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Sunday, April 12, 2009

State Presents Jazz and "Appalachia" at National Geographic

Lorin Cohen, the bassist, is obscured by Geof Bradfield, the saxophonist

By The Queen of Free

Only the State Department would pick a group from Brooklyn, New York to play music from Appalachia on a world tour.

True, the Appalachian Mountains string (!) from the Mississippi to Canada, but come on now: Does New York come to mind when you hear "Appalachia"? Mine, neither. The folks down South play fiddle and bluegrass a whole heckuva lot better than what we heard at the Grosvenor Auditorium Thursday night.

The Hoppin' John String Band was one of two groups who performed at the National Geographic auditorium at 1600 M Street, courtesy of State which hires musicians to perform for us all over the world trying to win friends and influence enemies as part of its "Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad" program.

First up was the dynamic, impressive Ryan Cohan Jazz Quartet from Chicago who started off the evening with Thelonius Monk's "Around Midnight." They played Victor Feldman's "Joshua," but the most memorable, haunting selections were composed by Ryan Cohan, the pianist. Geof Bradfield played saxophone, Lorin Cohen, bass; and Kobie Watkins, drums and percussion.

The group answered questions from the audience afterwards causing Hoppin' John to start 30 minutes late, or maybe Hoppin' John was late and Ryan Cohan was filling time. No one directing the program seemed to be in much of a hurry.

The auditorium was about 75% full with listeners ranging in age from low 20s to senior citizens.

The Hoppin' John musicians (Alicia Jo Rabins, Sarah Alden, Sean Condron, and Taylor Bergren-Chrisman)were good, but as vocalists? No. No authentic mountain music was heard. None of the vocalists showed much depth or style. They lacked that special somethin'.The program stated the band "performs and teaches music deeply rooted in the ballads, fiddle tunes and traditions of the Appalachian Mountains." They ain't hill people! (But maybe the Hill People think they are.)

I hope listeners knew it was not bluegrass like you hear in the South. But if you've never heard bluegrass in the South (the State Department?), how would you know? I missed the mountain twang and sound that Nashville residents hear every day listening to musicians play on the sidewalk hoping to "break in."

Perhaps there is a State Department-New York connection (Jazz at Lincoln Center). Perhaps the State Department in its showcase to the world needs to venture outside the confines of the Beltway and New York City, and head in a different direction for variety and diversity. Like maybe the hills of Tennessee or Kentucky or West Virginia.

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