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
. 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!
. The program includes music by Morton
, Eve Beglarian, Anne
(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

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.

the amazing Detroit-bred soul singer Bettye
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
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 fringebeat@aol.com.)


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