Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

David Amram in Performance

By Dan Barth on Wednesday, December 3, 2003 11:07 am
David Amram
Live performance at
The Rudyard Kipling,
Louisville, Kentucky,
November 1, 2003

Over the Halloween/All Saints weekend I was in Louisville, Kentucky to participate in a poetry and music event, Insomniacathon 2003. On the night of All Saints Day, I was in the audience for a wonderful performance by David Amram, a 73-year-old musician and composer who is recognized by many as a living treasure of American and world music.

After some preliminary comments, the always enthusiastic Mr. Amram -- described by one colleague as "indefatigable bringer of good cheer" -- opened his set with the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn classic, "Take the A Train". Accompanied by Louisville musicians Tom Jolly on cornet and Quentin Sharpenstein on tuba, Amram at first played piano and then switched to a pennywhistle. He then played two pennywhistles at once and somehow managed to hum or vocalize at the same time, a rather remarkable feat of musicianship and breath control.

For his second number, Amram played an impromptu "Theme and Variations on Amazing Grace". For this piece he primarily played a larger or Irish pennywhistle. The sound was quite lovely. Again he demonstrated his breath control by playing and humming at the same time.

The third number, the first to be primarily vocal, was Amram's musical version of a Bob Kaufman poem, "No More Jazz in Alcatraz". As a vocal stylist, Amram takes a lot from jazz greats such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Maybe the best comparison is Chet Baker -- like him, Amram can really blow, and can also sing with soul. His voice is a strong baritone with just a hint of an earthy rasp. His sound is a solid projection and his pitch is always right on. His phrasing and his enthusiasm gave this song an intimacy and contagious joy. After singing through a few verses, Amram then conducted a call and response sing-along in which most audience members joined enthusiastically. "No more jazz in Alcatraz!" "NO MORE JAZZ IN ALCATRAZ!" " No more trombone for Al Capone!" " NO MORE TROMBONE FOR AL CAPONE!" Et cetera. On this number, Amram also played piano and was accompanied by Andy Cook and Jean Anne Kizer, who provided percussion on African drums called doumbeks.

At the conclusion of this song, Amram pulled out a tambourine and demonstrated the difference between the way that instrument is usually used in American rock music, and the way it is used in Egypt, as a lead instrument played on the shoulder. He then reclaimed his doumbek from Ms. Kizer and demonstrated an African talking drum technique, using his own voice to echo the "voice" of the doumbek. With this lead-in, Amram launched into an "Egyptian Appalachian Percussion Jam" during which he directed different segments of the audience into different rhythmic accompaniments, and played a wind instrument called a shanai, which he said was "the grandfather of the oboe."

Song number five was a Native American lady's choice round dance for which Amram played a wooden Native American flute, a wind instrument not unlike the Irish pennywhistle, but more ornately carved, with an open animal mouth at the end. He also chanted the phrase, "Ah-be-ay-oh," giving it a high-pitched shamanistic sound that reminded me of Hawaiian legend Gabby Pahinui.

The next two numbers demonstrated collaboration and interplay of spoken voice and music: Jack Kerouac's "Children of the American Bop Night", read slowly and soulfully by New Jersey poet Frank Messina to Amram's piano improvisations; and the final part of Kerouac's On the Road, read by Kentucky poet Ron Whitehead, also with Amram on piano.

The set closed with Amram's performance of "Pull My Daisy", a song he co-wrote with Kerouac for the 1959 Robert Frank film of the same name. He opened by rhythmically snapping his fingers and launched into a spontaneous rap about the song and the moment and how great it was to be in Louisville on this night with this crowd. Talk about taking chances on stage! Amram's performance was a continuous demonstration of spontaneity and wit. At one point during this song one of his pennywhistles fell off the piano and he immediately wove that event into the song lyrics. It's a sort of nonsense song with lots of room for improvisation: "Pull my daisy, tip my cup, all doors are open/ Hop my heart for coconuts, all my eggs are broken." Taking off from these original lyrics by Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, Amram made up others as he went along, at times scatting, at other times talking and commenting.

Amram left the stage after a standing ovation, leaving almost everyone in the room feeling encouraged and energized. His performance was not only a lesson in world music but an affirmation of joy and creativity. Part of the magic was that he erased the barrier between audience and performer. The feel was like hanging out with your favorite uncle in his living room. Anyone who has a chance to encounter David Amram and hear him play should jump at the opportunity.
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