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BWW Review: AMRAM & CO. Authenticates at Cornelia Street Café

In terms of the origins of contemporary American culture as Americans know, breathe and live it today, authentic is a word rarely seen with such exacting definition than in the presence of David Amram. If America had a monarch, he would not only be Sir David Amram, he would be the palace seer, a magician of sound and word who transcends prophecy to the realm of absolutely artful wisdom.

Well into his eighties, his eyes still beam with a voracious appetite for novel improvisation, spontaneous harmony, rhythmic emotion, and that ungraspable mysterious element of beauty that is the lifeblood of the artist at work. He begins by conversing with patrons of the Cornelia Street Café in the subterranean cabaret, a magnanimous night haunt in the proud core of Greenwich Village.

"From Massachusetts," an out-of-towner says as Amram asks of whereabouts to his unfailing delight, recounting visions of Kerouac, Lowell, and the cottages of New England respite among the troubadours of American poets, painters, mythmakers and ringleaders who vaunted revolution and love through the corridors of the nation for all to hear and remake themselves in the spirit of irreverently proud dreaming.

He then began speaking in his humbly comedic tone to the "Cornelia Street Stadium" as he calls it, a punch in the face to the followers of a swollen pop culture entertainment. The crowded, though cozy turnout of select culturati, furnished the intimate venue, inspiring Amram and each other mutually, with belly laughs and embraceable smiles.

For the first tune, he commenced his nightlong stream of consciousness narrative, beginning, as with most anecdotes, around the block or corner, though certainly not above 14th Street. "St. Thomas," he sang, reminiscent of his time spent with none other than the Charles Mingus.

His own son, Adam Amram, knocked confidently atop a fine conga spell as the entire band swung and gyrated masterfully in the calming Caribbean airs that awakened the freewheeling vibe that Amram so genuinely exuded as only a truly classic American artist could, especially while so at home.

The Cornelia Street Café is a masterpiece of time. They've hosted the epochal changes, and even though they should be charging over a hundred dollars for a croissant, so bellowed the owner bemoaning rent hikes, they are going strong. Amram is a house legend. His presence reminds Americans that the roots and the raw energetic sustenance of the culture are still alive and well, and nourishing as ever.

From the very ground of contemporary American culture, as it was birthed in the great literary womb of the "best minds of my generation" so Howl'ed the people's Beat laureate Allen Ginsberg, Amram played with the old souls who he once hung out beside in the dog days of New York summer heat waves in lower Manhattan before Washington Square Park really assumed its title, becoming square as the neologisms of telecommunication commercialism overtook the original characters of American youth, when to be cool and hip simply meant creative and conscious.

Dizzy Gillespie. Richie Havens. Pete Seeger. Bob Dylan... The priceless string of pearly memories that Amram recounts with astounding clarity in his ripe age is a fascinating bewilderment of iconic American lore. It's like every adolescent fantasy of fame and glory in America come alive in the storytelling of a great, respected elder of the people.

He played his twin whistle jazz arpeggios with characteristic delight, enlightening the ears and expanding the minds of his listeners as he always has done, whether through an instrument, or from the pad of a measured composition. He upholds an innocent trust in the moment, and at the same time a wealth of experience, whether on the Lakota flute, Chinese Hulusi, or any outlandish assemblage of percussion artifacts, even just his surprising improvisatory versatility in scat and rhymed English.

Recently recording his centenary tribute to Woody Guthrie conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, This Land: Symphonic Variations of a Song by Woody Guthrie, Amram is a rare crossover of multi-instrumentalist café entertainer and classically trained modern music composer. And as such genius masterminds as Béla Bartók and Leoš Janá?ek, Amram drew from the folkloric musical tapestry of the countryside, as well as the uniquely spun verbal textures of city dwellers, reviving Guthrie in his exuberant compositional interpretations.

At the piano, he sang Pastures of Plenty with such a heartfelt momentum as only a truly equal colleague at the height of American performance art could evoke. Storytellers, folk and urbane, met in the voices of drunken Kerouac reader John Ventimiglia and poet Frank Messina, whose piece on 9/11 led hearts to baste in the emotional juices of a long-marinating reflection on the unforgettable American tragedy.

Amram & Co. will continue for the season, after the Labor Day opener, once a month, at Cornelia Street Café. In impromptu collaboration with local and legendary artists from across the American and global landscapes, seascapes and horizons of music and storytelling, Amram is a beacon of pure affirmation, that the people's culture, that gave breath and harmony to the groundswells of youth and beat to the drum of the future will not only never die, it is, in many ways, still to come. That was the spiritual vision of Kerouac's mythical American wandering, in his poetry and life, that real art, like enlightenment, has no beginning and no end. It's eternal. Creation is.

The revolutionary creative culture of the age, and of this place called America will only grow as old as it feels, which, if Amram is a testament, is still about as unabashedly vital as any dogged youth with delusions of grandeur, agelessness and love.

Photo Courtesy of the New York Public Library

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From This Author Matt Hanson