Kirsten Carey, free jazz guitarist and composer studying at the Michigan School of Music, has been in the throes of writing, recording, and releasing The Ulysses Project for two years, while most of us pea-brained undergrads hardly have the attention span to finish a semester long course. Samuel Beckett 101? No, really, no, no thank you. Saturday night, behind the charming façade of the Victorian Kerrytown Concert House, Kirsten’s album release for this scandalizing musical suite began to unravel the modernist masterpiece, Ulysses, casting it in a new, yet equally visceral light. She gave James Joyce’s characters the opportunity to croon about their sad, awkward, and mostly hilarious grappling with life in the underbelly of Dublin, and us an exercise in commiseration, empathy, and laughing at the expense of others.
It was a concert meets theater piece meets story-time hybrid whose effect was intense, vulnerable, and intimate to an extent that, if we were less human, could have been uncomfortable. So many moments of the performance evoked the embarrassing aunt in every family who is never afraid to blubber about her dirty laundry over the Christmas ham– the very reason you love her more than everyone else. In the stream and scream of consciousness tone of James Joyce, Kirsten and her costumed band [featuring Ben Willis (bass), Jonathan Taylor (drums), Derek Worthington (trumpet), Pat Booth (saxophone)] and minimalist theatrical troop of two, [Corey Smith (narration), and Glenn Healy] took you on a manic journey of eerie beauty and melody (oh yeah, shout out to Dedalus), toe-tappin and shoulder twitching jams (wooo baby, Musksweat, an earworm waiting to wiggle its way into your canal), and unbridled fits of god knows what (alright, Beware of Gerryowen, this one’s for you, you attention craving chorus of the insane asylum.)
Let me digress for a minute. Eric Schweizer’s guest appearance solo on baritone sax in Gerryowen startled me, and my ears are conditioned by the likes of John Zorn and Gogol Bordello. This tune should have come with a warning for people over the age of sixty and under the age of four who are not fully in control of their… facilities. The first note of his solo was deafening with all the timbral qualities of the loudest foghorn you have ever heard. It was like tectonic plates shifting, or the creaking of the Titanic as its sinking, or, with all respect to Joyce at his own tribute party, Melville’s Moby Dick pissed as hell as he is harpooned for the last time. Though Gerryowen was unique in the likelihood of it catalyzing PTSD, intense moments like these were omnipresent.
From Corey’s kooky and desperate, tentatively romantic and frantically erotic, (in all the wrong ways,) reading of a love letter to “Mr. Flower” which sent the audience into rolling fits of giggles, to Kirsten’s mesmerizing singing in “O” that closed the suite, it was an enchanting balls to the wall performance throughout. Kirsten’s voice is beautiful, and has all the inflections of a homespun lullaby and raw straining emotion that pulls at the heart strings in the unairbrushed ways that a bel canto style cannot. I think my takeaway from this memorable show (I will admit to tearing up at the end of “O”, excuse my lack of professionalism) can best be summed up by a rogue audience member who, after the applause, offered from the back of the room “you know, you really know how to make people feel things.” Kirsten, I hope you read this someday and let these words hug you, because well, I want to thank you for bringing The Ulysses Project into the world, and my iTunes library.
If you are a Joyce nut that happens to also be a free jazz connoisseur, or like great music (and people almost always fall into one of the two categories) I must recommend you checking out her website and investing an album ($10) for yourself.