Category Archives: Live review

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!”

Live review: Madeleine Peyroux at Berklee

Madeleine Peyroux. Photo by Rocky Schenck.

Madeleine Peyroux. Photo by Rocky Schenck.

You know what you’re going to get with Madeleine Peryoux — as she herself said from the stage at Berklee Performance Center in Boston on Sunday: “love songs, blues, and drinking songs.” To which, she added, several of them “written by dirty old men.”

Peyroux was working her latest album, The Blue Room (Decca), which is mostly a tribute to the classic Ray Charles crossover pop-country 1962 hit, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The album covers some of the songs that Charles covered on that album as well as some choices by Peyroux and producer Larry Klein.

It also includes a string orchestra arranged by Vince Mendoza. At Berklee, the strings were reduced to a quartet, with a core backing band of guitarist (and musical director) Jon Herington, keyboardist Jim Beard, bassist Barak Mori, and drummer Darren Beckett. And even with strings, this band defined the sound: shuffle and swing rhythms, Herington and Mori often playing on the beat, and nothing much faster than medium tempo.

The slow tempos on the whole didn’t hurt the show. People were there to hear Peyroux — her voice and delivery, her offbeat arrangements and particular idiosyncratic take on familiar songs. She sang Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Bye Bye Love” (one of the Charles covers) maybe a little faster than the album, and informed the lyrics with a bit of sarcasm, so that it became a kind of kiss-off, giving a different twist to the closing lyric, “I think I’m gonna die/bye-bye, my love, bye-bye.”

Peyroux’s readings were also full of risks – she sang the first word of “Born To Lose” somewhere in her deepest register, where it almost didn’t sound, then brought it up and bent it, finally landing on “lose,” walking way out on the edge of the key before bringing it back. If her characters were drunk, she reminded you of that with her singing and a bit of mugging, whether it was Randy Newman’s wayward spouse in “Guilty” or Warren Zevon’s desperate character staring into the bottom of a coffee cup on “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” (and yes, those very non-Ray tunes are also on The Blue Room).

There were a few variations, and a few tunes not on the new album. Leonard Cohen’s “Half the Perfect World” (the title track of her 2006 album) was arranged as a bossa nova, which gave Beard a chance to play a fine jazz piano solo on the acoustic grand. There was Serge Gainsbourg’s “La Javanaise” as a waltz (sung in French). And there were some infelicitous moments (I wish that after all this time Peyroux would learn how to use a microphone so that she doesn’t lose words when she backs away). But by the end of the show, Peyroux, the band, and the strings, had created a unified tapestry. Her deep reading of the Zevon put you in that Hollywood Hawaii Hotel along with the protagonist. Herrington’s guitar twanged along sympathetically — like a faithful drinking companion — and, after the last words died on Peyroux’s lips, the strings kept sighing the melody. The effect was downright cinematic, which is surely what Peyroux — and her fans — wanted.

For this review and other pieces about arts and culture, check out The Arts Fuse.

The return of Bob Mover

 

Bob Mover at the Lily Pad.

Bob Mover at the Lily Pad.

Bebop is all about rhythm and chord changes, and Bob Mover is all about bebop. But he’s also about songs, something demonstrated in two sets at the Lily Pad on Monday night. Mover played a lot of alto saxophone, a bit of soprano, and sang. On his horns, he ate up chord changes and fashioned complex runs at high speed. But melody was at the core of everything he did, and he made his priorities clear whenever he introduced a tune. He said that he knew Anthony Newley’s “What Kind of Fool Am I” from his childhood, from “one of the last shows that had songs with chord changes” (from Newley’s Stop the World — I Want To Get Off, which played Broadway in 1962). He talked about how most of the vocal performances of the song that he’d heard were “over the top,” but suggested we check out a YouTube clip of the composer singing the piece on Hollywood Palace. Mover played it on alto, understated but Bird-like in its inventiveness. And his singing of the lyrics was understated too: “Why can’t I cast away/this mask of clay/and live my life?”

Mover is 61 now and suffering from emphysema, and he took hits off an inhaler between solos. He played alto nearly doubled over. But his sound was huge and pure and seemingly unfettered. Born in Boston, Mover was a regular on   the scene in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. A former “rising star” in the bands of Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, and others, he is now someone best known to aficionados. His latest album, My Heart Tells Me (Motéma), is a double disc, half ballad standards and half originals, with Kenny Barron on piano. Mover’s audience at the Lily Pad was a gratifying mix of old partisans and younger listeners. The 6 pm show at the 93-capacity venue was respectable, but by the time of the 7 pm set the place was crowded.

With Mover was another former Bostonian, guitarist Joe Cohen; the bassist Will Slate, who splits his time between New York and Boston; and drummer Bob Gullotti of the Fringe. The band played four songs in each of the 50-minute sets, all of them spellbinding. There was all manner of bebop derring-do, plenty of trading of 8’s and 4’s in the solo sections. There were upbeat abstractions, but even Mover’s “It’s All Good,” which had a relentless, Tristano-like driving unison line for guitar and alto, was, it turned out, based on the Gershwins’ “’S Wonderful.” (Mover asked us to guess his source material before playing the song and, afterwards, someone did.)  The first set’s opener, a mid-tempo ballad with brushes, was “Shangri-la,” by Matt Malneck and Carl Sigman, and Mover recommended Peggy Lee’s interpretation. Dietz and Schwartz’s “By Myself” had been sung by Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. And Johnny Mercer’s “Dream” was something, Mover said, “I have sung my two daughters to sleep with.”

So, yes, there was a rip-roaring “Tune Up” and an original minor blues, “Erken,” that could have been a hardbop flagwaver. But the binder of the set, the yeast, the stuff that made it hold together and rise, was in those vocal performances: understated, perfectly phrased, in a light voice, so that you could hear every word: “Dream when you’re feeling blue./Dream — that’s the thing to do./Thing aren’t as bad as they seem/so dream.”

A New York night

Trio da Paz with Maucha Adnet. Photo by Frank Stewart

Trio da Paz with Maucha Adnet. Photo by Frank Stewart

So I finally made it to one of the snazzy no-longer-new Jazz at Lincoln Center venues (which is not located at Lincoln Center, something worth pointing out if you’re taking a cab) — Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. The club seats 140, and like it’s sister venue, the roughly 450-seat amphitheater-style Allen Room, has dramatic picture-window views of Columbus Circle and midtown. (The approximately 1,200-seat Rose Theatre offers no street views.) The music was Trio da Paz, the esteemed trio of Brazilian expats Romero Lubambo on guitar, Nilson Matta on bass, and Duduka da Fonseca on drums. These three players — all in-demand session men — have been regulars on the New York scene since moving there in 1985. For their weekend at Dizzy’s, they added tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, vibist Joe Locke, and singer Maucha Adnet — all regular collaborators.

It’s easy to take jazz samba and bossa nova for granted as a loungey ’60s phenomenon — swinging cocktail music. But those who follow Boston’s vibrant Brazilian music scene know otherwise, and Trio da Paz are another example of how compelling this music is when played at such a high level. Part of what makes it work is that within moments of establishing a samba beat, the band moves into jazz territory, with extended harmonies and improvisations that go well beyond the confines of pop-song structure. So Lubambo’s “Bachião” was based on a Bach Prelude, but deploys the northern Brazilian baião rhythm. Even when Lubambo was playing his flashiest runs, he and the band never lost a grasp of the tune’s earthy folkloric dance core. Something Bach might have appreciated.

The jazz connections were reinforced when Locke and Allen came out for da Fonseca’s “Donna Maria” and Locke quoted Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop” in his solo. The presence of the warm-toned Allen was a deliberate allusion to samba-jazz popularizer Stan Getz (the show was titled “The Music of Jobim and Getz”). But — despite the similarities in tone and attack — Allen went his own way. Mauchet closed the circle, as someone who toured as part of Jobim’s band (she also happens to be married to da Fonseca).  She delivered the expected “Waters of March” (“Águas de Março”) and “One Note Samba,” the latter at a breathless tempo.

There were other originals and standards, including Milton Nascimento’s “Vera Cruz,” with its tense central riff. The varied tempos, textures, and instrumentation made for a fast 90-minute set, and so did the band’s easy virtuosity. (Sometimes all it takes to get a savvy crowd whooping is an inventive twist at the top of the chorus — not an unwarranted reaction.)

Trio Da Paz. Photo by Frank Stewart

Trio da Paz. Photo by Frank Stewart

As for Dizzy’s, besides that NYC skyline glamour, there was a full menu of southern-style specialties that were just special enough without being pretentious (very nice shrimp and grits that the kitchen doesn’t inflate with $5 of shaved truffles, and hush puppies that have a nice grainy texture, good oniony-herb flavor, and are not greasy).  The staff was predominantly African-American (also good to see at a jazz club). And when one over-enthusiastic fan’s disruptive shouting earned Lubambo’s ire, he was escorted out. Harsh. But Lubambo had a point: a Bach Prelude shouldn’t be upstaged by someone in the audience.

Satoko Fujii and Kaze at the Lily Pad

Kaze: Natsuki Tamura, Peter Orins, Christian Pruvost, and Satoko Fujii. Photo by Alexander Norclain.

Kaze: Natsuki Tamura, Peter Orins, Christian Pruvost, and Satoko Fujii. Photo by Alexandre Noclain.

Thanks to a discrepancy between the listing in my own Boston Globe piece (correct) a couple of weeks ago and the listing at the Lily Pad Web site (incorrect), I arrived late for the set by the Japanese-French quartet Kaze. Too bad for me, but there’s something to be said for arriving to a performance in media res. In this case, in front of a crowd of 25 or so (the Lily Pad doesn’t hold much more than that), the band was creating near-silence.  Trumpeters Natsuki Tamura and Christian Pruvost stood with their instruments at their lips, yet nothing could be heard but the quiet swoosh of blown air. Pianist Satoko Fujii was standing at the keyboard, bent over, her arms extended into the instrument’s strings. One began to hear a soft rubbing sound, then the scrape of drummer Peter Orins’s stick against cymbals. “Wooosh!” went that eerie, airy sound, louder and then quieter as Pruvost,lips pressed to mouthpiece, pivoted his horn from side to side. Fujii plucked some spare harp notes on her strings, and after five minutes or so the trumpeters began to blow fully sounded notes. Then Taumra and Pruvost fell into a sweet, mysterious unison melody of long tones, Fujii accompanying them with spare chords. The flow of the trumpet line slowly fractured, the rhythmic rattles on the drums increased, and we moved out of the quiet world of Morton Feldman minimalism and into a full candence and a stop. Pruvost broke for an a cappella solo — a short, repeated arpeggiated phrase, accelerating and declerrating, ending with a long held tone and a wide, soft vibrato.  He played a bluesy phrase before Tamura joined him with soft flutters and Pruvost answered with some hard riffs. There was a break for a drum solo, Orins now leaving his rattles and scrapes behind for additive phrases with snare, sticks on rims, and resonant tom-tom, playing a kind of call-and-response with his bass drum — 1,2! 1,2,3! 1,2,3,4! 1,2,3,4,5! Fujii came in with some sweeping chromatic phrases and then the band found a kind of unison theme and hard 4/4, but not swinging. The long unison trumpet line came back, and the band stopped cold. It had been about 25 minutes since I’d entered the club.

Kaze (pronounced Kah-ZEH, meaning “wind”) takes jazz abstraction to a sublime limit. And it does sound like the process of abstract painting — everything is about balance, the relationship of mark to ground, the shape of lines, with vague reference to a tonal center of fixed time-keeping. The band favors what the Art Ensemble of Chicago used to call “little instruments” — bird calls and rattles, toy noisemakers, temple bells and zen bowls. At one point, Pruvost created a squealing effect by blowing through a black rubber balloon into his mouthpiece, the distended bladder suggesting that he might be about to create a balloon animal. But from this beautifully calibrated randomness will emerge one of those austere unison trumpet lines or a grand, pummeling piano rhapsody. There is suspense, virtuosity, mystery, calm. When Fujii introduced what she said would be the last tune, some in the audience responded with a disappointed sigh. “Don’t worry,” said Fujii, “it’s long!” In fact, only about 10 minutes or so. But longer would have been fine.

All the pieces played at the show are on the band’s new CD, Tornado, on Circum-Libra Records.

Jason Palmer plays Minnie Riperton at Scullers

Jason Palmer and Colleen Palmer at Scullers

Jason Palmer and Colleen Palmer at Scullers. Photo by Don Carlson/JazzBoston

The pop vocalist Minnie Riperton died of cancer at the age of 31 in 1979 –  the year Jason Palmer was born. And though she was a striking phenomenon at the time — with a range of more than five octaves, and collaborators and champions like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder — her music, with its almost unfailingly sunny lyrics, is decidedly of that era. But, the pop music world being what it is, Palmer discovered her work as a teenager — a snippet of her song “Inside My Love” sampled on hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest’s “Lyrics To Go.” Now Palmer has a new album (his fourth), Take a Little Trip, dedicated to the music of Riperton, the basis of a show at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston on August 28.

Palmer is a focused player, with a burnished tone that takes on a beautiful dark glow in his mid-range. What’s more, his solos, while punctuated with spontaneous leaps to the high end and explosive runs of fast notes, are shaped for narrative effect. Playing chord changes, he’s always aware of overall melodic shape. Every note, while not fussy, is delivered with clear intent.

The pop outlines of Riperton’s music are a natural fit for Palmer, providing rich melodic material. His arrangements take liberties — sometime extreme — with Riperton’s material. He reharmonizes the melodies and sets them to odd time signatures and mixed meters. There are some pleasantly abstract moments in the music — such as the trumpet-bass duo on the album’s “Adventures in Paradise” (which Riperton co-wrote with Joe Sample) or the dreamy rubato and exploratory guitar work by Greg Duncan on “Inside My Love.” But all of this is contained by the rhythmic and melodic immediacy of hard bop.

The album was recorded in October 2011, and since then the band has been taking it on the road. At Scullers, Luke Marantz replaced the album’s Jake Sherman on Fender Rhodes, and Michael Thomas joined on alto (Edward Perez is the band’s bassist, and Lee Fish the drummer). If anything the music had a bit more edge and drive, the solos venturing further afield (the band played only six songs in their 90-minute set). But the music still hewed to that focused narrative arc. Palmer introduced three of the tunes with extended a cappella trumpet, which might have been too much of a good thing, but you couldn’t fault the shapeliness of his lines, the dramatic contrasts of tone and texture. The solos by Thomas and Duncan often began as slow simmers that came to a full boil. Marantz helped amp the tension both rhythmically and harmonically, countering the solo lines with odd staccato accents and the rising tension of unstable chords.

Colleen Palmer (Jason’s wife), who is not on the album, sang three songs and wisely avoided mimicking Riperton’s pyrotechnics or tone. Instead, she deployed her formidable technique and musical-theater finesse and clarity. The highlight of the evening might have been the closer, “Loving You,” Riperton’s biggest hit. Here Palmer chopped up the tune’s melodic parts into overlapping vocal and instrumental counterpoint. And here he also provided strong rhythmic contrasts as well, his complex steeplechase of mixed meters on the theme (different in every bar) released into a flow of Duncan playing solo over 4/4 swing before returning to the head.  It was a satisfying coda for an evening that showed yet again how pop (even “modern” pop) can serve as nourishment for new jazz.

For this and other articles on jazz, check out The Arts Fuse.

Newport Jazz Festival opening night

Natalie Cole was the headliner for the opening night of the 59th Newport Jazz Festival tonight at the Newport Casino, but for my money (speaking figuratively—my tickets were free), it was her Uncle Freddy who stole the show.

Freddy Cole, now 81, appeared as a special guest with openers the Bill Charlap Trio (with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington). Cole walked out on stage slightly bent in posture, and his vocals at first seemed insecure. But he soon took flight. He sang some of the less familiar classics from the Great American Songbook with a warm, grainy tone and flawless phrasing, creating intimate, conversational music that made every lyric feel lived in:

“Once in a while…. would you try to give a thought to me.”
. . . .
“If I cried a little bit when first I learned the truth/don’t blame it on my heart/blame it on my it on my youth.”
. . . .
“So when one of us is gone/and one of us is left/to carry on/our memories will see us through.” 

At one point, Cole took over from Charlap at the piano in mid-song and continued his set, playing and singing. He finished with a “toe-tapper,” the Billy Eckstine blues “Jelly Jelly,” as raunchy as it needed to be.

Natalie began her set by following in the same vein of American songbook standards — often associated with her father, Nat “King” Cole, one of the greatest of American popular singers. So we got very respectable versions of “The Very Thought of You,” “The Best Is Yet To Come” (for Nat’s friend, “Uncle Frank” Sinatra), “Lush Life,” “Smile.” There was the obligatory video duet with her father of “Unforgettable,” and a warm ovation from the crowd. But next to the plummy sound of her father in his prime,  Natalie’s voice sounded tart and thin. Her band helped her lift the tempo (and the mood) with cuts from her current Spanish-language hit album, Natalie Cole en Espanol. But it was when she went back to her 1975 pop hit “This Will Be” that Natalie sounded most convincing, most herself, punching out the high notes with extra loft from her two backup singers.

Cole had an impressive band, filled out with guitar, synth keyboards, acoustic piano, and percussion (from her son, Robbie Yancy). And she was a charming, assured performer. By the end of the night, the air had grown cool. Cole put on a jacket and urged the audience to dance to her pop hits and the Latin grooves. The air felt moist, but overhead above the grounds of the Newport Casino, the sky was mostly clear, and the stars were shining. Later this morning, the Newport Jazz Festival Presented by Natixis Global Asset management will continue at Fort Adams State Park. See you there.  And look for the rest of my report in Monday’s Boston Globe.