As crews in hard hats are busy revitalizing Lincoln Center, much of the work remains to be finished. The fountain at the center of the campus has been fenced in, construction trailers are as common as taxi cabs, and Alice Tully Hall is closed for renovations until February 2009. But some changes are already complete, such as the arrival of Bill Bragin, who has taken over two of the Center's signature festivals‹Midsummer Night Swing and Lincoln Center Out of Doors.
Bragin, a forty-year-old Long Island native, comes to Lincoln Center from Joe's Pub, the Public Theater's downtown cabaret. Under his leadership, Joe's Pub became one of the hottest nightclubs in the city, known for a wide variety of top-shelf performers in the realm of world music, jazz, folk, and rock. Prior to working at Joe's Pub, Bragin programs for Central Park SummerStage, the annual free concert series in Manhattan's backyard. Bragin has a vast experience, and he's applying it with a deft touch at Lincoln Center. "I wanted my first year here to be more evolutionary rather than revolutionary," he says, referring to the subtle changes he's instituted.
Midsummer Night Swing, which takes place in Damrosch Park this year, opens on July 8, with a newcomer to the program, Nellie McKay. The young singer-songwriter and actress is no stranger to Lincoln Center, however, having played its American Songbook series. McKay, who has also appeared on Broadway, is a performer with boundless enthusiasm and energy. "I intend to fully swing out, with the assistance of my hot band The Aristocrats," she says. "And smile with sweet satisfaction at the sinful gyrations of the sailors and dollys on the dance floor." The headliner for the following night is also new to the series. Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go, the funky dance music from Washington, D.C., plays July 9. Descended from the call and response technique of Cab Calloway, Brown's swinging party music will fit in perfectly.
Another group making their Midsummer Night Swing debut is the Loser's Lounge, an ad-hoc gang of downtown musicians headed up by the keyboardist Joe McGinty. They specialize in tongue-in-cheek tributes to the pop icons of the past, and on July 11 they're returning to the days of disco. "We're hoping to bring a little of Studio 54 to Lincoln Center," McGinty says. "Even when we play "sit-down" nightclubs, we've had the crowds dancing in the aisles and on the tables, especially for the ABBA and Bee Gees shows."
The annual tribute to Illinois Jacquet, the great saxophonist who played every year of Midsummer Night Swing until he died in 2004, will be a part of the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra show on July 22. They'll be joined by the legendary West Coast vocalist Mary Stallings. Another night of big-band swing takes place the week before with the New York City debut of the Alan Gresik Swing Shift Orchestra. This Chicago institution brings the dulcet sounds of the thirties and forties to Manhattan on July 15.
The Swing Shift Orchestra's appearance is part of a new band exchange that Bragin has arranged with the organizers of the similar Summer Dance festival in Chicago. By working together, the two festivals have been able to get bigger talent then they might have on their own. Two bands from abroad are playing New York and Chicago this summer, for example. The first is Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar, a Balkan brass band of thundering intensity from Serbia. It plays July 16. The following night is a special one for tango dancers. Instead of Midsummer Night Swing presenting a local tango orchestra, as has often been the case in the past, a bona fide Argentinean ensemble will be getting dancers to tango. Orquesta TÐpica Imperial makes its United States debut on July 17.
The electrifying Cuban singer Albita brings her soulful rumba, son, and mambo to the stage on July 19. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra closes out the season on July 26. The night before, July 25, promises to be especially enjoyable. It features Peret, the King of Catalan Rumba. A legend abroad, the suave vocalist has never played New York City before. He'll be joined by Barcelona's rhythmic magicians La Troba Kung-F‹ making their U.S. debut.
In August, Bragin's broad tastes and international connections add flair to the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival, which started in 1971 as a small display of street theatre and has since grown to be one of the largest free summer festivals in the country. The spirited showcase of music, dance, poetry and more is designed to get the surrounding community involved with Lincoln Center. The performances are easy to get to; they take place out doors and don't require tickets or advance reservations. As in years past, the Caribbean Cultural Center/African Diaspora Institute, the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, and other local cultural institutions have helped to devise the programs. "It's a way for Lincoln Center to be more open," Bragin says, "like the redevelopment itself."
Like Midsummer Night Swing, all the action is in Damrosch Park this year. It gets underway on August 7 with a double bill of music and dance. The virtuosic French guitarist Stephane Wrembel, who plays in the spirit of the hot-jazz master Django Reinhart (with a dollop of Frank Zappa) joins the dramatic flamenco dancer Soledad Barrio and the troupe Noche Flamenca. The following night, the punky modern-dance troupe Armitage Gone! presents the U.S. premier of "Summer of Love." The company founder, Karol Armitage, has worked with everyone from the pop singer Madonna (if you've seen the video to her single "Vogue," you've seen her work) to the composer Gy‹rgy Ligeti (if you've seen the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, you've heard his). This new work features the music of Burkina Electric, a group based in Brooklyn and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, that updates an Afro-beat sound with contemporary club beats (one of its principle members is Lukas Ligeti, the son of the late Hungarian composer). Later that same night, Ronald K. Brown's Evidence, A Dance Company brings its mix of African, modern, ballet, and hip-hop dance styles to the stage.
A big dance program on the schedule is Doug Elkins' "Fraulein Maria." This clever homage to the Julie Andrews' favorite "The Sound of Music" played to great effect at Joe's Pub last year. Elkins is expanding it for an appropriate al fresco setting during the Family Day on August 16. Family Day also includes the annual Puppeteers' Cooperative's Puppet Pageant, featuring giant puppets made by neighborhood children.
A staple of the festival is the poetry program La Casita, which takes place over two days, on August 9-10. This celebration of the oral traditions of Latin America and elsewhere draws top poets from around the world. A team of curators, including Claudia Norman and representatives from the Caribbean Cultural Center, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian ensure a high quality slate of performers. "It has literary poets, performance poets, pop music and traditional music," Bragin says.
Bragin has brought onboard some new curators for this year's festival. Tapping into his downtown connections, he's working with The Paris Bar, a literary and artistic cabaret series in the National Arts Club. They're involved with the MacArthur "Genius" jazz violinist Regina Carter and Simone, the daughter of the legendary singer Nina Simone, who will be performing songs on August 10 associated with her mother, backed by a big band.
Another new group involved this year is the local radio station WFMU. Known for its independent and eclectic play lists, it is helping to bring a few Ethiopian living legends‹the soul singer Mahmoud Ahmed and the vocalist Almayhu Esht_ (who is known as the James Brown of Ethiopia)‹to perform with the Either/Orchestra. This jazz band out of Boston became, in 2004, the first U.S. big band to play in Ethiopia since Duke Ellington played there, in 1973. Also on the bill is the revered jazz saxophonist G_tatchw Mekurya, and the Ex, a Dutch punk and an anarchist group that has recorded with him. They all play on August 20, followed by Still Black, Still Proud, an African tribute to James Brown featuring original players from the Godfather of Soul's legendary JB horns on August 22.
Global percussion traditions will be featured on August 9 in a special double bill with the charismatic Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Cyril Baptista and his polyglot collection of dancers and drummers, Beat the Donkey. He shares the bill with Korea's modern percussion ensemble, Dulsori.
Another music show of note is a Hal Willner-orchestrated tribute on August 13 to the great jazz-and-pop producer Joel Dorn, who died late last year. It will feature Dorn's son Adam, who performs under the name Mocean Worker, along with Dr. John, Roberta Flack, Les McCann, David "Fathead" Newman, and other artists Dorn produced. On August 17, the Festival celebrates the 93rd birthday of Graciela Perez-Grillo. The "First Lady of Latin Jazz," was the lead vocalist of the Machito Orchestra and a bright star of the mambo era. Jose Alberto "el Canario" y su Orquestra and special guests will have the honor of saluting Graciela herself.
A key part of the Festival, the Roots of American Music series, hits the quarter century mark this year on August 23 and 24. The first day features acts from New Orleans, including the all-female Pinettes Brass Band, the soul singer John Boutt_ (backed by a full band) and the vocal powerhouse Irma Thomas. The second day features a revue of Southern blues musicians, including Alabama Slim, Adolphus Bell, Boo Hanks, and Big Ron Hunter, alt-country pioneers The Knitters, the debut of Charlie Hayden's all-star country/bluegrass collaboration, capped by a performance by the punk-rock poet Patti Smith.
One of the festival's more ambitious nights‹a three-part tribute to minimalism on August 15‹is curated with Ronen Givony of Wordless Music, a newer series around town that pairs classical artists with indie rockers. Beata Viscera, a group featuring members of the new-music group Alarm Will Sound, will make its debut with a program of the French composer P_rotin's 800-year old polyphonic chants. Rhys Chatham, the composer, guitarist, and musical revolutionary, will then present the world premier of an outdoor version of "A Crimson Grail," which features 200 electric guitarists. Manuel G‹ttsching, will close the night out with the U.S. premier of "E2-E4," his wildly influential electronic music composition, accompanied by a new light show by Joshua White, the lighting designer of the Fillmore East during the heyday of the psychedelic era. "This sort of thing doesn't happen every day," Bragin says. "This is about being there, being in the music. Every time I think of what we're planning to do that day, I smile." Expect countless visitors to the Out of Doors Festival to be smiling too, all August long.
John Donohue writes frequently about the arts.