Angry? He’ll Tell the World, and From His Front Window

Appeared in The New York Times and on the paper's City Room blog. Photo by Eric Bishop.

Robert Keith doesn’t tweet. He doesn’t blog. He doesn’t post comments on Web articles.

Instead, Mr. Keith, 75, states his opinions to the world by way of a distinctly lo-fi medium: the window poster. Every couple of weeks, he props two professionally made signs in his first-floor windows, usually to express his populist outrage at the controversy of the day. Subjects of his contempt have included credit default swaps, auto bailouts and even capitalism itself.

“I’m trying to puncture some of these conventional wisdoms out there,” Mr. Keith said in an interview, gesturing to the street outside his home in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. “I’m a gadfly, really.”

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The Sonia Sotomayor Case File: A Pundit’s Primer

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Its time to play Fill That Supreme Court Seat, and cable TVDemocratic insiders and GOP strategists are already blabbing and bloviating about Obamas pick, Judge Sonia Sotomayor. To help the pundits (but, ultimately, the bloggers, and maybe even, you know, the senators confirming her — or at least you, dear reader) wade through the legalese, weve assembled a microcosmic dossier of Sotomayor decisions, complete with over-the-top talking points for both sides of the aisle...

Mobile Revolution: ‘Calling’ All Web Designers

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The challenge of designing websites for a myriad of screens and browsers is nothing new. Since the early days of the Web, varying screen sizes, differences in user connection speed and divergent browser standards have all been thorns in the sides of designers.

Designing for the mobile Web, though, has taken on greater importance as smartphones have rocketed in popularity. In addition, the growing popularity of pared-down netbooks raises questions about what designers should do to accommodate their smaller screens and less processing capability...

On the Record with Ellie Balk

Appeared in the May 19, 2009, edition of The Brooklyn Downtown Star, a community newspaper; photo by Eric Bishop.

Ellie Balk tends to describe her art in terms of the interactions it triggers—including the unwelcome ones.

“That one yelled at me for days,” she said Sunday, gesturing at one of her paintings on display in Prospect Heights. “I ended the argument with a little blue. It calmed things down a bit.”

The 33-year-old from Clinton Hill isn’t just getting an earful from her works—she’s also inspiring interaction among people in the community, a prime example being her mural outside the Fort Greene coffee shop Tillie’s of Brooklyn. Last year she completed the mural—a circular, multicolored map representing the area and surrounding neighborhoods—with the help of a diverse array of paintbrush-wielding volunteers. The project also included opportunities for locals to drop by and paint dots on the map to represent their homes.

“I wanted to create a space where the old and the new residents could come together and celebrate that this is their home,” Balk said.

Abstract cartography has become something of a calling card for Balk. Prior to the Tillie’s mural, she’d worked with students to create map murals at several Brooklyn public schools. 

“I just think it’s such a perfect image,” she said. “When people talk about where they live, they’re letting their guard down, and it’s a really good way for people to communicate and start telling stories about where they live and to get connected to each other. That’s really what the murals are all about.”

In a way, her creations are a far cry from the work she did as a graduate student at the Pratt Institute—interactive art installations composed of found objects. However, she notes that the spirit behind her early work, using art as “a tool for interaction,” remains intact.

On Saturday Balk helped students and volunteers create a multi-orbed street painting outside P.S. 67 that was loosely based on the surrounding geography. Currently, she’s finishing up a community mural at M.S. 136 in Sunset Park. A public dedication event, to feature spoken word performances by students, is scheduled for June 18.

Related article: “Taking Art to the Streets—Literally” (Brooklyn Downtown Star)

Music Review: Ali Jackson

Appeared in the June 2009 edition of DownBeat, an internationally circulated jazz magazine.

Ali Jacksons first studio release as a leader, Wheelz Keep Rollin’, is stylish hodgepodge—Latin here, straightahead swing there—loosely bound together by a refreshing, buoyant spirit throughout. The slow, bluesy strut of the title track kicks off the album with captivating flair. Jennifer Sannon’s punchy vocals and Jonathan Batiste’s dissonant Monk chunks, along with Jackson’s cogent second-line time, project a cool confidence. With a melody both urgent and playful, the number lingers in the memory long past tuba man Vincent Gardner’s solo march into the distance.

Jackson generally plays it simple on Wheelz. His musical personality is more restrained, humbler, than on previous recordings. While his clear, declarative statements and straightforward grooves serve the music well much of the time, several moments on this album cry out for more activity from the drums. For example, the uplifting “Spiritual,” which is ostensibly the album’s emotional climax, falls flat for want of more rhythmic energy.

This recording is most engaging when it’s least predictable. The angular, Latin-tinged “I Gotchu,” for instance, takes a striking turn after the final go-around of the head, modulating a central motif into a swinging coda, with trombone and muted trumpet floating on air. Accordingly, a musical high point for the rolling New Orleans shake “Shimmy Pop” comes on an abrupt two-beat silence smack in the middle of the head, a moment at which Jackson’s abstinence is welcomed.

Johnathan Blake: Upstart’s Ubiquity

Appeared in the December 2008 edition of DownBeat, an internationally circulated jazz magazine.

As a teenager, Johnathan Blake received a blessing from the late high priest of jazz drumming: Max Roach. 

“He came up to me and he’s like, ‘You’re the 17-year-old boy wonder,’” recalled Blake, who met Roach at a jazz camp. “He had a lot of encouraging words. He’s like, ‘Man, I’ve been hearing a lot about you. People have been talking.’”

People still talk about Blake these days, but the discussion centers less on his age (he’s now 32) than on his ubiquity among the leading lions of jazz. To wit: You can hear his ferocious drumming on five releases this year alone, including discs by Donny McCaslin and Joe Locke.

Blake’s journey from promising adolescent to first-call pro bears all the markers of a classic coming-of-age jazz tale—including guidance from seasoned mentors before later forays into composition and band leadership. It just so happens that one of those mentors was his father, jazz violinist John Blake Jr.

The younger Blake initially followed in his father’s footsteps, starting on the violin at age 3. He soon added percussion to his musical arsenal, going on to play drums in youth bands around Philadelphia. The scene was rich with young jazz players. “We’d call each other – “Do you have this?” – you know, playing music over the phone for each other,” Blake said. “And we’d start trading CDs, not knowing that we were really building our vocabulary and musical language.”

Blake’s vernacular expanded further when he harnessed up for his high school drumline, and it became clear that his heart laid with the drums, not the violin. He decided to hang up the violin for good. His father acquiesced, but only under the condition that he begin piano lessons, which Blake now considers a blessing. “It really helped me be more conscious of melodies and learning how to phrase tunes,” he said.

With that, Blake’s musical personality began to take root: a combination of jazz acumen, marching band chops and classical sensibility. Still, he struggled with self-control. “I was definitely more focused on how to do the slickest stuff,” Blake said. Then came a lesson in fundamentals from Rufus Reid, when Blake studied with him at William Paterson University.

“For a month, this cat didn’t let me play anything except for the cymbal and the hi-hat,” Blake said. “The reason he did that was so I could get the clarity of my cymbal sound. Later on, I was like, ‘I want to thank you, because it really helped shape my playing.’”

Having made these strides in his early college days, Blake developed a reputation as a gifted, joyous musician, and opportunities abounded. Saxophonist Oliver Lake hired the 20-year-old for a weekly gig at the Knitting Factory. Then, John Stubblefield, a sax player in Lake’s band, took a liking to Blake’s ride cymbal playing – credit Reid – and introduced him to the Mingus Big Band. He was hired on for a European tour and manned the drum chair for the next 10 years, along the way playing and recording with Randy Brecker and Conrad Herwig, among others.

Now that Blake has become a mainstay on the New York scene – known for occasionally stealing shows with his intricate flurries and flutters on the drums – he’s sharpening his pen and going DIY. He recently finished up his Master’s degree in composition at Rutgers University, and he’ll showcase his writing in the studio this winter with a quintet that includes pianist Robert Glasper and saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, a longtime cohort. He plans to put the album out himself.

Music Review: Brian Blade

Appeared in the September 2008 edition of DownBeat, an internationally circulated jazz magazine.

For most drummer-led ensembles, the idea of an album with nary a drum solo smacks of sacrilege. For Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, though, individual vainglory has always been trumped by a strong sense of collective purpose. Season Of Changes skillfully continues the trend and marks the group’s first outing in eight years. Among the changes this season: The septet has been trimmed to six with the departure of pedal steel player Dave Easley, who added salt-of-the-earth ambiance on the group’s first two discs.

In keeping with the Fellowship Band’s contemplative esthetic, the new release is steeped in spiritual yearning. Blade interlaces his compositions with dramatic flair and soft sobriety, asserting himself on the skins when needed but never overwhelming the group’s tender balance of voices. The album’s compositional jewels come from pianist Jon Cowherd. On the epic title track and “Return Of The Prodigal Son,” Cowherd’s weighty melodic statements channel both elegiac and joyous spirits, all over a harmonic framework that invites probing, occasionally soaring solos from guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, alto saxophonist Myron Walden and tenor saxophonist Melvin Butler.

“Rubylou’s Lullaby” eases the listener into the album nicely with stark piano and guitar, but needs more edge once tenor and bass clarinet join in with the melody—the reeds sound a little too sweet for their own good. Although a few moments on Season of Changes verge on melodrama, the album as a whole is a genuinely moving piece of work. Rarely does such unabashedly serious, artful music come in such a listenable package.