Katie Bull’s Art Radiates Warm, Light-Filled Sounds at New Haven’s Firehouse 12 | Connecticut Public Radio
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Katie Bull’s Art Radiates Warm, Light-Filled Sounds at New Haven’s Firehouse 12

May 18, 2016

Katie Bull's music is a James Joyce-like odyssey full of surprising twists and turns unfolding in vocal acrobatics.

Growing up in her parents’ hip, intellectually buzzing bohemian digs -- vibrant cultural and social centers where cadres of jazz musicians, modern dancers and experimental theater artists hung out and jammed -- it’s little wonder that the extraordinary improvisational singer/songwriter Katie Bull was destined to become an artist.

Total immersion in her artistic family’s virtually 24/7, hot-house for performance arts turned out to be a great blessing for Bull, an acclaimed, multifaceted performance artist.

Bull’s unusual legacy of nurture and nature -- her father, mother and stepmother were all accomplished artists -- is a blessing as well for connoisseurs of her creative music, which crackles with in-the-moment invention, edge and emotion.

At the heart of the matter is Bull’s delicate sense of balance between wildly free, seemingly chaotic expression and rational form. Working without a net, she demonstrates exquisite equipoise amid her dare-devil high-wire vocal act, aerial artistry willing to wager everything on the next, even higher, riskier leap of faith.  

You can hear what adventures Bull and her super band, the Katie Bull Group Project, are up to as they present their high-flying act on Friday, May 20, at 8:30 and 10:00 pm at New Haven’s Firehouse 12.

Bull and her longtime collaborators are celebrating the release of her acclaimed album, All Hot Bodies Radiate, a title inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s writings on climate change.

"It never occurred to me not to be an artist."
Katie Bull

Featuring 12 Bull compositions and “straight” but highly original sounding interpretations of two standards, the CD is a James Joyce-like odyssey full of surprising twists and turns unfolding in Bull’s vocal acrobatics. Every song has a malleable narrative shaped by strong solo lines and interactive conversations among the simpatico band mates and their fearless leader.

Bull’s tight-knit crew features: Landon Knoblock, a versatile practitioner of piano and electronics; Jeff Lederer, an electrifying reed player; Joe Fonda, a powerhouse bassist of subtle sensitivity; and George Schuller, a splendid, empathetic drummer.

With the multi-talented, genre-crossing Bull, everything, quite literally, started at home.

“It never occurred to me not to be an artist,” she said of her home-grown rites of initiation into improvisation and the performing arts.

Katie Bull.
Credit Peter Hurley / Katie Bull

“Our home was really a salon,” Bull said of growing up in Brockport, New York, and a couple lower Manhattan art roosts, including a spartan Tribeca loft once occupied by the great free-jazz trumpeter Don Cherry.

By 12, Bull recalls, she was already hooked on the allure of improvisation. At 15, she was singing at a weekly gig in a New York club, backed by her jazz piano playing, dancer/choreographer dad, who also brought her to his modern dance rehearsal sessions.     

As part of her baptism in the lively arts, she frequently tagged along with her father on his jazz gigs. Together, they often checked-out the latest sounds in Greenwich Village clubs.

A great, life-shaping, musical epiphany occurred in Bull’s young, already art-centered life, she recalls, when she was swept off her feet by a mesmerizing Keith Jarrrett solo concert.    

“It was a defining night for me,” she recalled. “I was already listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Jeanne Lee, and, eventually, my mentors, Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton. But I said to myself that night: Okay, that’s it. I’ve got to do that!”

Bull’s childhood memories include recollections of singing along as a tot at bebop to free-jazz jam sessions rocking in her parents’ hip habitats. Among the grooving guests were such adventurous luminaries as percussionist Lou Grassi, multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp and pianist Borah Bergman.   

Katie Bull.
Credit James Spione / Katie Bull

Among the frequenters of the Bulls’ art-chic parlor were the future iconic avant-garde vocalist/composer Meredith Monk. Monk even lived for a while with the family while working with Bull’s father, an improvisational dance teacher and pianist who studied with the pioneering, avant-garde jazz pianist/composer Lennie Tristano.    

Back then, Bull’s babysitters included the now renowned artistic director, choreographer, and dancer Bill T. Jones, then one of her father’s students. Other in-house influences included Bull’s mother, a visual artist, and stepmother, a dance anthropologist and improvisational dancer/choreographer. 

Instead of growing up to become an artist gifted with one single métier, Bull evolved into a hybrid creator with multiple talents. Among many ventures, she’s also a poet, short story writer, published playwright, jazz journalist, director of theatrical productions, vocal coach and an environmental activist profoundly opposed to the lethal effects of climate change and fracking.

A key to understanding Bull’s kaleidoscopic artistry is provided by her poetry. Inspired by what she calls “love, nature, the nature of love,” her poetry and lyrics are liberated, spiritual, sensual, reflective, restless, amusing and passionate. Her words resonate with layers of meaning, an elastic sense of time, sprung rhythms and streams, even tsunamis of consciousness spiked with the sound of surprise and the shock of the new.

Her imaginative flights are inspired by daily life, love of nature, relationships, earth and sun and everything in between.     

 Another key source is her passion for literature, a world of imagination and beauty she savors, whether in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, or the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Her pantheon of revered, inspirational writers ranges from Shakespeare and Whitman to Maya Angelou and Raymond Carver.

Among the liberating, literary deities in her bedside book collection is James Joyce. The flow of pure melodic sounds and rhythms in Finnegans Wake, she says, reminds her of the joyous spirit, inexplicable mystery, ineffable beauty and boundless life-affirming energies of jazz and improvisation she celebrates at every performance. Tickets: $20.00, first show; $10.00, second show; firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

Willis’s Wondrous Wailers

Larry Willis, a high-caliber pianist, leads his powerhouse quintet featuring alto saxophonist Gary Bartz and trombonist Steve Davis on Saturday, May 21, at 8:00 pm at The Artists Collective in Hartford. Willis’s wondrous wailers include bassist Blake Meister and drummer Billy Williams. Tickets: $20.00 in advance; $25.00, door. Information: (860) 527-3205

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