscientious drivers to survive in campus town these days. Meanwhile, the pedestrians are usually concentrating too -- on their phones, texting, iPods, etc. as they cross the street totally clueless of traffic.

If the traffic sounds bad, consider the parking options. Okay, getting back to our own story a bit too, we were running late (a regular occurrence for us). I was afraid we wouldn't be able to still get tickets, figuring they might be sold out in advance. We tried to find a handicapped spot near the Illini Union Building but couldn't find any. There was a metered place, however, that cost a quarter for every 20 minutes. But it was enforced 24/7 with a two-hour limit (it wasn't yet eight o'clock and the concert went until eleven), so that didn't work either. Finally, we found a free handicapped parking place several blocks away in a municipal lot. I got my four-wheeled rollator/walker out of the van and we headed through the crowds of scantily clad girls and boisterous boys with backward baseball caps.

We were nearly all the way to the student union when we decided to sit for a minute on a bench at the intersection to catch our breath. A young man came up to me and made an unusual request: it was his birthday, he said, and he had to have a birthday spanking and wanted me to provide it. I ascertained that nothing more was involved than giving him a quick slap on each buttock while his girlfriend took a digital photo. Then she asked to stand in a slow-dance pose with my white-haired and bearded 69-year-old husband while her boyfriend took another photo. They seemed immensely pleased that we had cooperated. I suppose somebody's Facebook wall will display the results of this odd encounter!

Next was a quick stop with the bored ticket taker on her laptop doing homework; she had to charge us eight bucks instead of four because we were no longer students or staff and were retired from the university, but the sponsoring student organization hadn't given her any change. Fortunately, I found eight ones in my wallet.

We were the first to buy tickets that night. And, except for a table of friends of the bands, we were amazingly the only audience! It's a nice venue with a raised stage, good lighting, plenty of tables and chairs, and a coffee place nearby. I think there were a lot of events going on that night and maybe the student group sponsoring the show didn't get the word out as well as they might have. That must have been the explanation for the poor turnout. We've been following the first band, Desafinado, for about 10 years now, and they are truly terrific -- all extremely good musicians who play wonderful, interesting, and upbeat music from Brazil. They really play together, compose original pieces, and seem to enjoy what they are doing.

But, from our point of view, it was pretty great to be sitting right up front and feeling as though the concert was being performed especially for us. The group was terrific. Elis Artz, the singer from Brazil, is phenomenal. She is lovely and lively and radiant, with a tremendous voice filled with emotion that comes across big time, despite my inability to understand the literal meaning of  the Portuguese lyrics.

Greg Jahiel on guitar also sings in Portuguese in beautifully harmonized duets with Elis and provides fantastic guitar accompaniement to all the numbers. He's a talented composer as well; one of his originals was performed that night -- a song so poignant it brings tears to the eyes.

Giraldo Rosales keeps that wonderful conga beat going that is so important to the Latin jazz, samba, bossa nova, and MPB sound. It makes me play my hands on the table in time to his drumming. Joel Caracci is new on percussion, replacing Matt Plaskota, who replaced Chad Dunn. (According to the old spoof movie, Spinal Tap, drummers change about often because they are victims of spontaneous combustion!)

Tom Paynter is well-known in a number of local bands as a musician extraordinaire. I'm not sure if there are any instruments in a band or orchestra that he can't play. And he plays several "things" that are certainly musical but maybe not officially instruments. He is an extremely talented composer and pianist and wild maniac with a synthesizer, but in this group he plays an amazing flute (maybe a separate blog post about that in the future -- there's quite a story there) as well as a melodica, sort of a "wind-powered piano/accordion in a package" kind of instrument. He is able to create the most beautiful and surprising sounds from these instruments that lend so much atmosphere to the music.

We all miss Connie Johnson, one of the founders of the band, and her delightful vibraphone work and compositions. She recently moved to the West Coast, but her hit number "Sea Breeze" was performed at the concert. Sitting in tonight was Karim Yengsep, a musician from Almaty, Kazakhstan, on electric bass.

After a great performance by Desafinado, there was a short break during which I discovered that a huge tango dancing contest of some sort was going on the large ballroom down the hall. There were interestingly costumed dancers standing in the hall catching their breath as I rolled by in my walker on the way to the restrooms.

The next group was Sandunga, a band that has been around these parts a long time but which we heard for the first time only a few weeks ago at an Urbana jazz club.  They play Cuban son and guajira music, and it's a lot of fun. The two lead vocalists and players of guitar and other interesting Cuban string instruments are William Hope and Julian Norato. They sing in Spanish (of course) and harmonize beautifully with each other. Their virtuosity with the guitar and laud and tres (Cuban string instruments) is something to see and hear!
Tina Hope sings as well and keeps a terrific beat with an intriguing instrument involving a wooden rod hit against another piece of wood. I've also heard her play a cool drawing and scratching kind of instrument that's hard to describe but provides just the right sound.
Adam Walton kept the beat as well with three great congas. Later in the set, he was joined by a terrific bongo player whose name (I think) is Andrew Miller. He also plays a bell-type instrument and shakers.
When they played in Urbana, there was also an electric bass player named Eduardo Herrera, but he wasn't with the group on Saturday. The music is lively and infectious. Like Desafinado, they are all very clearly accomplished musicians and friends and they play with a sense of genuine joy that the audience can't resist. Even though there were still very few other people in the room, one of the young women was dancing, which was fun to see. Again, a superior performance by an excellent band.
On our way out of the student union, we passed through the South Lounge area of this massive Georgian Colonial building and I stopped to wait for David to use the restroom. There was a grand piano at the end of the vast room near a gas fire in a lovely marble fireplace. A sofa was next to the fire and a young man who looked very intent on what he was doing was working through some incredible pieces of Beethoven. He was probably a graduate student in the famous school of music here and he was clearly practicing. It was thrilling. We sat and listened for another half hour or more.

Unfortunately, David had forgotten his padded flannel shirt jacket on the back of the chair in the concert room. We hope it will show up at the lost and found tomorrow, but maybe not ... On the way to the car, Zorbas the gyros place was still open and we stopped for a quick bite. We made it through the throngs of students still milling about after midnight, some clearly intoxicated by now, and reached quiet southeast Urbana safely after our big night out on campus. What fun!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Annual Finale

We had a frost advisory the past two nights in east central Illinois, even though there wasn't frost in our yard here in tree-protected southeast Urbana. But it was a sure sign of things to come. We've taken in the houseplants now (much to the dismay of kitties who had gotten used to stretching out on the empty plant tables), and the neighborhood trees are starting to show early signs of leaf color. It's getting darker sooner now that the autumn equinox has passed, of course, and the angle of the sunlight has changed and yellowed. So far, there haven't been the usual fall rains, however, and some of these sunny cool days are quite a delight.
It's always interesting this time of year to see which annuals faired the best and the longest over a particular summer. So I thought I'd take a finale set of photos. The marigolds weren't as full-flowering this year as they have been in the past, so I was surprised to find them looking good this late.
The Victoria blue salvia, on the other hand, have been blooming their hearts out all summer long and show no signs of stopping anytime soon. Some annuals do keep going after the first light frosts. As far as the first to succumb, surely it will be the impatiens, but they've had a good long and full run this time, much to my surprise -- as long as they're watered faithfully, they can evidentally take a lot of heat.
The lantanas often take their time blooming well and don't really reach their full potential here, but this year they loved the heat advisories and high humidity. That reminded me that they were basically perennials (and almost weeds!) in my mother's garden in Tampa, Florida, years ago. There are so many nice two-tone varieties now -- very cheerful.

But it is the red salvia that have truly outdone themselves this year. I think I just put in one six-pack, three in each of the containers at the head of the front walk, but they look like a jungle of fire!
And yet another salvia, the blue and black from Brazil, has grown a lot from one small start in April, and its charming and unusual flowers continue attracting hummingbirds.

The easy and reliable "wave" petunias are still holding their own too, especially here in a slightly cooler and shadier area than the front pots.

There are still some perennials blooming too, although this isn't really a peak time for them. Sedums are undemanding and reliable plants that propagate easily from a single leaf, and they bloom and hold their color well as the nights cool. Here's a nice one:

The fall-blooming Japanese anemones are a lovely bunch. There are pink and white ones and a few doubles as well. They are tall and can spread a bit, but I like them anyway.

I don't happen to have any chrysanthemums (can never remember the "new" name for them) this year, but I have been enjoying the huge colorful pots of them at the local grocery stores. Besides mums and pumpkins, how could it be fall without fall asters?
There are a few other perennials on right now, including the toad lilies in the north yard, the purple dwarf butterfly bush, and some pink hydrangeas. But blue perennials aren't common in the fall, so I especially like the little leadwort with the long name, Cerastostigma plumbaginoides.
Well, that's about it for now. Next stop will probably be photos of fall leaf color around town ... and then snow pics! Had to happen ... What's still blooming in your yard?