Ears to the Present Future

by Josef Woodard

EAR/MIND THERAPY: No, the organization known as the California EAR Unit will not bring medical degrees or agendas in their satchels when they arrive at UCSB’s Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall this Saturday. But there are important Rx factors related to their work, connected to mental and cultural therapy. For this scribe and many others, an encounter with the EAR Unit often reminds us that the future is here, and it’s an exciting, scary, and rule-bending place.

One of the finest new musical ensembles in the country, celebrating 25 years in the trenches, the EAR Unit fights the good and increasingly important fight, keeping contemporary music alive and well … and live. They have recorded on several occasions, including the highly recommended Zilver (New Albion), with music by Dutch Euro-minimalist Louis Andriessen. But to hear this group in real time is a special treat. Catch them in this long-awaited appearance, as the flagship event of UCSB’s Primavera! Festival. The program includes music by Morton Subotnick, Eve Beglarian, Anne LeBaron (Primavera composer-in-residence), and EAR Unit percussionist/director Amy Knoles.

Launched at CalArts in 1981, the ensemble is going strong, but is in an odd transition year. For many seasons, the EAR Unit was the ensemble-in-residence at the embracing space of the Bing Theater in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Many an exhilarating and mind-expanding Monday or Wednesday evening went down in that space courtesy of this group. In a highly controversial move, LACMA decided to essentially jettison its acclaimed music program — an act of self-amputation. Flimsy justifications all circled back to budget angst. The EAR Unit was quickly provided a new, even more logical home, in the REDCAT Theater downstairs in the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles (that compound is now something of a concentrated cultural Mecca in the Southland).

Just last weekend, Knoles performed at REDCAT alongside former Frank Zappa sidemen, as part of “The Grande Mothers Re:Invented: Stravinsky Meets Zappa,” a mix of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and Zappa tunes (revisited). And why not?

The EAR Unit has a healthy dose of the “why not?” ethic in their operations, along with a fierce focus on getting things right with scores that demand much more than just good intentions. That’s why we love them — and need them.

SEASON OF THE UNSUNG SOUL QUEENS: Last fall, the amazing Detroit-bred soul singer Bettye LaVette put on one of the best shows of the year at SOhO, amid a critically acclaimed comeback sweep which found her album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti) on many Top 10 lists (it’s a must-to-own kind of album). Another veteran soul queen deserving greater recognition, Mavis Staples, will make her Santa Barbara debut next Tuesday at Campbell Hall, at a time when her own star is rising again. Staples’s 2004 album Have a Little Faith (Alligator) — no relation to the John Hiatt song — is possibly her finest solo album to date: a dazzling expression of faith in which gospel gets along famously with soul and blues, in a pact that Staples helped make valid. She also made a gutsy cameo (on “I Can’t Stop Loving You”) on John Scofield’s recent Ray Charles tribute, That’s What I Say (Verve).

A Chicagoan from the beginning, Mavis was born in 1940 and was the reigning voice of the Staple Singers, along with stoking the fires of a solo career. She has known peaks of success, Top 40 radio airplay, roles in Hollywood films, and occasional public surfacing in the last decade — such as the Prince-produced album The Voice, in 1993, and a tribute to her early heroine Mahalia Jackson in 1996. Staples slipped out of the public ear in recent years, particularly around the time the great Staples patriarch, Pops, died in 2000. What we hear on Have a Little Faith is a comeback of the highest order, or maybe the term “continuation” is more apt. (Got e? Email

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