Last weekend in Ucross, the distinctive voices of 39 sandhill cranes mingled with the roaring winds of a spring blizzard. What fearless birds! This natural duet lasted several memorable days and nights, becoming a kind of soundtrack for the end of the month.
Artists often have to be as fearless as those cranes in the snow. Pianist Ellen Rowe, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a composer, pianist, and Ucross alumnus who fits that description. She traveled all the way to Wyoming with her all-female jazz octet to perform at Sheridan College’s Whitney Center for the Arts last Friday, just as the pre-blizzard rain was beginning to fall.
A special moment that night came when Sheridan College student, clarinetist and biology specialist, Addy Moretti, performed with the band on “Anthem”, which is Rowe’s tribute to the music of Carole King. and Joni Mitchell.
Ellen Rowe was in residence at Ucross in the spring of 2019. She worked on her album “Momentum: Portraits of Women in Motion,” which is the music her band played at Sheridan. She says of the work, “Each piece is a tribute to my heroines in disciplines ranging from music to social justice, environmental advocacy, sports and politics. I rarely talk about the many incredible women who have had such a profound influence on me. This album is a celebration of their courage, their talent, their tenacity and their grace.
Besides being a musician, songwriter and professor at the University of Michigan, Ellen is a dedicated runner. One of my favorite songs that night was “RFP (Relentless Forward Progress),” which Ellen wrote in honor of female long-distance runners. The music reflected the racing experience in an eerie way. In the program notes, Ellen references three incredible runners: Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1980; Meghan “the Queen” Canfield Laws, an ultra-distance trail runner in her 50s who continues to win races and serves as Ellen’s online coach; and Gunhild Swanson, an ultra-runner who finished under 30 hours in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run (the oldest 100-mile trail race in the world) – at the age of 70.
One track we didn’t hear on Friday but is on the “Momentum” recording is “Song of the Meadowlark.” Ellen has heard our distinguished state bird throughout her residency at Ucross. Her mother was an avid birdwatcher and encouraged Ellen to listen to birdsong while hiking in New England’s White Mountains, so it’s only natural that she would respond to the western meadowlark. Perhaps during his next residency, the sandhill cranes will challenge him.
If you ever get another chance to see any of these musicians live – they play all over the country and around the world – don’t miss the opportunity. We heard: Ellen Rowe on piano, Tanya Darby on trumpet, Melissa Gardiner on trombone, Marion Hayden on bass, Virginia Mayhew on saxophone, Lisa Parrott on saxophone, Tina Raymond on drums and Kaleigh Wilder on baritone saxophone. At the end of the concert, I hover over an audience member who says to Ellen, “Thank you for bringing joy to all of us tonight. »
Sharon Dynak is creative advisor for the Ucross Foundation.