Re-imagined Kundiman Music Explores Identity

Mr. Chair is Jason Kutz (keyboard), left, Mike Koszewski (percussion), Mark Hetzler (trombone) and Ben Ferris (bass). The Madison-based band returns to Mineral Point this month to perform with Leslie Damaso, a Filipino-American singer who recorded an award-winning album of Philippine classical music last year.

By Leslie Damaso
In the March 2018 issue of Voice of the River Valley, I wrote about a band called Mr. Chair that re-imagined Igor Stravinky’s “Pulcinella.” You might even remember seeing an image of the composer’s smoky head posted all over the Driftless Area.
The band performed with support from many local businesses to a large audience who had never heard their music at the Mineral Point Opera House. It was one of those rare moments of electric exchange between the audience and performers, fueled by openness to possibility and sustained throughout the entire show. I had only seen the band perform five months before their opera house performance. That first moment impressed me so much that I wanted to see them perform in my town, Mineral Point. Instead of driving to Madison to see a concert, I only had to take 30 steps from my front door.
The members of Mr. Chair are Ben Ferris (bass), Mark Hetzler (trombone), Michael Koszewski (percussion) and Jason Kutz (keyboard). Their experience is rooted in the classical and jazz traditions, which you can hear in their music, but one can also hear influences of rock, modern and contemporary improv-based styles; a celebratory mélange enhanced by electronics. It is music without boundaries. Besides the re-imagining of iconic classical works, their explorations include serving as the “house band” for university lectures on cosmology and collaboration with dancers, visual artists and hip hop/spoken-word artists.
Around April of last year, I had been working with pianist Jason Kutz on recording an album of Philippine classical music called kundiman. We released “May Laya” last July, and I’m happy to share that it has recently been awarded the best world album of the year by the Madison Area Music Association. Last June, when I received the master copy of the album, already a joyous occasion, the guys offered to arrange the pieces from the album as a token of friendship and their wish to perform it with me at the opera house.

An exciting show of new kundiman and Mr. Chair originals will take place at 7:30 p.m. on May 31 at the Mineral Point Opera House

“I had a hunch that the kundiman which Leslie and I have played for years would be a perfect fit for Mr. Chair to rework,” Jason said. “We discovered this was true when Leslie, Mike and I performed a small set last October in a new version for soprano, piano and percussion. The music is beautiful, accessible, open and deserves a resurgence. The MPOH is the perfect spot to premiere the experimental version of this largely unheard of music for several reasons, but most importantly because of Leslie’s love for this community. It’s also a great chance to showcase music from our first album, ‘Nebulebula,’ which is done and of which we are extremely proud. It is a whopper – just under two hours long, and spans the gamut of genres and identities, featuring 13 guest artists who helped us to make and experience our own music in a new way. Now just over a year later, this all merges together. CD’s will be available for sale, pre-release, to anyone who attends.”
“I’m super pumped to be working with vocalist Leslie Damaso,” says Ben Ferris. “The welcoming community of Mineral Point is the perfect place to play these new arrangements. It is a privilege to be a part of the artistic happenings at the Mineral Point Opera House and to get to share it with the greater community in southwest Wisconsin.”
I cannot think of a better way to continue my own exploration with music and my identity as a Filipino-American through this project with this wonderful band. Come out for an exciting show of the new kundiman and Mr. Chair originals on at 7:30 p.m. May 31 at the Mineral Point Opera House. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time at brownpapertickets.com or at the door. For more information, see www.mrchairmusic.com and www.lesliedamasomusic.com.

Leslie Damaso is the teacher and owner of Buttonhill Music Studio in Mineral Point. A professional singer, she writes about life and food in the Driftless Area for the website Driftless Appetite (www.driftlessappetite.com).

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