“Vampires In Havana,” an improvisational set with jazz bassist John Christensen, and more events of note in Madison this week.
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FRIDAY FEBRUARY 15
The best part of director Juan Padrón’s horny 1985 animated film Vampires In Havana is the music from Arturo Sandoval, the great Cuban trumpeter, which blasts from main vampire Pepito’s horn. Pepito (hereafter, Pepe) doesn’t know his grandfather fed him a formula that hides his vampire powers and lets him dabble in human affairs under Havana’s sun, partying all day and battling police officers under the command of dictator Gerard Machado. When a European vampire business conglomerate and a Chicago vampire mob boss hear about the formula, they both target Pepe. Through elaborate and sometimes hilarious hijinks, the competing factions push and pull Pepe, who finally must match his allegorical antagonists at their own violent game. The political commentary here paradoxically requires some background knowledge but also doesn’t really provide much more for anyone who has read up on the Cuban Revolution, as Vampires In Havana finds much of its humor in stereotypes and sexism. That said, using the wonders of cheap animation as an excuse to jam together vampires, the 1930s Havana jazz scene, enlightenment-style science, Cuban history, critiques of capitalism, Fritz The Cat-style eroticism, and the strange music of Chicago accents in Spanish makes the film at the very least a wild curiosity. —Reid Kurkerewicz
Half-Stack Sessions, a group that formed in 2017 with the goal of making Madison’s music community more welcoming for women and non-binary people, has recently started branching out into DJ nights, in partnership with DJ and promoter Sarah Akawa (who often performs as Saint Saunter and formed the Queer Pressure nightlife collective). This edition’s headliner, DJ Avalon, will make good on the Half-Stack DJ Sessions’ “no genre policy” policy: The selections in her mixes have incorporated everything from pulsating electro to feminist punk to wistful indie-pop, from Robyn to The Slits to rapper Quay Dash. Why not? There’s always a tasteful through-line and usually an exuberant party vibe. Avalon recently settled in Madison, after stints living in Philly, Colorado, and Puerto Rico, so we may be seeing more of her at local clubs and dance nights soon. Madison-based DJ Ellafine should bring a darker edge to the bill with her ear for gothy synth-pop and industrial music, but is plenty versatile in her own way, as she demonstrated in a 2018 interview for Tone Madison‘s Aces series. —Scott Gordon
Bassist and composer John Christensen made one of our favorite Madison records of 2018 in Dear Friend, his first album as a bandleader. Since its release, Christensen has continued to write more new music for a jazz trio and play with numerous other collaborators in and beyond Madison, including Johannes Wallmann, Michael Brenneis, and Devin Drobka. He also recently became the first-ever artist-in-residence at Arts + Literature Laboratory, a venue that has developed a strong slate of local and touring jazz shows in addition to its other music events, art exhibitions, workshops, and literary gatherings. He also gets to flesh out just what it means to be an artist-in-residence at ALL, but says his one-year tenure there will involve giving music classes in local community centers and “a solo show with mixed media.” He’ll also use the residency to welcome and collaborate with visiting artists. At this show, he’ll set aside his new compositions for a mostly improvised performance with two of his accomplished contemporaries in Midwestern jazz, Milwaukee-based trumpeter Russ Johnson and Chicago percussionist Tim Daisy. Both Johnson and Daisy are versatile composers in their own right and have played together before, including on Johnson’s 2014 album Meeting Point, which benefits from their shared instincts for both elegantly orchestrated melody and prodding free-jazz experimentation. Christensen self-deprecatingly refers to his original compositions as “soft rock with acoustic bass” (they may be gentle but that’s a disservice), but he’s versatile enough that this trio should be able to work its way into more abrasive and volatile music. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY FEBRUARY 16
Producer and DJ Sage Caswell divides his time between LA and Madison, and while he’s kind of a quiet presence locally, his infrequent appearances in town are worth catching. On releases like the 2016 album Hoop Earring, Caswell creates house tracks that balance hefty beats with iridescent atmosphere, layering on plenty of brightly comforting synth patches but never crowding out his dense, punchy kick drums. One standout track, “Y’all,” begins with a calm swirl of chords and gently builds it up until Caswell brings in springy tom-drum samples that push things into more danceable territory. Caswell can also venture capably beyond that blissed-out zone in more aggressive original house tracks and ecstatic DJ sets. Caswell has just announced another full-length, Evil Twin, due out at the end of March. He shares the bill here with New York’s Savile and Madison’s Geoff K. Caswell will also appear on an upcoming episode of Digital Warmth, a new podcast hosted by Jordan Cohen (aka Chants) and presented by Tone Madison. —Scott Gordon