Category Archives: Music Diary

New Orleans notes

The "Wild Man" of the Young Seminole Hunters, Mardi Gras Indians. JazzFest 2014. Photo by Clea Simon.

The “Wild Man” of the Young Seminole Hunters, Mardi Gras Indians. JazzFest 2014. Photo by Clea Simon.

Debbie Davis — singer-songwriter with the trio the Gloryoskis! — was telling the crowd at the Lagniappe Stage about the trio’s club show that night at , at 9 p.m. “It’s a real 9,” she said. “Not a Rebirth 9… which is 11:30, as you know.” That got a good laugh from the crowd.

It’s was the kind of offhand comment that visitors to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival learn to savor. On the surface, the music of the Gloryoskis! and the Rebirth Brass Band have nothing to do with each other: a trio of three white female singer songwriters and an African-American brass band straight outta the hood. But that’s the New Orleans music scene — at least as I’ve experienced it over the years: non-sectarian, a mutual appreciation society that crosses genre, class, generations, ethnicities. Of course the Gloryoskis! know about Rebirth — everyone in New Orleans knows about Rebirth. They’re famous. As is their weekly residency at the Maple Leaf.  And if you make a joke about them going on late, everyone gets it.

Or course, there’s a downside to community spirit. You’ll be sitting in the festival’s trad jazz tent, awaiting the arrival of a singer whose name you only vaguely remember, and all you can think is the worst: “Sub-par standards with lots of innuendo. Local fave.” Or maybe some youngster has a famous surname: “Talentless grandson of. . . . ”

The fact is, New Orleans is both the most local and the most cosmopolitan of festivals. Today, Saturday, you had a choice between Orange Kellin’s New Orleans Deluxe Orchestra, Wayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers, the Original Pinettes Brass Band (“the only all-female brass band in the world!”). . . .  and Bruce Springsteen. All playing concurrently. And this year the international focus is Brazill — there’s a Brazil pavilion, and regular appearances by the Os Negoes of Bahia Brazil 30-piece samba crew. There is, of course, a strong French-Cajun tradition in Louisiana music, which is probably one reason the Belgian singer-songwriter Helen Gillet (one of the Gloryoskis! trio) feels so at home here, singing songs in French, accompanying herself with cello and loops. She moved here 12 years ago.

The Festival — now celebrating its 45th anniversary — takes place on 11 stages (plus an interview stage, and supplemental crafts fair and innumerable food booths) at the Fair Grounds race course. The big draws for aficionados are the local acts — some of whom never tour north of Route 10, like Al “Carnival Time” Johnson or Frankie (“Sea Cruise”) Ford, or the local Mardi Gras Indians, trad jazz bands, Cajun and zydeco acts. But, of course, there are bands here of international import, like Springsteen or, last weekend, Phish. The big-name draws always threaten to tilt the festival and to turn the 50 or so other artists performing on any given day into ostensible opening acts.

Springsteen certainly was the big draw today, but some veteran festival goers were not impressed. Settling in the shade of an open tent to enjoy a quick snack (crawfish bisque and trout baquet — yum!) my wife and I found a couple of dining companions (Louisiana natives) who were unequivocal.

“I’m sorry, what have you done for me lately, Bruce!,” said one woman who didn’t want to hear the boss “screaming” at her for nearly three hours. Instead she was going for Al Jarreau. Well, okay. A lover man, a 60-minute man, not a 2-hour-and-45-minute man wailing about the ghost of Tom Joad.

Well, tomorrow she’ll have a choice of John Fogerty, Trombone Shorty, and Arcade Fire, among dozens of others. Me, I think I’ll have to check out Bobby Lounge, the Stooges Brass Band and the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church Mass Choir in the Gospel Tent. And, of course, Aaron Neville. Hey, maybe I’ll run into the Al Jarreau fan at that one.

 

 

 

 

Music Diary: Iyer and Pinsky

Vijay Iyer and Robert Pinsky at Sanders Theatre Friday night. Photo by Robert Torres. Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

Vijay Iyer and Robert Pinsky at Sanders Theatre Friday night. Photo by Robert Torres. Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

I was only able to hear a portion of the Vijay Iyer/Robert Pinsky Celebrity Series of Boston concert at Sanders Theatre Friday night — all of Iyer and Pinsky’s  40-minute “PoemJazz” set, and about 45 minutes of the Vijay Iyer Trio set.

I’m a reluctant fan of the Pinsky “PoemJazz” project. It’s a reluctance Pinsky himself acknowledged when I talked to him a couple of years ago before a PoemJazz show at the Regattabar: “I can always see that people are afraid it’s going to be embarrassing.”

Nonethless, a fan I became — of Pinsky and of PoemJazz — after seeing that Regattabar show with pianist Laurence Hobgood (who has recorded PoemJazz with Pinsky). For PoemJazz, Pinsky wasn’t looking for impressionistic musical responses to his texts. He wanted to perform the poems as true musical duets (he is a former aspiring jazz saxophonist). The text of the poem become a lead sheet, and Hobgood told me he reads ahead as he listens to Pinsky’s words, devising chord sequences. There are piano introductions, cued entrances and exits, piano solos (breaks for a bar or two or sometimes  the equivalent of a chorus or half-chorus), and Pinsky fiddles with his own texts, using repetition as a song-like device. Poetic form becomes musical form in these performances.

My first impression at the show on Friday night was that Iyer was maybe a bit more deferential to Pinsky than he had to be. At the Regattabar, Hobgood often played busy lines at full volume, challenging Pinsky to deliver like a saxophone. For the first piece at Sanders, Iyer’s sophisticated noodling was laid back. (It was Pinsky’s saxophone poem, “Horn”: “This is the golden trophy”). As with Hobgood, “Antique” was played as a blues, with a bit of walking bass (“I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned/In the river of not having you . . . .”)

Despite Iyer’s more impressionistic approach, the pieces had form — as they had with Hobgood. A good musician, Pinsky knows how to count as he plays, and he knew where to leave room for a piano break, where to repeat a line like a refrain. I think the most successful pieces for me were those where Iyer deployed a laptop along with the Sanders Steinway. (“This one’s a trio,” Pinsky said before they played the first laptop number. The laptop variously conjured basslines, pattering tablas, or ambient clicks and scrapes and hisses. The most effective piece for me was “Refinery,” the central image being that of a California oil refinery lit up at night (“the most beautiful thing I saw,” Pinsky said of his time in California). Here, Iyer’s drifting chromatic lines created an appropriately cinematic effect with Pinsky’s words (“The great Refinery — a million bulbs tracing/Its boulevards, turrets, and palisades.”)

Robert Pinsky in full yawp. Photo by Robert Torres. Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

Robert Pinsky in full yawp. Photo by Robert Torres. Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

Iyer’s playing was never less than interesting and Pinsky’s commitment was total. And, as the poet Tony Hoagland is quoted on the back of Pinsky’s Selected Poems (FSG), he is “a much stranger poet than is generally acknowledged.” Pinsky lives in Cambridge and teaches at B.U., and he introduced the piece “House Hour” by talking about his love for old working-class neighborhoods in Cambridge and Somerville. Looking at them, for him, is like “Wordsworth looking at a lake.” Dressed in university-poet blazer and tie, he sometimes performed with his hands in his pockets or held behind his back, and he held nothing back in delivering the full yawp of his lines. “Antique” is not what I’d call a funny poem, but I’ve heard Pinsky perform it twice, and both times he’s gotten a laugh with “Someday far down that corridor of horror the future/Someone who buys this picture of you for the frame. . . .”

I can’t comment fully on Iyer’s performance with his trio because, like I say, I heard only a portion of it. Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Marcus Gilmore played beautifully, avoiding any obvious grooves or straight meters. There was one lovely ballad that sounded as though it might turn into “Misty” but didn’t. The forms were odd, too, with Crump sometimes holding things down with recurring short patterns, the band falling into cadence and unison lines at unpredictable points. I was most struck by an old-fashioned “process” piece — of the likes of Reich or Glass or maybe Feldman — that built layers of repetitive rhythmic patterns and a continually rising crescendo over the course of (by my count) nearly 15 minutes, coming to a hard-stop climax with a mighty thwack from Gilmore. It got a huge ovation from the crowd. Iyer said it was called “Hood” for the electronic musician Robert Hood.

About midway through the 45 minutes that I heard, I grew a bit restless, as all the odd-metered hooh-hah began to take on a sameness. I recalled years ago seeing Brad Mehldau’s great trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy at Jordan Hall. I invited a friend to join me — someone who had been a huge Mehldau fan. But he said he’d been feeing emotionally disengaged from Mehldau’s playing lately — all the complex odd and mixed meters, he told me. But he joined me anyway and, lo and behold, Mehldau played some straight-time swing, a bolero (by Charlie Haden), a couple of waltzes.

Jazz these days — from Mehldau and Robert Glasper to Mary Halvorson and Taylor Ho Bynum — is pursuing new paths in rhythmic invention. And some of it really does groove in a beautifully fucked-up way (catch Glasper live with the drummers Mark Colenburg or Chris Dave or Rudresh Mahanthappa with bassist Rich Brown). I think in live performance more than on record you really do need some groove, if only for the sake of variety and a bit of ear-refreshment.

In any case, I’d love to hear from anyone who caught the rest of the Iyer trio’s performance after “Hood.” Iyer announced that he was about to play a solo piece when I left. What else did he and the band play? And, by the way, my exit had nothing to do with my feelings about the performance. Sometimes there are just other places you have to be.

POST SCRIPT: A set list from Iyer’s management (via the Celebrity Series) indicates that Iyer followed “Hood” with a solo piano performance of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.” Too bad I missed that one, would have loved to have heard it. And Pinsky returned for a performance of his poem “Ginza Samba” (“A monosyllabic European called Sax/Invents a horn. . . . “).

Spring Quartet

The Spring Quartet: Leo Genovese, Esperanza Spalding, Jack DeJohnette, and Joe Lovano. Photo by Robert Torres/courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

It’s been a busy week of live shows — Patricia Barber at Scullers, Seth Meicht’s Big Sound Ensemble at the Lily Pad, a Mardi Gras show with the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble at the Regattabar and, last night, the Spring Quartet at Sanders Theatre.

I won’t offer a blow-by-blow review of any of these shows — each of which was excellent in its own way. But I have some thoughts on the concert-going experience and I’d be interested in any feedback, whether about these shows or about going to shows in general.

My thoughts were spurred by the Spring Quartet show. In a lot of ways, this Celebrity Series of Boston event was a superior presentation: Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Esperanza Spalding, and Leo Genovese, a multi-generational collaboration of top artists in one of the areas finest venues. The playing throughout this generous show (1 hour, 45 minutes) was beautiful, and often inspired. It was a sold-out house, and that in itself was inspiring.

And yet. . . and yet. I wasn’t blown away. At least, not as blown away as I wanted to be. The tunes were interesting,  Joe played all his horns (including flute), Esperanza sang one of her pretty, wordless songs accompanying herself on bass (the kind of thing she used to do all the time in her Boston days before crossover stardom), and DeJohnette, aside from playing well, got some of the best sound I’d ever heard from a drum set in Sanders Theatre. That is, he was able to play quietly, but with presence, so that individual cymbal hits and soft rim shots registered in the front of the mix.

But on the whole, I found the show a bit tame. I was most drawn to Genovese as a soloist — he’s a stunning player, mixing up rhythms with extended right-hand lines, playing with form, breaking up his fleet runs with unruly chord clusters. He seemed the only one up there constantly of the verge of committing mayhem. And that was part of it. The show seemed like a series of excellent solos, whereas I wanted some kind of group frenzy. By which I don’t necessarily mean chaos. A couple of weeks back I caught Danilo Pérez’s “Panama 500” band and again I was impressed with his core trio — there seemed to be so much going on at once, especially in the way bassist Ben Street created a continuous variety of patterns even as he “accompanied” Pérez’s piano and worked the groove. The Spring Quartet show seemed more like a series of very fine solos.

Again, don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the show, I would gladly see this band again. They had an amiable stage presence, took turns making introductions, played with humor, and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other. And the sequencing of tunes was thoughtful and varied — a couple of miscues about what tune to play next even provided brief comedy. But — except for a short Spalding  tune where she picked up an alto, Genovese played soprano, and Lovano played tenor, all to shrieking, ecstatic effect — I was missing that sense of unhinged group invention.

The Patricia Barber show, on the other hand, came at live performance from the other end. This was jazz in a club, not a concert hall. But aside from these differences, you could say Barber did everything wrong. She didn’t announce tunes, or even talk to the audience, until deep into her set. She and her band played for little more than an hour, with no encore. And the set had no clear pacing or arc.

Patricia Barber. Photo Jimmy Katz.

Patricia Barber. Photo Jimmy Katz.

But this band was swinging in sync from beginning to end — even in their “mistakes,” which cracked them up a couple of times. At times guitarist Gilad Hekelsman would look back at Barber as if concerned about where to come in. But there was an intensity to this band, the constant pressure of group swing, in drummer Patrick Mulcahy’s springy subdivision of the beat, bassist Ross Pederson freely going in and out of tempo without ever losing the groove, and Barber’s piano lines, which she invented wily-nily, or so it seemed, as the mood struck her.

At some point I thought, this is “jazz.” This is what I think of when I hear that word. It was the type of casual but intense music that you’d expect from the kind of three-set evening you used to be able to catch as a matter of course in jazz clubs but that are now relegated to jam sessions in bars (Wally’s in the South End is a gratifying exception). The fact is, even “clubs” aren’t really clubs any more. The music economy and ticket prices being what they are, every club show — at the Regattabar or Scullers, but also at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York or any other high-end venue — are “concerts.”  You buy a ticket for one show only and the band had better deliver — a narrative arc with calibrated pacing and a big climax as a payoff.

At the end of her show, Barber said something about this being it for “this set.” As though there was going to be another. I think the standing, cheering crowd would have been happy to stay. And, in some time of yore, that’s what you’d do — maybe by promising to buy another drink or two as a “minimum.” Maybe the set didn’t have that “concert arc,” but it was cool, and in another setting I would have ordered another drink and stayed for another set Just in order to hear what might happen next.

I’m reminded of something Revolutionary Snake Ensemble leader Ken Field said after one of their tunes on Fat Tuesday: “I’m sure we’re just as surprised as you are by where that tune ended up.” It would be nice to experience that mutual surprise more often.

Miss Tess and Neha at the Lizard Lounge

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Miss Tess and the Talk Backs. Photo by Mike Spencer.

Okay, so everyone’s heard me blab plenty about Miss Tess — her singing, her songwriting, her band the Talk Backs — but there’s more reason to crow: a new CD, a show tonight at the Lizard Lounge that you should get yourself too, and a promising newcomer who opened for Tess last night. Oh, and Miss Tess and the Talk Backs are also returning to the Lizard for a special New Year’s Day Show.

First things first. The EP-length CD, The Love I Have for You (Signature Sounds) comprises the original title cut and six covers, including Hank WIlliams’s “The Alabama Waltz,” Willie Nelson’s “NIght Life,” and Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up or Let It Go.”

At the Lizard, Tess sang all of those, plus the new CD’s opener, “Sorry You’re Sick,” by the late Venice Beach busker Ted Hawkins, with the deathless refrain: “What do you want from the liquor store — something sour, something sweet!” As Tess explained about Hawkins (who released one record on Rounder), “Everybody liked him, but he kept messing up.”

Tess is not messing up. The Talk Backs are lean and swinging, with Tess and Will Graefe on guitars, Larry Cook on bass, and Matt Meyer on drums. This is the line-up she’s had for a while, since she scaled back the more jazzy stylings of her Bon Ton Parade, which at one time featured a full horn section. At the risk of repeating myself (see my earlier post), the band can rock out, swing hard, or play a slinky mambo, and Tess’s singing is right there with them — equal parts vulnerability and confident swagger. She was especially appealing belting out the Raitt hook or the demands on her own “If You Wanna Be My Man” (“Now you’re taking out your little black book/you think you got a fish on a hook”).

Also a treat last night was Neha.

Neha

The young singer was raised in New Jersey by strict Indian family (at the Lizard, she distributed a charming postcard in full sari and traditional jewelry with the caption, “This is me as a child and that is my cousin. These outfits are real”). She got an economics degree at Northwestern, did a stint at Google, and then enrolled in the masters program at New England Conservatory. (The photo here is from a performance at Scullers.) She now lives in Brooklyn (natch).

At the Lizard, Neha was in the deep-jazz vein, singing and playing a string of originals that had the classic sound of the Great American Songbook, with her own cheeky lyrics (“Don’t get all boyfriend-y with me/. . . just give me some affection”). She had a warm, pliant voice, and a sharp band (Bobby Spellman on trumpet, bassist Frank Ajeda, and drummer Connor Baker). I’ll look foward to hearing them again soon.

In the meantime, Tess and the Talk Backs will return to the Lizard tonight, with Michael Tarbox opening this time. Then, on New Year’s Day at the Lizard, they join Girls Guns and Glory for that band’s Hank WIlliams Tribute. Catch them while you can.

Music Diary: Big Freedia at the Sinclair

Big Freedia at the Sinclair Thursday night.

Big Freedia at the Sinclair Thursday night.

When we got to the Sinclair, it was packed — a Droogie from A Clockwork Orange, Max from Where the Wild Things Are, a Pikachu, a Penguin from Batman, men and women in Viking-blonde pigtails, lots of women in black-tight Cat Woman outfits. DJ Nate Bluhm was blasting dancehall reggae. But how the fuck would I know? Fast beats and Jamaican patois. I asked my wife to order me a Red Stripe.

And then Big Freedia — the six-foot-plus transvestite in her Duff Man costume from The Simpsons. Blue tights and orange cape, orange baseball cap with “Duff” on the crown, a utility belt holding cans of Duff beer. Her DJ fired up the bounce beats — super-fast machine-gun popping syncopation with big scattered bass bombs. “I got that gin in my system/somebody gonna be my victim!” Call and response. Most people knew it, and the dancefloor was bouncing. Freedia — “the Queen Diva” — had four dancers, two men and two women. They kept moving, twirls and arm slices, kicks and bounces, and plenty of “original New Orleans twerkin’.” Asses in the air. One female dancer in a bee outfit, with orange wings and black outfit, the other in black-and-white corset and ruffled mini-skirt with orange laces and head ribbon. One of the male dancers was a Ninja, bare-chested and buff in orange headband and sweat pants. The other guy was an alien — two-tone trimmed Afro, galactic insignia, boots.

There weren’t a lot of lyrics. I recognized an old favorite: “ASS everywhere, ASS everywhere, ASS everywhere, ASS everywhere!” Freedia invited volunteers up to the stage for “twerk therapy” and, later, a booty contest. “Y’all gotta go harder than that!” There were more songs. “Go hard or go home!” And the chant of “EAT that pussy! EAT that pussy!” Freedia changed into an orange Big Freedia t-shirt and blue sweat pants, her long hair flowing loose. “That must be jelly/cause jam don’t shake!” The two male dancers squared off and bowed their legs, hopping frenetically — right out of Congo Square 200 years ago. But how the fuck would I know? “Y’all full of muthafuckin’ energy in this muthafuckin’ house tonight!” said Big Freedia with approval.

The chants and music went on — “Rock Around the Clock.” Because, hey, why the fuck not? With more call and response and then: “Rocka rocka rocka rocka rocka rocka!”  And, “Excuse, I don’t mean to be rude/but give me that mike/let me do what I do/Excuse me/I don’t mean to be rude/but give me that mike/let Big Freedia come through…..wobbly wobbly wobbly wobbly wobbly wobbly wobbly.”

Freedia complained that she was hoarse, but she sounded big and unimpaired. She sang about her search for a long dick — an a cappella R&B melody. She thanked everyone for supporting her reality show (on the Fuse network) and the bounce movement. This was the eighth night of the tour, Freedia said, and the first sold-out show. How could it not be — Halloween in Cambridge, Big Freedia and bounce. It was a no-brainer,.

Music Diary: Women of the World

Women of the World

Women of the World

The 10-member Women of the World entered the Regattabar Thursday night as a processional, intoning “Om,” matching the pitch drawn from a temple bowl with a wooden pestle by one of their four lead singers. Taking their place in a line facing the audience, the group continued to sing “Om mani padme hum.” Then the band’s instrumentalists took their place and the vocalists took turns on the second tune, one of whose lines was “I am the Light.”

At this point, you’d be excused if you reached for your adult beverage, but this after all was United Nations Day and the group’s show was in part an event for the United Nations Association of Greater Boston. There was a full house.

And there was no arguing with the ensemble’s impeccable musicianship — their tricky arrangements for those four voices, the perfectly executed harmonies, the engaging minimal bits of choreography (a group arm wave or side-step), the singers’ individual charisma. The group was brought together by Berklee alumnus Ayumi Ueda in 2008 to represent international culture and “create music for peace.” At the Regattabar, the women were dressed elegantly to their own taste or nationality (Annette Philip wore a lovely sari), and the music as well ranged in style and format. They sang a cappella and with their backup players. They sang a Japanese folk song followed by an Italian folk song. They sang in Turkish (with approval from Turkish audience members). Violinist Sue Buzzard played a Celtic fiddle tune. They ended with a Miriam Makeba song. There were a couple of sing-alongs with the audience. So yes, you could be cynical for a while. But when the group asked a schoolgirl to come up and read her own tribute to Malala Yousafzai, resistance was futile.