Perhaps because I have little artistic creativity and even less performing talent, I am thrilled when I encounter genuine creative abilities. I am even more amazed when I find such talent in an obscure place. I should be a bit more blasé about this because it happens with some regularity in New York. I attend quite a few off-the-beaten-track plays when I am there in the winter. These tiny theaters in unlikely locations routinely display talented people and creative productions. For example, there was the ephemera trilogy, by Kimi Maeda.
This one-woman show was a cross between a performance piece and a play. The first two parts had shadow puppets moving to a recorded voiceover of Japanese fables that Maeda’s mother, an immigrant from Japan, told Maeda. The shadow puppets were cutouts through which a handheld light was projected casting shadows on a screen at the back of the performance space. I did not really follow the first fable, but I found the second, The Crane Wife, touching. A crane becomes a woman, and she, in isolation, weaves beautiful cloth. Her husband sells it to stave off the hunger that often stalks the family. But one night, although enjoined not to look in the weaving room, he does and sees not his wife, but a crane, which then disappears. The story had interest, but the most touching part of this performance came when Maeda, who believed that this was an ancient tale, found out that the story was created or adapted during America’s post-World War II occupation of Japan, which gave new depths to the fable’s meaning.
The final part of the ephemera trilogy was about Maeda’s father, a Nissei, who at the age of nine was taken with his family to an Arizona detention camp during World War II. The screen from the first two acts remained, but now there were different kinds of images on it. Sand was dribbled and dumped on the floor, and it was raked, swept, and spread about. This activity was projected onto the screen, and these images were interspersed with archival films and photos of the camp and other aspects of the father’s life, which ended in a battle against dementia. Kimi Maeda “painted” in the sand, creating faces and transforming them with hands and feet and various tools. She constructed villages with blocks and other pieces of wood in the sand. She rearranged the grains often, and I felt as if I were watching again and again the creation of a miniature zen garden.
This was creative. And touching. I was amazed by that and also that it was being performed for an audience of fourteen in a theater with a capacity of fifty. And that I had paid but $9.
Recently I saw another amazing talent, in a place obscure to most of us, as part of a small audience. I and some friends had gone to see Carole J. Bufford. (I don’t know what the “J” stands for, or why it is used. Are there other Carole Buffords I don’t know about?) I have seen Bufford before, most recently at 54 Below, which is not an obscure place, but one of the hottest music venues in Manhattan. This time, however, she was performing at The Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania.
I, like most of you I am guessing, had never been to The Deer Head Inn, which has a reputation for presenting high-quality jazz four nights a week. I have been told that many excellent jazz musicians live in the vicinity of Delaware Water Gap. This may come as a shock to you, but housing prices are apparently less there than New York City, and after a late night performance in midtown Manhattan, the drive to Water Gap, just over the Delaware River from New Jersey, is a relatively tolerable trip. Whatever the reasons, The Deer Head Inn has been presenting jazz for quite some time and many knowledgeable enthusiasts know it. But this summer it was branching out and presenting monthly performances of cabaret singers. Carole J. Bufford was the first.
We saw her perform three different sets over three hours. After the first one, she chatted with audience members and put on her playlist for the second set some songs suggested by us. And she was good. Very good. Very, very good. Amazing. A friend of mine who was there and seeing Bufford for the first time told me that he has seen just about every fabled cabaret and saloon singer over the last fifty years, and she was the best of all.
But wait there’s more. She was accompanied by Jon Weber on the piano, who is the musical director for the monthly performances. His playing was breathtaking. The two of them had not performed together before, and in a break between sets I asked how they had rehearsed or prepared for the evening. He told me that was only done on the drive out from New York. And yet their coordination seemed effortless.
The three hours felt intimate because there were so few of us there, less than two dozen. After the first set, a man came over to our table, introduced himself—Rich Jenkins–and said that he was the producer of the monthly series. After working hard to publicize the event, he was disappointed in the turnout, and I was, too. We know that in NYC Bufford has what you might call groupies, and we only found out about The Deer Head performance because one of them saw the performance listed on Bufford’s website. Those who have seen her become fans, but not that many people know about her. She is recording her first album, and until that is finished and gets play, she is largely dependent on word of mouth for her audiences. So here is my first suggestion: Get on her website. She is about to start a tour. Learn where she is performing. Go. CaroleJBufford.com.
Jon Weber was so good that I am guessing that if he is part of the performance, it will be outstanding. So my second suggestion is to go to his website: jonwebermusic.com.
Now the third suggestion. Check out The Deer Head Inn for music. Perhaps for the jazz. Rich Jenkins, I now know and have seen, has a quartet in which he plays a splendid guitar and does jazz vocals. But if our evening with Carole was any indication and you like singers doing the Great American Songbook, you should come out for the other two evenings this summer in the cabaret series, August 20 and September 17. The cover charge, not surprisingly, is about half of what you would pay in New York City. Moreover, while I expect bad or at least incredibly overpriced food and drink in a music venue, I had a $4 beer, the spouse an $8 martini, and we both had really good food. (Robert, the chef, whom I met, cares about the food, and he is also quite the artist, as is thirteen-year old daughter, whose art blew me away.) The Deer Head is a beehive of creativity. Go and be amazed.