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Tom Lawton brings Man Ray back to life at Friday’s Art After Five

Pianist Tom Lawton didn’t know much about Man Ray when the opportunity came his way to compose a suite of music inspired by the eclectic visual artist. But a crash course soon made Lawton realize that he had more in common with the Dada innovator than he’d expected.

“I’d seen one or two photos through the years, but I really had to start researching Man Ray from the ground up because I knew very little about him,” Lawton admits. “He turned out to be a fascinating character who I related to in a lot of ways. He worked in so many genres and was at one and the same time a fine artist and did other kinds of work in artistic ways for money, so he resembled a working jazz musician in that sense.”

It’s certainly a description that fits with Lawton’s career. His performance of the “Man Ray Jazz Suite” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Friday evening will be a rare occasion to see the pianist perform as a leader. More often, he’s either busy teaching – he’s on the faculty of both Temple and UArts – or working as a sideman for a host of local jazz singers and musicians, from straightahead gigs with saxophonist Larry McKenna to avant-garde outings with Bobby Zankel’s Warriors of the Wonderful Sound big band.

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Bakithi Kumalo will lead a South African Dance Party at the Philadelphia Museum of Art tonight

Paul Simon with Bakithi Kumalo | photo via www.facebook.com/bakithikumalo
Paul Simon with Bakithi Kumalo | photo via www.facebook.com/bakithikumalo

The video for Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” famously features the singer-songwriter’s old pal Chevy Chase hamming it up while lip-synching to Simon’s vocals. But Chase isn’t the only one faking it in that clip. ­ Simon appears alongside him, cycling through a number of instruments while wearing a stoic deadpan. Near the end of the video, Simon mimes an elastic bass run and proceeds to play along with the record’s buoyant groove.

The man responsible for the song’s now-iconic bassline is actually Bakithi Kumalo, who will host a South African Dance Party on Friday evening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A native of Soweto township, Kumalo now lives in the Lehigh Valley and has worked with a wide range of artists, including Cyndi Lauper, Hugh Masekela, Herbie Hancock, and Chaka Khan.

Kumalo’s sound, which graced much of Simon’s landmark 1985 album Graceland, blends the traditions of his native South Africa with the electric fusion sound of bassists like Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke. At the Art Museum, he’ll lead a five-piece band through music from his four solo CDs, a rare opportunity for a musician who spends so much of his time on the road playing other people’s music ­ as he will early next year, as he heads back out on the road for a tour co-headlined by Paul Simon and Sting.