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Cécile McLorin Salvant at Scullers (for Ran)

Cécile McLorin Salvant

Cécile McLorin Salvant

A few notes about Cécile McLorin Salvant at Scullers a couple of weeks ago (Friday, Oct. 2) while I can still recall more than a couple of specific details and still read my notebook scrawls. It was the first of two sold-out shows, there were selections from her last album (2013’s WomanChild), the new one (For One To Love), and even a brand new song that she said the band had played for the first time that afternoon. In the past couple of years I’ve seen McLorin Salvant as often as I’ve seen any artist in that time, and she never disappoints. In May, during her show at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, I told my wife, “She does this as well as I’ve seen anyone do anything.” Or words to that effect. You get the idea.

But, I’ll save the bloviating for some other time. For now, I’ll just try to run down the setlist, somewhat out of sequence, as quickly as possible. First up was Noel Coward’s 1932 “Mad About the Boy,” with a rubato verse introduction , then into swinging tempo, and that first great moment, with a song about a tantalizing pleasure, a desire so strong that pleasure and pain are indistinguishable. So the moment: McLorin Savant singing “In some strange way/I’m glad about the boy.” And with that word, “glad,” she tilted her head back and let the sound pour out.

McLorin Salvant has reserves of power and phenomenal range and control, but she contains it, holds back, so that when she lets it go — “GLAD!” — the results can be devastating. An emotional peak. (Note to self: find the Dinah Washington recording of this song.)

Then came Cole Porter’s “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love.” Same era as Noel, 1938, and the title almost says it all: “Most gentlemen don’t like love/they just like to kick it around.”

Then came the first original of the night, The Fog,” from For One To Love. Here again was the rubato opening, Aaron Diehl’s piano floating in with tolling chords and chromatic pastel dissonance, and McLorin Salvant’s voice — long, drawn-out vowels: “Love appeared just like a fog.” And then into swing: “But oh/that distant calling/that yearning to yen/that longing to lean in/someone to call my own.” Somewhere in here she sang something my notebook calls “the endless note.”

The arrangement, the song structure, and McLorin Salvant’s voice — those big rich vowels (“Someone to call my OWN!”) — suggested something Sarah Vaughan might have done, though I’m not sure what. And this wasn’t a singer-songwriter song — it was more like something mimicked from the Great American Songbook. Again, research please? Where’s Alec Wilder when I need him.

Here my notes and memory go a bit slack. There was Bob Dorough’s “I’ve Got Just about Everything” — a song I’ve never heard her do before — which segued without pause into “The Trolley Song” (Hugh Martin/Ralph Blane, introduced by Judy Garland in the 1944 movie musical “Meet Me in St. Louis”). I’ve heard her do this one several times now; at Scullers she seemed to be rushing it, looking for a way to keep herself interested, and some of the lyrics got swallowed in the mix. Then “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” sung by the character Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess, with some of the lyrics elided to avoid intractable gender-specifity (“Methus’lah lived nine hundred years/But who calls dat livin’/When no gal will give in”)

Then another Porgy and Bess: “My Man’s Gone Now,” slow, operatic, with Diehl’s suspenseful trills. Then the new original, “The Best Thing for You Would Be Me,” which I remember as bright, swinging, and authoritative, and sounding not at all under-rehearsed (arrangement credited to Diehl).

Then “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” an ancient (1919) number by Clarence Williams, which, ultimately, made me miss some of the vaudeville and “race” music that I’ve heard McLorin Savant do in the past — Bert William’s “Nobody” (1905) or Sam Coslow’s “You Bring Out the Savage in Me,” inspired by trumpeter/bandleader/singer Valaida Snow’s 1935 version, or even the pre-jazz folk tune “John Henry.”

These tunes, with their upturned political incorrectness, give McLorin Salvant’s performances a subversive edge. So I’ll have to wait to hear them another time. But tonight we had her decidedly feminist retelling of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Wives and Lovers,” and “Stepsisters’ Lament” by Rogers and Hammerstein, from the 1957 TV musical Cinderella. There was “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” sounding not at all like Billie Holiday. (Billie’s short, staccato, playful “oo-oo” supplanted by longer syllables). “Underling” was another original that could have come out of the standards songbook: “All my dreams are disaster/Underling and her master.”

There’s more to say about McLorin Salvant’s radicalism, her feminist reclaiming of standards like “Wives and Lovers,” her reclamation of African-American history with songs like “The Savage in Me,” but that too will have to wait for another day. In her own way, she’s a cabaret singer, with tightly scripted arrangements (always played with thrilling precision). There’s none of the pyrotechnic improvisation of, say Betty Carter or the woozy drift of Cassandra Wilson. And yet, she reconfigures songs, plays them differently every time, and Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie, and drummer Lawrence Leathers do get a chance to stretch out. But she seems driven by the storytelling drama of musical theater (she was an opera student in college for a while). Even the old vaudeville numbers are part of that theatrical imperative. No matter. There will be time to figure out exactly who and what Cécile McLorin Salvant is. For now, just enjoy.

SETLIST
“Mad About the Boy”
“Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love”
[unidentified]
“The Fog”
“I’ve Got Just About Everything”
“The Trolley Song”
“It Aint Necessarily So”
“My Man’s Gone Now”
“The Best Thing for You Would Be Me”
“I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”
“Stepsisters’ Lament”
“Wives and Lovers”
“What a Little Moonlight Can Do”
“Underling”

Danilo Pérez “Panama 500” at Scullers

Danilo Pérez. Photo by Luke Severn.

Danilo Pérez. Photo by Luke Severn.

The Boston debut of Danilo Pérez’s “Panama 500” project was a bedeviled affair, but ultimately sublime. Originally scheduled for four shows over Saturday and Sunday, it was reduced to two, thanks in part to bad weather. So the 7 p.m. Sunday show was sold out, with a waiting list, including, evidently, a few Valentine’s Day dates who seemed bewildered by what they were seeing (“I think that’s an alto saxophone,” said a gentleman at our table). There were some walkouts.

Pérez frontloaded the show with a previously unannounced 30-minute performance by an octet of students from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, which he has created while teaching at the school. And then Davíd Carrasco, a professor of Latin American studies from the Harvard Divinity School, talked about Pérez and essentially read his impressionistic liner notes from Panama 500. Liner notes are generally better left on the page.

Panama 500 is arguably the distinguished 47-year-old pianist and composer’s finest achievement. Over the years, audiences have come to know him mostly as the leader of a superb trio and as a member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. But he has written large-scale works such as Panama Suite for big band. As for Panama 500,  it’s not necessarily the size of the orchestration (there are usually not more than eight or nine players on a given track), but the conception that makes the piece large. A kind of historical portrait of Panama, from Balboa’s “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean up through the present, it incorporates folkloric percussion and recitation by the indigenous Guna people as well as passages for solo piano and piano trio. At times, Pérez layers various languages — dissonant modern chamber music (with parts for violin and cello) on top of ancient percussion.

At the Scullers, Pérez was with his longtime trio mates, bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz, as well as violinist Alex Hargreaves (a former Berklee Global Institute student) and Cuban percussionist Roman Díaz. The first section of the set was episodic, alternating piano interludes with attractive fiddles tunes, all driven by a variety of grooves as well as mixed-meter passages from the rhythm section. But the musical narrative didn’t feel as clearly delineated as on the album. On the other hand, Hargreaves is a real find — he tossed off some impressive virtuoso flourishes throughout the night, but he was most impressive in his thoughtful deliberation, his responses to Pérez’s piano, his odd double-stopped dissonances, his simultaneous grasp of folk-song form and jazz harmony. With his instrument, he linked ancient and modern. And you sensed him listening and creating every step of the way.

The set truly lifted off following a trio performance of Pérez’s ballad tempo piece from the album, “Gratitude.” That’s when Pérez went into a kind of free fantasia on themes from Thelonious Monk that more or less settled into the skittering lines of “Think of One.” This turned into towering trio performance in an odd-metered groove, with Pérez’s left hand shouting the rhythm and harmony as Street’s bass danced around it in odd, free patterns.  Cruz meanwhile held the groove while layering it with further detail. Somehow, in the midst of all this freedom, the trio kept falling into cadences together. The music reached a climax that brought down the house.

From there things loosened up. Díaz’s deep, elemental rhythms and rich tonal colors were a tonic, especially when, accompanying his own half-sung recitation, he locked into a clave laid down by Cruz and Pérez on rhythm sticks. In cap, shades, goatee, and broad smile, Díaz was a charismatic presence, and soon Pérez had the room singing along with him. By this point, Pérez’s wife, the alto saxophonist Patricia Zarate had joined the band, and she too achieved a peak, riffing on the band’s grooves and bringing the crowd to set-closing cheers.

Between songs, Pérez spoke about his excitement for the musical culture in Boston and talked about having lived here for 28 years, traveling between Boston and Panama. When he said, “I’m so proud of this city,” someone in the audience responded, “We’re proud too.” It was hard not to hear it as a moment of unspoken allusion to the Marathon bombings. The “too-muchness” of the show was of a piece with Pérez’s generosity. When the world is a mess, why should good will be tidy?

Dave Burrell and Garrison Fewell: Slanted and Enchanted

Dave Burrell and Garrison Fewell at Third Life Studio.

Dave Burrell and Garrison Fewell at Third Life Studio.

About an hour and 20 minutes into their event at Third Life Studio in Somerville Sunday night, guitarist Garrison Fewell asked pianist Dave Burrell if he wanted to play “the tango” or a solo. “Let’s do a little bit of the tango,” answered Burrell, “and slant it.”

The event was called “Outside Music, Inside Voices,” after Fewell’s in-progress book project of that name, sub-titled: “Dialogues on Improvisations, Spirituality and Creative Music.” Burrell is one of 25 interview subjects in the book, and the evening was a mix of music and conversation. Though they had talked, Burrell and Fewell had never played together before. Their rehearsal consisted of pre-show conversations and a brief soundcheck.

Burrell came up during the first wave of free jazz (he graduated from Berklee in 1965) and he told us that his indoctrination into the scene included marathon sessions in his Lower East Side New York apartment with the legendary drummer Sunny Murray (fresh from Cecil Taylor’s band) that left his finger’s bleeding.

Fewell came up a generation later at Berklee, and although he had long listened to free music, he was for much of his career an “inside” player. Until, he said, in 2002, he announced to his friend and editor, Ed Hazell, “I’m coming out.” He didn’t mean it in the Gary Burton way. Hazell told Fewell then that there are a lot of ways to play outside. Fewell’s way was lyrical and melodic, and his albums since that time have always framed free improvisations with various organiztional strategies. One Fewell project is called “Variable Density,” and the compositions, as such, move through different predetermined episodes of ensemble textures, with the specific notes, rhythms, and harmonies left up to the individual players.

At the Third Life Studio, the duo began with a minor blues by Burrell called “The Box.” “We’ll pour our all of our emotions in to this minor blues,” Burrell said. It was a lovely blues, grounded by Burrell’s left-hand stride patterns, embellished by melodic flights from both players, and some lucid counterpoint.

Other pieces were less grounded in form — simply the spontaneous sonic response of one player to the other. His one solo piece, “Paradox of Freedom” (based on his research into the freed slaves enlisted to fight in the Civil War) was the most thunderous. But it too was based in a clear meldoy and a boogie-woogie bassline between eruptions.

Fewell’s “Universe” (“Because why leave anything out?,” he said by way of introduction) was the most “out” extended excursion of the evening. It began with the guitarist tapping his strings with a drum stick and his fingers, conjuring African balafon and kalimba with his muted tones. Each player was extremely sensitive to dynamics, fashioning atonal filligree around each other’s gestures, Burrell creating the loudest outbursts with the occasional heavy chord or stabbed single note. But more often than not, his figures drifted with bits of pedal sustain or harp-like arpeggeios. The piece ended with some big major chords from Burrell and some sighing figures from Fewell.

The next, untitled, piece sometimes suggested a bit of Satie in Burrell’s chording, and sometimes a hint of Brahms’s Lullabye in fragments of melody. Fewell played his strings with a violin bow, conjuring a realm where African string music met a European viola da gamba on some polyphonic plane. The tango, though “slanted,” was a return to form.

Between selections the two players talked about improvisation, “free” music, spirituality. Hazell joined them onstage to ask Burrell a couple of questions and Burrell talked about those early days on the Lower East Side, the 1969 Pan-African Festival in Algeria, and his encounter with a moose at his summer home in Sweden. A couple of times during the evening, Burrell and Fewell, talking about spirituality in the music, referred to Henry Threadgill’s comment in “Outside Music, Inside Voices,” was the “spiritual intent” of the music, whatever the personal beliefs of the artist or the audience.  The form of the evening was in that intent.

 

 

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,.

Melissa Aldana (from the Boston Globe)

From my piece on Melissa Aldana in this morning’s Boston Globe.

Melissa Aldana

Master classes by visiting artists are not unusual at Berklee College of Music — this, after all, is a school that boasts a star-studded faculty and scores of distinguished alumni. But there was extra buzz a couple of weeks ago when the 24-year-old tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana returned to her alma mater, offering an afternoon session in the school’s Cafe 939 Red Room. In September, Aldana had won the coveted annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition — the first woman to win in an instrumental category — and the master class, combined with an evening show at the venue, had the air of a victory lap.

Aldana graduated from Berklee in 2009, but her connection to the school runs deep. Discovered in her hometown of Santiago, Chile, by Berklee faculty member Danilo Pérez, she has since moved to New York and recorded two CDs on Inner Circle, a label run by one of her former Berklee teachers, Greg Osby. Her prize includes not only a $25,000 scholarship to the Thelonious Monk Institute (based at UCLA) but also a recording contract with the Concord Music Group. To the Berklee crowd, she’s a role model — as well as a potential employer.

At the master class, one student piped up: “What kind of guitar player would you want in your band if you were to hire one?”

“I would want a guitar player who plays better than me,” Aldana answered. “That’s the best way to learn.”

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.