The Beat Goes On: Innovative solo piano in Amherst and Northampton, an album release party in Easthampton, and more

  • Neo-classical pianist BLKBOK, who incorporates hip hop and other sounds in his music, comes to The Parlor Room in Northampton Nov. 9. Image from BLKBOK website

  • Solo pianist Holly Bowling, who merges classical training with her love of jam band music, plays at The Drake in Amherst Nov. 9. Image from Holly Bowling website

  • Image from Fancy Trash website Image from Fancy Trash website

  • BCUC, a beat-heavy ensemble from South Africa, will be at Race Street Live at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke Nov. 4. Photo by Shudo Lubengo/Secret Planet website

  • Guitarist and songwriter Jordan Tice, who’s equally at home playing fingerstyle or flatpicking, comes to The Parlor Room Nov. 4. Photo from Jordan Tice website

  • Jazz pianist Bill Charlap, longtime director of New York City’s “Jazz in July” Festival, brings his trio to the Bombyx Center in Florence Nov. 5. Photo by Keith Major

  • South Carolina jazz and roots ensemble Ranky Tanky, at right, will be joined by vocalist Lisa Fischer at Bowker Auditorium at UMass Amherst Nov. 8. Image by PETER FRANK EDWARDS/UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center

  • Kendra McKinley, who “makes music for smoking weed with your bra off,” will be at Hawks & Reed in Greenfield with indie-folk act Cloudbelly Nov. 10. Image from Kendra McKinley website

Staff Writer
Published: 11/2/2023 10:24:42 AM
Modified: 11/2/2023 10:23:13 AM

Like solo piano? Specifically solo piano from classically trained musicians who have infused their music with lots of other elements, from hip hop to jam band grooves to pop?

If that’s the case, next Thursday, Nov. 9, you’ll have a tough choice to make, when BLKBOK comes to The Parlor Room in Northampton at 7:30 p.m. and Holly Bowling visits The Drake in Amherst at 8 p.m.

BLKBOK (pronounced “Black Bach”) is the stage name of Charles Wilson III, who was a child prodigy on piano in his hometown of Detroit. Growing up in a musical family, he studied classical piano for years but soaked up plenty of other influences, including hip hop.

“I loved everything rap,” he said in an interview with NPR last year. “I also was a jazz musician and hung out with a lot of the Motown musicians and the legacy that they left behind ... they were my coaches, my trainers, my uncles, my aunties.”

BLKBOK has racked up some other pop music credentials, touring with names such as Justin Timberlake, Rihanna and John Mayer. But he describes the songs on his debut album, “Black Book,” as “neo-classical poems that reflect the world I live in as an artist and as a Black man in the 2020s.”

“I’m just doing what thousands of other Black artists have always done, which is to take the tools we have to create our own hybrid expression,” he says on a YouTube video about his work.

Holly Bowling, meanwhile, also studied classical piano as she was growing up — coincidentally also in Michigan — and won a number of top music prizes while studying at San Francisco State University. And after working for a time as a piano teacher, she began playing solo, moving outside the classical canon.

In fact, her first album, in 2015, was a two-disc rearrangement for solo piano of music by Phish, including a transcription of a lengthy live jam session by the legendary jam band. She followed that by releasing a piano-based album based on classic Grateful Dead performances.

Bowling has since shared stages with a host of pop and jazz performers, from Rob Weir and Phil Lesh of the Dead to John Scofield, Jim James, Branford Marsalis and Greensky Bluegrass. She’s also part of the improvisational rock/jam band Ghost Light.

“A lot of classical enthusiasts might not give the Dead a chance,” she says. “Many Deadheads may not like classical. Personally, I’ve always had two halves of my musical life ... Bringing everything together, I’d love to open up boundaries and help people discover something new.”


Indie folk rockers Fancy Trash, once a Valley mainstay, had a lengthy hiatus after guitarist, lead singer and songwriter Dave Houghton focused on a new band, Opal Canyon, with his wife, Debra DeMuth, and the couple moved to Cape Cod.

But Fancy Trash — Houghton, drummer Jason Smith, and bassist Joshua Thayer — reunited earlier this year to play some shows here, and they’ll be back Nov. 10 to gig at Easthampton’s Marigold Theater at 8 p.m.

And they’ll have something else in hand: a new album, “The Pushkin Sessions,” that dates to 2007, when the band spent two days recording live at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield.

As Smith noted in an email, the band had just finished playing a sold-out concert at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton with an expanded lineup. Liking the sound and energy of the show, they recorded 15 songs at Hawks & Reed with a pianist, a lap/pedal steel guitarist, and a second drummer.

Those songs have now finally been mixed by veteran engineer Mark Alan Miller of Sonelab in Easthampton and mastered by producer Jonathan Wyner (Nirvana, David Bowie, James Taylor).

It’s an expansive album with a spacious sound, from the more driving songs like “Chickenhawk” and “Lost in the Evening” to the slower “Half of Nothing” with its weeping pedal steel guitar flourishes.

“‘The Pushkin Sessions’ were a special moment in our musical journey,” Houghton notes. “Our fans have been asking for a live album for years, and these ‘live in the studio’ recordings capture the energy of our live shows and the synergy of a unique version of the band.”

Joining Fancy Trash at the Marigold will be special guests Moon Hollow, an acoustic trio, and guitarist/vocalist Chris Goudreau.


Another band sporting an acronym is BCUC, which stands for Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness, a seven-member South African ensemble that mixes township music, church music, gospel, punk, rock and a few other things.

According to program notes, the group, which comes to Race Street Live at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on Nov. 4 at 7 p.m., got its start “just a stone’s throw” from the Soweto home of Desmond Tutu, one of the seminal figures in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.

“We are descended from tribes who use music as therapy,” says lead singer Nkosi ‘Jovi’ Zithulele. “Since 2003, we have wanted to be a band that would change the way people think about music from Africa.”

For starters, they sing in all 11 official languages of South Africa, and their sound — variously described as “afro-psychedelic future pop” and “Ladysmith Black Mambazo gone Afropunk” — is heavy on drums, percussion, bass, and vocals, all designed to get you moving.

The show, presented by the Secret Planet music series, begins with a session led byDeejay Theory, who will spin Amapiano, a South African subgenre of African house music.

More music on tap

Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares presents two shows this weekend: New Origin Trio at CitySpace in Easthampton on Nov. 3 (tonight, Friday) at 7:30 p.m., and Oceans And at Wistarishurst Museum in Holyoke on Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m.

Jordan Tice, a fine guitarist and polished songwriter whose shows have drawn comparisons to those of Leo Kotke and David Bromberg, will be at The Parlor Room on Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m.

Grammy-winning jazz pianist Bill Charlap, who’s also interpreted and recorded many songs from the Great American Songbook, brings his trio to the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m.

Ranky Tanky, a South Carolina ensemble specializing in jazz-influenced arrangements of traditional music that originated among descendants of enslaved people in the Southeast U.S., will be at Bowker Auditorium at UMass Amherst on Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m. They’ll be joined by versatile vocalist Lisa Fischer, who does soul, jazz, rock, gospel and pop with equal aplomb.

How’s this for a provocative tagline? Soul jazz singer Kendra McKinley says she “makes music for smoking weed with your bra off.” She’ll be at Hawks & Reed on Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. with Cloudbelly, the Valley indie-folk act.

The songs of country great Merle Haggard will get loving treatment at The Drake on Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. by special guests Ward Hayden, Zara Bode, and Billy Keane, backed by the Deep River Ramblers. Part of the Back Porch Concert Series by Signature Sounds.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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