Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Jazz clubs usually bring to mind dim lights, linen tablecloths and softly clinking martini glasses, not to mention steep cover charges and/or pricey two-drink minimums. Houston has plenty of those places. But jazz has another side — a spontaneous, free-swinging and earthy one — and there's no better place to see this than King Biscuit's no-cover Tuesday-night jam sessions. Some of Houston's best players descend on the homey Heights bar and cafe not for the money (but please tip), but for the sheer thrill of improvisation and collaboration. Before it got all cultured and highbrow, jazz was party music, and here it still is. But if it makes you feel better, go ahead and order that Manhattan.
Like its big-brother Music Hall next door, the Bronze Peacock Room at House of Blues welcomes all kinds of music, from punk-rock princess Exene Cervenka to hip-hop royalty Rakim to the Kate Bush-y alt-pop of Mexico's Ximena Sariñana, but lately it's also been putting the "blues" back in "House of Blues." Mississippi-born growler Paul Thorn stopped by not long ago, but the best example came back in May, when HOB co-founder Dan Aykroyd hosted a night of local performers topped by formidable soul shouter Diunna Greenleaf and a lights-out set by Little Joe Washington in one of his last appearances before being hospitalized for emergency bowel surgery (he's on the mend now, thankfully). With the promise of more to come, the Bronze Peacock has finally begun to embrace the legacy of its bygone Fifth Ward namesake, proving there's still a lot of life — and ticket sales — in the blues yet.
What a definitive production this was — bare bones and minimal in look, but so rich in context and essence. Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Tony Award-winning classic from 1970 is a plotless, existential musical with perpetual bachelor Bobby (Luther Chakurian), his five pairs of friends and his three bedmates, who all wonder why such a catch isn't married. A very New York show, it's a dissection of modern life that includes marriage, commitment and what it's like to live in Manhattan, all jazzed by Sondheim's patented razor-sharp lyrics and adroit melodies. Masquerade's own patented ensemble cast outdid themselves, with truly splendid work from Chakurian (a very conflicted Bobby), Rebekah Dahl (a sharp-tongued Joanne, who got the show's bitchiest tune, the nervous breakdown-induced "The Ladies Who Lunch"), Allison Sumrall (who rightly stopped the show as neurotic Amy with her tongue-twisting patter of "Getting Married Today") and Kristina Sullivan (a comic delight as the stoned, innocent Jennie, who brought warmth into the bleakness). The ever-capable actors, expert direction by Phillip Duggins and Broadway-caliber orchestra under maestro Richard Spitz made this the musical of the year.
Rachel Brady has long worked as a scientist by day, but she's always loved reading fiction. One day she went from reading to writing, just to see if she could, she says. The result was Final Approach, published earlier this year. As readers might guess from the title, airplanes play a major role in Final Approach. Set in a skydiving school just outside of Houston, the book chronicles the adventures of Emily Locke as she does some undercover snooping into the case of a missing boy. Along the way, she runs into a weathered cowboy who might steal her heart — if he isn't the bad guy. Then there's her over-the-top friend Jeannie, who has turned being sassy into an art form. Brady's next book, Dead Lift, will hit shelves in December, and buzz is already building.
Happily, Houston finds itself with an abundance of good film festivals. Some focus on indie films, others on cinema from a certain country or region, still others on the stories of a particular ethnic group or sect. But only the Cinema Arts Festival Houston hones in on films by and about artists. The 2009 fest, Cinema Arts' inaugural edition, included appearances by Hollywood insiders such as Tilda Swinton and Guillermo Arriaga. It had a line-up of films in an immense range of periods and genres, from the 1924 silent film classic Peter Pan accompanied by a new score to the then yet-to-be-released Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. More than 6,000 viewers flocked to various screening venues around town, including Discovery Green, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a portable screening room just large enough for ten or so people.
Just last year Houston drinkers were relegated to driving or walking from bar to bar if they wanted to hop from joints off Washington Avenue or Midtown. In the past year, jitney services have popped up in town to haul the thirsty and party-hungry to far-flung places when walking or driving is either a chore or ill-advised for legal reasons. Cops don't really like it when you drink ten shots of Patrón and take to the wheel of your SUV. The biggest jitney to make the scene is the Washington Wave, which quickly became the leader in the nascent industry. Each bus in its fleet comes decked out with a sound system, a DVD player, and free water, candy and condoms if you are thirsty, hungry or plan to get lucky.