Category Archives: Live review

Jane Bunnett and Maqueque

 

Jane Bunnett and Maqueque. Credit: Emma - Lee Photography

Jane Bunnett and Maqueque. Credit: Emma – Lee Photography

Jane Bunnett and Maqueque are in the final lap of an August–September tour. If they’re coming anywhere near your town, go see them. Their show at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston last night was explosive.

Bunnett, now 57, has been digging into the music of Cuba for more than 20 years. On her last visit to the island, she met singer and songwriter Daymé Arocena. In short order, Bunnett and Arocena got together with pianist Danae Olano, bassist Celia Jimenez, drummer Yissy Garcia, and percussionist Magdelys Savigne. Maqueque (roughly translated from dialect as “spirit of a young girl”) was born.

The touring band is necessarily more stripped down than on their new self-titled debut CD, but that only makes for more immediacy and punch. Jimenez, Savigne, and Garcia have a mortal lock on those complex Afro-Cuban rhythms. Garcia took several explosive solos, including the finale, and Jimenez provided melodic and harmonic lift as well as rhythmic drive. Savigne moved between congas and bata drums, and took a solo turn on the cajon, matching power with sensitivity. When she played those batas, you realized how important pitch is to the Cuban rhythm sound.

Arocena, who is one of the band’s main songwriters along with Bunnett, has a voice like a canon. Short in stature, she would stand at the mike, dancing, then open her mouth wide, lean back, and pour out a poweful contralto that evoked ancient Cuban son as well as the fluid Afropop of Angelique Kidjo. My only request of Maqueque is that they feature more Arocena. At times she was mixed as part of the ensemble with the other instruments or group vocals. Her feature on an original cha-cha-cha was one of the evening’s standouts, deep and wide.

But this whole band is a star. Olano took a bravura solo that showed off her classical chops, Bunnett was firey and lyrical, especially penetrating with her flute work. In her big solo, Olano’s mix of single-note runs and rhythmic chords at one point synched in with the band’s vamp behind her and created a big sound you could feel in your chest. That’s Maqueque — they turn the audience into a drum.

Kendrick Scott’s Oracle at Scullers

 

Kendrick Scott. Photo by Jimmy Katz.

Kendrick Scott. Photo by Jimmy Katz.

Kendrick Scott’s Oracle were a hit before they even played a note on Wednesday night at Scullers. At least in terms of audience. It wasn’t just that they filled the club to near-capacity (165 seats). This was a crowd that crossed generations, gender, and ethnicities — yes, Asian-American guitar students (Oracle’s Mike Moreno was a draw), young African-American couples, Berklee kids of all stripes. The usual greybeard contingent was in attendance (including yours truly), but this was a crowd that skewed young. If anything else were necessary to deem this an “event,” Scott’s sometime boss Terence Blanchard was sitting down front, and Joe Lovano was at the bar.

From the stage, Scott — 33, and a Berklee grad himself — said that the first time he played the club was when Roy Haynes was receiving an award (the first of the awards now named for Haynes, presented by JazzBoston in 2009). “Roy Haynes played my drums,” said Scott. “It freaked me out.” Scott looked sharp: red-and-blue check blazer, peaked white pocket handkerchief, white open-collar shirt.

The music, too, was a mix of stylistic flash and poised, business-like concentration. Besides Moreno, Scott had John Ellis on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Taylor Eigsti on piano, and Matt Penman playing bass (in his first night with the band). The music often proceeded in the form of post-rock rave-ups. As in the first number of the night, “Pendulum” (from the band’s 2013 album Conviction, on Concord), Penman laid down a vamp, guitar and piano played a long-toned, repeating melody line, and then Ellis unfurled a secondary line on tenor. Those melodies repeated behind the soloists, building, with Eigsti pumping the chords in time with his left hand, Scott layering a ferocious mix of tight patterns that covered every corner of the beat.

I’m still getting a fix on Scott’s astounding drumming. The best I can do is say he’s like a hip-hop Elvin Jones. Whereas Jones gathered his beats in long sweeping phrases, Scott builds his in tight club-inflected patterns that nonetheless pack the same kind of carrying-the-band horsepower. And his sense of measured detail is always on the money, whether echoing an end-of-phrase tenor flutter by Ellis with his own chiming cymbal pattern (sticks tapping the edges); playing his snare bare-handed, popping it with his right index finger and slapping it with his left palm; or accenting a solo with a little “zip!” he created by flipping his snare upside down and dragging his stick across it.

As usual these days with younger players, I wouldn’t have minded a bit more soloing over walking-bass swing, but there was plentiful musical meat here, and plenty of variety — ballads with brushes, varied meters. In what has become a welcome trend, the band threw in a left-field cover — Sufjan Stevens’s “Too Much.” On the album, Alan Hampton sings, but here the band made a case for the song as compelling instrumental jazz, using the mantra-like repetition of the melody as a springboard. (A young African-American jazz musician covering white indie-rock is another story for another day.)

The set ended with Conviction’s title track — a round robin of short solos from Eigsti, Moreno, and Ellis that ratcheted up the tension on every turn and had the audience screaming (especially for Eigsti’s impassioned extended lines). It closed the set perfectly — the big finish that not all jazz musicians have in their repertoire. Like “Pendulum,” “Too Much,” and Scott’s “Liberty or Death,” it also displayed another occasional quality of Scott’s music: a brooding intensity that can turn explosive, even ecstatic. An encore of the Duke Pearson ballad “You Know I Care” was lagniappe that provided another kind of closure — emotionally and historically. Still stylish, still serious, still taking care of business.

 

 

Dave Douglas and Riverside play Jimmy Giuffre at the Regattabar

Dave Douglas and Steve Swallow, of Riverside

Dave Douglas and Steve Swallow, of Riverside, at the Regattabar on April 17. Photo by Sue Yang.

The scope of the composer and reed player Jimmy Giuffre’s music is so broad that you could approach it from just about any angle and no one would be able to tell you that you’re doing it wrong — chamber jazz, free jazz, bebop, big band (he wrote the Woody Herman anthem “Four Brothers”), or a concerto for soloist and strings. They’re all legitimate approaches to the Giuffre way.

I say Giuffre’s “way,” not his compositions, because that’s the approach that’s being taken by the band Riverside, which comprises trumpeter Dave Douglas (who studied with Giuffre for a semester at New England Conservatory), bassist Steve Swallow (who played with Giuffre at two different points of the reedman’s career along with the pianist Paul Bley), and Canadian brothers Chet (reeds) and Jim (drums) Doxos, who never met Giuffre.

Riverside has a new self-titled album on Douglas’s Greeleaf Music label, on which they play only one piece by Giuffre (“The Train and the River”), and another that he covered (Trummy Young and Johnny Mercer’s “Travelin’ Light”). The other nine tunes on the record are originals by Douglas and Chet Doxas. An album note tells us that it was created in memory of Giuffre and that it draws inspiration from the “many trails” he blazed in “melodic invention, rhythmic subtlety, and true freedom in the practice of improvisation.”

At the Regattabar in Cambridge on Thursday night Riverside showed themselves reflective of the Giuffre way on several fronts. For one, Giuffre’s incorporation of spirituals, blues, folk music, and folk-type tunes into his jazz compositions is of a piece with Douglas’s own recent work, especially his album Be Still (2012), with the singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan. At the Regattabar, Riverside played Douglas’s arrangement of the early 18th century composer Isaac Watts’ “Devotion,” taken from a shape note singing book, and Doxas’s equally spiritual “Old Church, New Paint.”

The Giuffre style also manifested itself in the constant counterpoint between Douglas and Doxas either on tenor or clarinet, often with the ever inventive Swallow creating yet a third line. But, though the interplay was often subtle, and the tunes very shapely indeed, this was not the kind of music that Swallow played in his first outing with Giuffre, on acoustic bass, from 1961 to ‘62. Or the music of Giuffre’s late ’50s career, which was often drummerless.

Giuffre (1921-2008) said of that early period of his music that he was trying to create “jazz with a non-pulsating beat.” In a definitive 1997 Mosaic reissue of Giuffre’s mid-late ’50s output, he’s quoted regarding the beat as being “implicit  . . . acknowledged but unsounded.” He didn’t want “the insistent pounding of the rhythm section” distracting from the sound of the soloists and the melodic line.

The “acknowledged but unsounded” beat was characteristic of Giuffre’s way, but it wasn’t his only way — and it didn’t mean no drummers. And, implied beat or not, Giuffre swung hard — you can see him “acknowledging” the beat with his unrepressed bobbing up and down through the Jimmy Giuffre Three’s performance of “The Train and the River” in the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day — Giuffre on tenor with guitarist Jim Hall and Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone.

At the Regattabar, Jim Doxas was subtle and creative throughout the night, and his beat was often indirect, but he also acknowledged it, at times heavily. In the Jimmy Giuffre Three’s hands “The Train and the River” swings hard but undulates softly. In Riverside’s version, it blared like an anthem.

Dave Douglas and Riverside

Riverside: Dave Douglas, Steve Swallow, Chet Doxas, Jim Doxas. At the Regattabar, April 17. Photo by Sue Yang.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it sure is different. There were other felicities in Riverside’s treatment of Giuffre’s music. Giuffre was obsessed with timbre and sonorities, always coming up with inventive combinations, like the reed/guitar/trombone matchup or, in the case of “The Sheepherder,” from 1956, a blend of clarinet, alto clarinet (Buddy Collette) and bass clarinet (Harry Klee). For a time, Giuffre played clarinet exclusively, restricted, he said, by his limited technique to the dark, evocative low, chalumeau register. Here, Doxas excelled, especially in tandem with Douglas on the trumpeter’s minor mode “Front Yard,” over the swish of Jim’s brushes. On the disc version, there’s a wonderful duo passage for clarinet and bass, with just the barest smattering of drums. In moments like these, the band captures the Giuffre ideals of sonority and counterpoint — where even the drums act as another complementary linear voice.

Throughout the night, melody lines passed back and forth, overlapped, fell into unison harmonies, then split apart again. “Backyard” (the companion piece to “Front Yard”), grew free and agitated, then settled into a hard funky beat and went out with the subdued theme and a big chord from Swallow.

There were times, especially in the beginning of the set, where I wished the band showed as much concision as Giuffre and meandered a bit less. But by the end of the night they’d won me over. It was fun to hear Douglas explode over the boppish swing of Doxas’s “Big Shorty” (a tribute to Giuffre’s work with Shorty Rogers) and to hear the hooky riffs of Douglas’s “Handwritten” (also from Riverside). Since the show, it’s been pleasure to return to the Riverside album and to savor anew their poised take on “Travelin’ Light” — based, as Douglas said in concert, on Giuffre’s arrangement, but “we’ve made our own thing out of it.” That’s the Giuffre way, too.

Inevitably, the Riverside show led me back to other Giuffre recordings — the Mosaic set (which you can now find most of on the new budget UK series, Real Gone Jazz, as the 3-CD “Jimmy Giuffre: Seven Classic Albums”), or the 1992 ECM reissue, Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961, which includes Fusion and Thesis, the two albums that Giuffre recorded with Bley and Swallow (on acoustic bass, before his permanent switch to electric bass guitar) for Verve. Then came the freely improvised Free Fall with Bley and Swallow on Columbia — produced by Teo Macero, and so free that the label immediately dropped him.

Although he continued to perform, Giuffre didn’t release an album for another 10 years after Free Fall. But in June, Elemental Music will release the two-disc Jimmy Giuffre 3&4: New York Concerts, with two performances from 1965 (it’s now available as a pre-order on Amazon). Here is Giuffre in a trio with bassist Richard Davis and drummer Joe Chambers and a quartet with Chambers, pianist Don Friedman, and bassist Barre Phillips. It’s an important addition to the Giuffre story. Playing tenor sax once again, he’s a bit more aggressive with his tone, but melody line and group counterpoint are as crucial as ever. There are tunes, but also a lot of free improvisation. And when he exchanges phrases with Friedman’s Cecil Taylor-like rumblings, you can read him as an equal partner in the creation of the ’60s avant-garde. So it’s easy to agree with Paul Bley’s assessment in the liner notes: “The two most important figures in the early days of the avant-garde were both composers and reed players: Ornette Coleman and Jimmy Giuffre.” In fact, with the trio on the New York album, Giuffre plays Coleman’s “Crossroads” (also known as “The Circle with the Hole in the Middle”).

In later years, Giuffre would reunite with Bley and Swallow (on electric bass this time), and play and record with students and colleagues at New England Conservatory. His is a long story, and it isn’t over yet.

For this piece and more jazz and arts coverage, check out The Arts Fuse.

 

 

 

 

Ran Blake at the Regattabar: “Plays Solo Piano” 50th Anniversary

Cover image from Ran Blake's 1964 ESP-Disk, celebrated the Regattabar.

Cover image from Ran Blake’s 1964 ESP-Disk, celebrated at the Regattabar.

You could have heard Ran Blake’s show Wednesday night at the Regattabar as a concert with autobiographical commentary, or as a memoir with musical illustrations. It was both, really.

Blake was ostensibly celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ESP-Disk Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano. It was his second release after his 1961 RCA debut, The Newest Sound Around, with the singer Jeanne Lee.

Blake’s approach hasn’t changed a whole lot since then. He still mines his obsessions with film noir, jazz standards, and gospel music, and his abiding affection for composers like Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, George Russell, and Gunther Schuller, and for songs and singers. And he still plays with his uncanny ear for harmony, unparalleled touch, and serene focus. Blake’s passages of sharp dynamics shifts, of juxtaposed dissonance and consonance, give his music the heightened contrasts of his beloved film noir. Some improvisers use songs as a starting point — a springboard for their own invention. Blake does that too, but his inventions seem to take him deeper into a song rather than further from it.

At the Regattabar, he played several pieces from Solo Piano, but much else as well, including new pieces. Emerging from back stage with the assistance of walker (he’ll be 79 on April 20), swaddled in shades, black fisherman’s cap, a big scarf, jacket, and his thick grey beard, he greeted the warm applause of the packed house with a smile and a bow, then sat at the piano and dug into four widely spaced, loud chords, using the sustain pedal to let them bleed into each other, and then played the delicate, elegiac melody his “Vanguard,” the first song on Solo Piano, bringing out inner voices as one chord moved on to the next. He followed that with “The Nearness of You,” punctuated by plinking, Monk-ish minor seconds between soft, floating chords and bits of melody.

“In 1960 I moved to New York — a year or two older than I should have been — from the college.”  He was taking us into the first phase of the memoir. Walking up Amsterdam Avenue, into Harlem, the Apollo Theatre, Abbey Lincoln, Don Ellis, Sheila Jordan, George Russell. Then he introduced one of those Harlem tunes, “Sleepy Time Gal,” and Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” which Blake said he was the fourth person to record. “Ornette thought it was . . . fairly okay,” said Blake of his version.

In Blake’s mini-sets, two or three songs sometimes merged and overlapped. They weren’t medleys, really, more like montage. Blake said he often thinks in images at the piano as he plays through songs, and that made sense here, especially as he extemporized on Dr. Mabuse, the character from the films by Fritz Lang, with a theme by Konrad Elfers. (Blake joked that Mabuse, the “evil psychiatrist,” had been in 1,000 films.)

There were a couple of tunes with Blake collaborator (and former student) Jon Hazilla. Hazilla said that Blake, “always thinks of other people first rather than himself.” To which Blake piped up, “Not always!” Hazilla said that when he auditioned at New England Conservatory (where Blake created the Third Stream department with then NEC president Gunther Schuller), Blake asked him to play “a cold Boston morning.” Blake’s response to Hazilla’s attempt was: “Sounds like rush hour.” Hazilla’s solo tribute — just brushes and snare — was fast, but not rushed, tight, swinging, economical patterns of swishing brushwork.

Blake then introduced his tune “Memphis,” commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, “40 years ago tomorrow.” It was, he said, his imagining of King speaking to a stadium full of people, with Al Green and Willie Mitchell in attendance, and maybe Alfred Hitchcock too. And here Blake created one of his uncanny effects: as the melody from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” moved into the piece, softly, it was as if from offstage, a passing parade. Then there was George Russell’s “Stratusphunk” (also from Solo Piano), with Blake returning again and again to the repeated notes of the opening melody.

Blake often gave capsule biographies of the songwriters and dedicatees. There was “Sister Tee,” for Elisa Carter of Sweet Daddy Grace’s Church in Harlem. “She wanted to learn about Stravinsky and Mingus and I wanted to learn about Mahalia Jackson and the Pentecostal church.” For once, he said, he’d play “a number that’s partly cheerful,” even with its evocation of meddlesome police on 125th street.

Blake is one of the few performer I know who can get away with almost unrelenting slow or rubato performances. He and Hazilla did swing some stride for a bit, but for the most part these were nocturnes. So what held the ear was the drama that unfolded in each song, those shifting textures and harmonies. It never seems adequate to call one of Blake’s chords “dissonance” — he seems to know hundreds of shadings between dissonance and consonance. In each song — no matter how deep the rumbling percussion and brass of his bass register — the melody would surface, just a spare single-note line, but articulated with pure, vocal expression, and you could hear what Blake loves about singers. They’re that light in the darkness, as in his statement of the melody in his “Birmingham, U.S.A.” (for the four girls murdered in the notorious church bombing in that city in September 1963).  Elsewhere, his conjurings were the stuff of dreams and film noir, 4/4 chords that stalked the melody line, as in a suspense film, or the bit of Bernard Hermann dissonance that crept into Blake’s encore of “You Are My Sunshine.”

With Blake’s notions of harmony, wherein it drifts away from tonal centers or simply expands into adjacent keys, and his sudden, stabbing attacks at an astringent interval, I once thought: maybe this is what a young Arnold Schoenberg would have sounded like if he was the hippest lounge pianist around. But that’s not fair, Schoenberg was not an American musician, he was not a jazz musician, and he was no Ran Blake.

 

 

 

Nir Felder at the Regattabar

Nir Felder. Photo by Phil Knott.

Nir Felder. Photo by Phil Knott.

Nir Felder’s Okeh Records debut last month, Golden Age, was a neat split between two types of jazz: one that’s like improvisational instrumental indie rock (think: Brian Blade Fellowship, James Farm, Jeremy Udden’s Plainville) and the other the kind of mixed-meter mind fuck you can hear in one form or another from Kurt Rosenwinkel, Robert Glasper, Gretchen Parlato, Vijay Iyer, and anyone who works with drummers like Kendrick Scott, Marcus Gilmore, Chris Dave, and Mark Colenburg. Felder’s album was a cool mix of those freaky-metered grooves and that mesmerizing flow.

At the Regattabar Tuesday night, Felder’s drummer was Nate Smith, no slouch in the new post-hip-hop freak-beat drum faction. And, true to the album, Felder -— who is 31 and studied at Berklee about a decade ago — mixed up his indie-rock and sick-jazz numbers. But the indie-rock stuff this time was less mesmerizing than inert. For the first three numbers, the band (with Smith, bassist Orlando le Fleming, and pianist Frank LoCrasto) worked repetitive rock chord progressions, pretty melodies, and dynamic contrasts. Everything was very songful, but it wasn’t enough. I kept waiting for the singer to show up.

The fourth tune of the set (one of two new, untitled songs) opened up for slightly more guitar action from Felder, and LoCrasto had some nice moments too. But they weren’t really solos, more like interludes, way stations in the drift of rising and falling dynamics and of dramatic shifts from slow to fast in the song form.

Finally, about 25 minutes into the show, Felder dug into one of his fucked-up jazz pieces, “Ernest/Protector,” an imaginary character study, he later told the audience, about someone with a rich inner life and awkward social skills — a “daydream comic book superhero fantasy.” Indeed. The piece hurtled through a tricky mixed meter form, and Felder and LoCrasto’s solos hurtled along with them. In fact, this was the first piece in which the R-bar crowd observed the jazz-audience convention of applauding after solos. Like Felder’s other pieces, this was a real tune, with a bridge, but it exploded. The form had a nice little breakdown section — I’d guess two bars of half notes — played in unison by bass and drums, that slowed everything down to an almost comic drawl.

“Code” was, as on the album, again slow and subdued (“about things under the surface, beneath the everyday,” said Felder), but “Sketch 2” was way more powerful than its album version — a kind of rave-up for Smith, who played fast, tight club-beat patterns throughout, with plenty of kick-drum oomph, while the rest of the band played slow, hazy chord sequences on top. “Before the Tsars” (also from the album) was built on an insinuating, descending piano line, that again played with form and a rock-like 6/8. A final, unnamed, tune featured a nifty unison line for piano and guitar. It left LoCrasto and Felder some nice solo room, and also played with mixed meters and funk, with a thunking breakdown section.

One thing did occur to me during the more subdued, early part of the set: Felder’s band could be well served by being heard LOUD at a big venue like the mainstage at the Newport Jazz Festival. Those big dynamic contrasts and gleaming rock-guitar cadences could hold a crowd, and they’d sound great in the open air.

Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz at Scullers

Despite what instrumentalists and singers say about wanting to “tell a story” with their music, the fact is that very few of them do. Instead, they simply cycle through a form, wringing whatever musical flourishes they can with each pass. Even though singers have an advantage — the built-in “stories” of lyrics — the effect is often the same: wash, rinse, repeat.

Kate McGarry is something else again. The 51-year-old singer and songwriter, appearing with her husband, guitarist Keith Ganz, 41, at Scullers on Thursday night, had a story to tell with each song. And, in fact, the evening as a whole had the pacing of a shaped narrative.

McGarry and Ganz are working their new duo album, Genevieve & Ferdinand (Sunnyside), and they drew freely from it as well as other material. Though McGarry is nominally a jazz singer, she likes to mix up her genres. At Scullers, there were a few contemporary folk songs mixed in with the jazz standards, as well as a couple of folk originals

They began with Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” McGarry’s phrasing playing into the lyrics without overselling them (the rest in the title phrase: “That was my prelude . . . to a kiss”), and ending on a breathtaking high note. On his acoustic guitar, Ganz provided the detail and delicacy of touch of a latter day Bucky Pizzarelli.

But it was on the second tune, the McGarry original “Climbing Down,” where the narrative really took shape. She said the song was about climbing the family tree of “my potato famine ancestors.” It was essentially a blues — about family, the Church, drink, and all manner of tangled branches. And in the final verse it turned into a softly sung traditional Celtic ballad, “Whiskey You’re the Devil,” haunting, ghostly. Ganz, meanwhile, had moved from blues vamp to “extended” techniques — scraping harmonics from his strings, tapping the guitar percussively. The effect was cinematic and left the room in a hush.

McGarry created a similar structural collage in her “Ten Little Indians.” It’s an elegy for her parents, who died a year apart in 2009 and 2010. The title refers to her and her nine siblings (McGarry is from Hyannis, MA.). The folk song takes in the lives of her parents (“He built a house upon his back; she grew a garden in each room”) and their deaths (“These scenes that life does not rehearse”). And then, in the final verse, it drifts into the melody, and slightly revised lyrics, of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” At Scullers, this again left the room in a hush, followed by a huge ovation.

The narrative turns of McGarry’s performances are not always a matter of radical structural shifts. Most of the time her effects are created entirely musically, working within the given song. It’s not unusual for a singer to follow an instrumental solo by coming in on the bridge, but Ganz’s guitar work was so evocative and varied — tone, timbre, swinging eighth-note runs alternating with folky vamps — that when McGarry returned to sing the final verse of, say, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “We Kiss in a Shadow” or James Taylor’s “Line ‘em Up,” it was startling. Yes, the same familiar melody and words, but something had happened, and the song was in a different place now. The experience of the song had changed it. Even McGarry’s wordless vocals, or the occasional jazz scatting, were never mere embellishment — they were an extension of the emotions of the songs, a different way to feel them.

It’s probably this artistic focus — and McGarry and Ganz’s ability to cross jazz and folk techniques — that made the show all of a piece, even as the two went from Taylor to Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke’s “Pennies from Heaven,” or from the devastating “Ten Little Indians” to Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Close to You.”

Despite the weather, McGarry had a good house, and she joked about the snow and the benefits of a “home court advantage” (she guessed that “eight or nine” of her siblings were in the audience). And her wit offered comic relief without pandering or trivializing the material. (“Can’t Help Loving That Man” didn’t prove that love is blind, but “rather nearsighted.”)

McGarry doesn’t have one of those huge, operatic jazz voices (she’s not Sarah Vaughan or Cécile McLorin Salvant). But the voice is instantly recognizable — strong, muscular, with an appealing butterscotch middle register. Her technique (breath, pitch, phrasing) is just about flawless, and it’s all of a piece with her artistry — personal and peerless. McGarry has her own stories to tell.

(Photo of Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz by Frank Zipperer. Read my Boston Globe feature interview with Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz here.)

The Slutcracker: Pasties en pointe

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From the 2011 production of The Slutcracker. Photo by Hans Wendland.

Even as we arrived 20 minutes before curtain for Sunday-evening performance of The Slutcracker at the Somerville Theatre, ushers were urging us to head for balcony — seats in the orchestra for this general-admission production were already almost gone. It was a mixed crowd in all manner of dress, from rock-crowd slobs to night-out gals on the town in their heels and skinny dresses. Say what you will, in its fifth year, this local production is a hit, and as much a seasonal cultural benchmark as the big-time legit original running downtown.

Let me be clear: I’ve never been interested in the “new” burlesque. I never really got the “irony” of women pretending to be old-time strippers — it all seemed like yet another excuse for bad amateur theatrics. That is, until my wife, on impulse (okay, she was still coming down from post-outpatient surgery sedatives), bought us a pair of tickets to The Slutcracker.

Mind you, this is the same weekend in which we saw the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra’s loving take on the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn arrangement of Tchaikovksy’s Nutcracker SuiteBut, from the sublime to the ridiculous. The Slutcracker was worth the trip.

It began with warm-up comedian Mehran Khaghani’s blistering “motherfucker”-laced 10 minutes, during which, among other things, he related some of the sign-language from “deaf night,” with a digression on the clitoris: “If you ask a hockey crowd whether they know where the clitoris is, they’ll ask, ‘The dinosaur or the planet?'”

As for the show itself, as you might guess, the Slutcracker Prince is dildo that comes to life. (Khaghani had referred to the production’s “very thinly veiled” subtext. But, then again, so I suppose is the original’s.) Director/choregrapher Vanessa White has several trained ballet-dancer ringers mixed in with her large cast — a gender-bending mix of men and women of all body types. Costumes were clever as they were attractive. During the “Waltz of the Flowers,” dancers plucked their green-and-yellow petals and green-leaf tails; “The Russian Dance” was three halter-wearing, whip-cracking dominatrixes; the “Chinese Dance” was a nicely choreographed fan dance. Action was well-synched with the music, especially in the opening-act expository party scene. (Clara really needs something Fritz isn’t giving her, and “Auntie” Drosselmeyer knows just what that is.)

What else? There was an impressively acrobatic pole dance (made more challenging, I’d guess, by that wobbly pole), some convincing ballet moves and toe-shoe action (especially by Slutcracker Prince Davide Vittorino and White hersel as the Sugar Dish Fariy), and all manner of simulated group sex (the dildo-nosed, uh, gingerbread children of the Polichnelle). A buff dog in restraints was led around on a leash, but he did get up from all fours occasionally to swing his impressive banana sack.

The Sunday evening show was sold out, as were most of the other performances at the 900-seat Somerville Theatre. But you might be able to get tickets to the remaining Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve performances. And, hey, where else, in the middle of “The Chinese Dance,” as Tchaikovsky’s sublime music plays in the background, will you hear someone yell from the balcony, “Show us your tits!”