Saturday, October 14, 2017

Tap artist Kazu Kumagai and friends rock 92Y

92Y's Dig Dance series hit big last night with Kazu Kumagai: HEAR/HEAR, an intimate yet full-on performance by the 2016 Bessie-winning Kumagai and friends in the Y's Buttenweiser Hall. The show featured Kumagai's talents in tap, music and poetry, and he was accompanied by bass player Alex Blake, guitarist Masa Shimizu and singer, Sabrina Clery, whose heartbreaking voice always leaves me wanting to hear more of it. Special guest Ted Louis Levy--multiple award winner and nominee for work on Broadway and television--turned up the heat with his amusing stories, unique jazz vocals and smooth dancing.

Kumagai is anything but smooth in intent or execution, but even his tuning up on the wood platforms sounded good. Brushing the wood, pecking at it with one knee locked, going quieter, he's a man always in search of the right sounds to channel his concerns. He'll find it with the inside edge of a foot, or drop his heels with thwacks you feel like repeated jolts to the chest, or fire off a steady fusillade of beats while Shimizu weaves around him. While he might pivot to one or another direction once in a long while, maybe facing the musician with whom he's dialoguing, he tends to root himself somewhere on the wood and drill it...earnestly. The relative stationary nature of his dancing underscores his role as musician playing the instrument of tap against surface. We can appreciate, even more, what he's doing to create sound. A lot of power in his game, but his technical control can also takes us to quiet, thoughtful places.

So much of his poetry is about searching--for the authentic self, for someone who can be there for one's search for the self, for authentic expression that sometimes takes an artist to the edge. ("I want to know if you'll stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.") He's a man on a mission and one with much on his mind.

Levy's sunnier, funnier, Mr. Show Biz approach stands in contrast, but the two guys together? They can take it from delicate trading of tiny gestures on the wood all the way to thunder, Levy bringing out the spark and charm and, yes, the aggression in Kumagai.

"I'm not an improvisationalist," the not-even-nearly-winded Levy said afterwards, "But you made me look good!" Yes. He did.

It was nice to hear Levy invoke tap icons like Chuck Green, Buster Brown and Dianne Walker in his solo as he danced away as if it were the most natural thing in the world to teach an audience while beguiling them. I loved his unconventional vocalizing of "Nature Boy," the classic song first recorded and most associated with Nat King Cole, and Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" which offered the two men--one Black, the other forever revering the Black mentors in his life--the perfect opportunity to take a knee.

If you were not in the house last night, I hope you already have your ticket for tonight. For this evening's show, Kumagai will be joined by acclaimed tap artist, educator and mentor Brenda Bufalino.

Kazu Kumagai: HEAR/HEAR concludes with an 8pm show tonight.  For information and tickets, click here.

92Y (Buttenweiser Hall)
Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street
, Manhattan

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