Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Madeleine Peyroux: "Half the Perfect World" CD Review

It’s hard enough to hear “Jingle Bells” at Christmas time, harder in early October, even if it is just the first few bars of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” But that’s how Mitchell started the song, and it’s how producer Larry Klein chose to begin the version that pairs Madeleine Peyroux with k.d. lang on Peyroux’s fourth and latest CD, Half the Perfect World.

As it happens, Klein is Mitchell’s ex-producer, ex-bass player, and ex-husband. And “River” is a song about Christmas, sort of . . . actually, it’s more about self-recrimination, longing, and regret for love stupidly lost. Mitchell’s original recording on the spare and searing Blue (1971, not produced by Klein) still makes you want to rip your heart out.

The song has since been covered by dozens of artists, from Rosanne Cash to Renee Fleming, Barry Manilow, and Dianne Reeves. On Half the Perfect World, Peyroux’s is the first voice you hear, wistful and a bit tentative on the first half of the first verse (“It’s coming on Christmas/They’re cutting down trees”). Her landings on a few of the notes are less than sure-footed. Then lang enters (“But it don’t snow here/It stays pretty green”), certain and strong, and suddenly the song has the texture, depth, and mystery of smoke on blue velvet.

“River” is the track I keep returning to on this CD, despite the “Jingle Bells” intro. It’s my favorite. In some ways, it reminds me of the Cyndi Lauper/Sarah McLachlan duet on “Time After Time” on Lauper’s The Body Acoustic (2006), another gorgeous surprise. And it makes me dream of another two voices I’d love to hear together someday: Diana Krall and Lyle Lovett. Think about it. They both have that languorous swing and little growl. Tommy LiPuma, please call Lovett’s agent.

On “River,” Peyroux and lang trade verses and even phrases; you never hear them sing together. As the song progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell them apart. You have to listen closely to distinguish Peyroux’s tremor from lang’s vibrato. Clue: The big intervals and high notes are left to lang.

“River” is the CD’s sole duet. Of the other 11 selections, four are new and seven are covers. The CD begins with a new tune co-written by Peyroux, Klein, and Walter Becker, half of Steely Dan. In “I’m All Right,” a woman remembers a lover who smoked cigars in bed, tossed her things around, and ended up with her car—but she’ll survive, she’s been lonely before. It’s a looking-back song about moving on, with a bouncy melody and upbeat instrumentals: Peyroux’s strummy guitar, Sam Yahel’s sassy Wurlitzer Piano and Hammond organ. Peyroux even laughs at the end.

It’s a charming start to what’s largely an upbeat album, a change for the moody Peyroux. Klein also produced Careless Love (2004), Peyroux’s previous hit CD, which has sold over a million so far. He tells amazon.co.uk, “This is a much more optimistic record than the last record was.” Peyroux adds, “There’s a unison of joy . . . on this record.” I’m not quite sure what she means by that, but it sounds good—and so does much of the CD.

Three more originals reunite the team of Peyroux, Klein, and singer/songwriter Jesse Harris, who penned Norah Jones’s “Don’t Know Why.” Earlier, they collaborated on the Careless Love single “Don’t Wait Too Long.” On Half the Perfect World, “Once in a While” revisits the it’s-over-but-I’ll-make-it territory of “I’m All Right” and adds the lilt of a string quartet, unexpected and a touch too sweet. “A Little Bit” veers into country rock, pairing Dean Parks’s guitar with Peyroux’s.

“California Rain” is a showcase for the voice that’s been compared from the start to Billie Holiday, though it’s past time for that comparison to end; it’s not fair to either artist. Holiday stands alone, and so, increasingly, does Peyroux; her sound is instantly recognizable if you’ve heard it even briefly before, and her styles—of singing, playing guitar, and inhabiting a song—are her own.

The seven covers on the CD run the gamut from Johnny Mercer’s “The Summer Wind” to Tom Waits’s “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.” Michael Bublé recently recorded a live version of “The Summer Wind” for Caught in the Act (2005), part of PBS’s Great Performances series. His super-swingy, big-band performance evokes Frank Sinatra, but so do a lot of his songs (which is not at all a bad thing). Peyroux’s is a whole different story—slow, lazy, laid-back. She might be singing to herself under that blue umbrella sky. Gary Foster’s alto sax comes in just long enough to make us wish he’d stick around. (Foster returns for one more track later on.)

Two of the seven covers are by Leonard Cohen: “Blue Alert” and the title song, “Half the Perfect World.” Both were recorded earlier this year by Anjani Thomas, a.k.a. Anjani, a jazz pianist and singer whose style is torchy and sensual; she wraps her voice around the words like she owns them. Her mentor (and more) is Cohen himself, giving her an inside track that Peyroux doesn’t have. Two things biased me against Peyroux’s takes: hearing Anjani’s, and seeing I’m Your Man, Lian Lunson’s recent documentary portrait of Leonard Cohen.

Lunson’s film moves back-and-forth between interviews with Cohen and performances from a January 2005 tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House organized by Hal Willner. (If Willner ever runs the talent show at your kid’s kindergarten, go.) Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Antony (the ethereal lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons), and Nick Cave, among others, were tapped to cover several of Cohen’s best-known songs (not including “Blue Alert” or “Half the Perfect World”). Their performances are passionate and intense; each one leaves you breathless. Peyroux’s are committed but don’t scale the heights. “Blue Alert” is relaxed and jazzy; “Half the Perfect World” more convincing but too restrained. Although both are beautiful, neither moves me.

For the CD’s almost obligatory French café song (Peyroux spent many years living in Paris), Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise is a fine choice. Gainsbourg also wrote the naughty “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus;” perhaps Peyroux will record that next? Imagine who might sing it with her. (Curtis Stigers is a married man.)

On “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night,” she turns Tom Waits’s urban journey into a country-flavored croon. The song has a nostalgic, melancholy air, maybe because it’s more than 30 years old. (Sample lyrics: “Well you gassed her up/Behind the wheel/With your arm around your sweet one/In your Oldsmobile”) The country feel is underscored by Greg Leisz’s pedal steel guitar.

The final two covers are Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and Charles Chaplin’s “Smile.” The first precedes “River,” the second ends the CD. I’m sorry, but I’ve never liked “Everybody’s Talkin’,” not even on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, where it was sung by Harry Nilsson. At least Peyroux doesn’t do that horrid “wah-wah” thing Nilsson does partway through the song. She steps back from the mike and lets the musicians carry the tune.

“Smile” might easily have been hokey (many recordings of Chaplin’s song are—hello, Michael Bolton), but it’s not. By keeping it simple, Peyroux makes it credible and compelling. “Smile, though your heart is breaking/Smile, even though it’s aching….” Well, all right! Good idea! Let’s do it! The clincher is Till Bronner’s muted trumpet.

The core musicians throughout Half the Perfect World are Sam Yahel, Dean Parks, David Piltch (bass), and Jay Belarose (drums). Larry Goldings stops by for some celeste and Wurlitzer piano. Peyroux plays guitar on several tracks; her style is quirky and distinctive. The arrangements are understated and mellow: acoustic guitars, silky brushes on drums, soft sax and trumpet, the caress of pedal steel.

This is, in the end, a late-night recording, with many quiet moments and spaces between sounds. Peyroux likes quiet; she has said that “silence is not just an absence of sound.” Shirley Horn knew all about silence and spacing and letting the music breathe. Maybe it’s wrong to expect Madeleine Peyroux to belt out a Leonard Cohen tune. Maybe I’ll listen to “Blue Alert” again.


Released by Rounder, the venerable independent label, Half the Perfect World will probably be Peyroux’s biggest success to date. That’s what Rounder is hoping for, if her tour schedule is any indication. To promote Careless Love, Peyroux traveled to clubs like the Dakota in Minneapolis, the Hot House in Chicago, and the Cabaret La Tulipe in Montreal. This time, it’s theaters like the Paramount in Denver (seating capacity: just under 1,900) and the State in Minneapolis (2,200), where Peyroux will perform this Friday, October 13.

Tickets are still available for the State through Ticketmaster. Or stay home and view the video of “I’m All Right” at Peyroux’s Web site. It has a traveling-circus-shot-at-night-in-the-middle-of-a-field theme, reminiscent of Fellini and HBO’s canceled Carnivále. Fun to watch, but deeply strange. 

Originally published at JazzPolice.com.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

MJF/49: From Brubeck to B3 at the 2006 Monterey Jazz Festival

It’s still light when we enter the Arena on the final night of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Actor Clint Eastwood introduces the first of two giant headliners: Dave Brubeck. Eastwood is a jazz buff, passionate Festival supporter, and lifelong Brubeck fan; in 2002, he told CNN, “I have been following Dave Brubeck since the Burma Lounge on Lakeshore Avenue in the mid '40s, but I was here in 1958, which was the first year of the festival. And Dave was there then. So I have been kind of a groupie for a lot of years.”

At 85 years old, Brubeck has a touring schedule that would make most of us tired just reading about it. In the past three months, he’s played 22 dates including Carnegie Hall, the Toronto Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, the Newport Jazz Festival, and Tanglewood. He’s here in Monterey to premiere a new work commissioned by the Festival, a tribute to American author John Steinbeck called “Cannery Row Suite.”

But first, Brubeck and the other members of his quartet—Bobby Militello on alto sax and flute, Michael Moore on bass, Randy Jones on drums—warm up with an appropriately bright and cheerful “Sunny Side of the Street.” Brubeck opens “Stormy Weather” with a tender solo; in comes Militello with the melody and we’re off. The big screen flashes close-ups of Brubeck’s hands, sculpted by the gods and blessed by the muses. A wistful “Over the Rainbow” is the perfect song for the Festival’s last night.

Brubeck rises and goes to the mike to set up the next song. “It’s Sunday, and we’d like to play a piece sacred to this day. It started as a Jewish chant, then Roman soldiers came into Jerusalem and decided it would make a great march.” He pauses. “Are there any old Catholics in the house?” We laugh. He continues, “People say to me, ‘Why don’t you play some old tunes?’ This one is 2,000 years old.” The quartet performs “Tantum Ergo.” It’s part of a larger work called the Pane Lingua Variations. You can hear it in its entirety on Telarc’s Classical Brubeck.

Back at the mike, Brubeck tells the crowd, “When [Monterey Jazz Festival general manager] Tim Jackson asked me to write an opera for tonight, I said no, no way. ‘Only an hour? Please?’ No. ‘What if you only develop three or four characters and make it a half-hour?’ I said, ‘I’ll think that over. It sounds more like something that would work at a jazz festival.’” More laughter.

Working closely with his wife and collaborator, Iola, who wrote the libretto, Brubeck penned a tribute to John Steinbeck and Cannery Row, the novel Steinbeck set in Monterey during the Depression. It’s a tale of hard times and colorful characters. The ones Brubeck chose to portray are Doc, a marine biologist; Dora, a madam; and Mack, one of “the boys” who inhabit the Palace Flophouse and Grill.

“I wrote difficult arias,” Brubeck explains, “almost impossible to sing. Tim [Jackson] said ‘Let’s do it, I’ve got the best people hired; we’ll throw it all together when we get here.” Brubeck was motivated by the fact that he trusts the Festival audience. “I’ve done many things here without much rehearsal,” he says. “Please understand that yesterday was the first day we could all get together.”

Jackson wasn’t lying when he promised Brubeck the “best people.” In the world premiere performance that unfolds on stage, Doc is played by Kurt Elling, Dora by Roberta Gambarini, and Mack by one of the Brubecks’ musical sons, Chris. The narration is by Steinbeck’s son Thom; black-and-white slides of historic Monterey on the stage’s big screen set the mood. The music is catchy, hummable, and complex.

Dora’s aria is a killer. Let’s remember that Gambarini left her hometown of Torino, Italy, just eight years ago with dreams of being a jazz singer. I first heard her at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis in May 2004, where she sang with Roy Hargrove. I liked her a lot but noticed that her Italian accent was pronounced. She returned to the Dakota in March 2006 as a special guest with Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio, and what a difference two years had made. Along the way, she shared stages with Hank Jones (with whom she also performed at Monterey), Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Michael Brecker, Christian McBride, and Toots Thielemans. Her recently released debut CD, Easy to Love, has won raves.

Tonight she assumes the role of Dora with no problem. Through high notes, low notes, intervals and scatting, she inhabits the character. And she does it without music or lyrics.

Elling met up with Brubeck in New York City in June, where he had a glimpse of the challenges in store for him as Doc. “Dave was very gracious,” Elling told jazz writer Andrew Gilbert. “He had it [Doc’s part] pitched way up there and he put it in another key for me, a key that’s humane for a baritone.” On stage at the Arena, he nails it, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has heard Elling perform live, spinning stories and scats out of the air.

As Mack, Chris Brubeck sings and plays the bass trombone in good company: Joel Brown on vocals and guitar, and Peter “Madcat” Ruth on vocals and harmonica, an instrument that features prominently in Brubeck’s piece. They’re accompanied by a chorus from the University of the Pacific. It all holds together so tightly that it’s hard to believe they have had one day to rehearse. On the other hand, these are jazz musicians, accustomed to doing things on the fly.

I can’t say I loved “Cannery Row Suite.” But I’m glad I was in the audience to see it, and I’m even more glad that organizations like the Monterey Jazz Festival are willing and able to commission major new works by jazz artists. (Side note: Three cheers for the Guggenheim Foundation, which gave Patricia Barber a fellowship to write songs based on characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Barber’s deliciously dark and dense creations can be heard on her brand-new CD, Mythologies.)

Brubeck and Co. receive a standing ovation. The red curtain closes and the Arena lights come on. People fill the aisles, hoping there’s time enough to score a latte from the Starbucks booth or maybe a barbecued pork sandwich before the second half of the evening begins. Before long, Clint Eastwood returns to bring Oscar Peterson to the stage.

I have never seen Oscar Peterson perform live. Shortly before coming to Monterey, he sold out a six-night engagement at Yoshi’s in Oakland that earned mixed reviews. Writing for InsideBayArea.com, Jim Harrington noted that Peterson’s playing was “tentative to start” and his hand speed “wasn’t really up to his standards.” In the Contra Costa Times, Andrew Gilbert was more forthright, calling Peterson’s performance “all too painfully human” and “a poignant reminder that time catches up to even the fleetest.”

I stay for the first song and a half. Maybe it gets better; I’ll never know. What I do know is that this is not how I want to remember Oscar Peterson.

Dr. Lonnie Smith by John Whiting
My 2006 Monterey experience ends at the Nightclub, a venue I’ve grown especially fond of because it’s enclosed, warm, and near the exit, all good things at the end of a long day and a crisp night. Mocha in hand, I find a seat as close as possible to Dr. Lonnie Smith, the Ph.D. of the Hammond B3. He’s joined onstage by Peter Bernstein on guitar and Allison Miller on drums. Both more than hold their own in the presence of the mad doctor.

I’m most intrigued by Miller, first because she’s a girl drummer (a rarity in jazz; Terri Lyne Carrington also comes to mind), and second because she’s a dervish on stage. I learn later that Downbeat named her a “Rising Star Drummer,” she’s based in New York, and she has also toured with Natalie Merchant (another dervish). Plus she already has a CD out called 5 a.m. Stroll featuring Ray Drummond, Steve Wilson, Virginia Mayhew, and Bruce Barth. Ms. Miller, please come to Minneapolis/St. Paul soon.

Dr. Lonnie is in the middle of some crazy thing. He’s playing and singing “Misty” in a voice like Johnny Mathis. I’m as helpless as a kitten trying to figure out why. Next, he holds a high note for a ridiculously long time (singing, not playing). Someone in the audience shouts, “It’s that yoga s***!” (Does Dr. Lonnie do yoga? He looks like he does.) Then he channels Stevie Wonder in “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” After that, he segues into a blues tune and some odd asides (“Hanky panky you shore is stanky/Hunky punky shore is funky!”). It’s surreal and hilarious.

Eventually, the white-bearded, turban-wearing Doctor gets down to business and gives us some songs from his new CD on Palmetto, Jungle Soul. A virtuosic “Willow Weep for Me.” A bluesy, bleak “And the World Weeps” with a she-done-me-wrong solo. A funky, hypnotic “Witch Doctor.” We’re under the spell of this hot little band.

And suddenly it’s over. Allison Miller packs up her drums. Peter Bernstein locks up his guitar. Smith signs autographs, poses for pictures, and hugs people. It’s a feel-good ending to an otherwise poignant evening. A few vendors are still holding on, but most are getting ready to go home. Time for us to do the same.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

MJF/49: Charles Lloyd at the 2006 Monterey Jazz Festival: Still drunk with the music

In one of the most highly anticipated events of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, Charles Lloyd reprised Forest Flower, the recording he made at Monterey in 1966 that sold a million, catapulted him to fame, became the soundtrack of the Flower Power movement, and drove him into the woods at Big Sur for more than a decade. It wasn’t until the 1980s that he came out of musical retirement, and he has graced us with numerous recordings since, most recently Sangam, recorded live in Santa Barbara.

Charles Lloyd
Earlier on Saturday, journalists and photographers were treated to a private Q&A with Lloyd. Moderated by Andrew Gilbert, a freelance writer whose articles about jazz frequently appear in the San Francisco Chronicle, the conversation proved as freewheeling and adventuresome as Lloyd’s playing.

Lloyd began by asking his audience, “How may I serve you?” When Gilbert invited him to think back 40 years to Monterey and his now iconic quartet of that time—Keith Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums, Cecil McBee on bass—Lloyd replied, “We were drawn together; we were dreamers; we wanted to change the world with sound.” What were Lloyd’s expectations for this evening’s performance? None, he said, because “expectations ruin the greatest joy…. I’m happy to be here in this moment. I don’t resonate that the time was 40 years ago. I still feel younger than springtime in spirit because of the great beauty of this art form…. I’m still drunk with this music.”

Lloyd reflected on the loss of Billy Higgins, the drummer with the beatific smile who was Lloyd’s great friend and spiritual brother: “Master Higgins told me he often dreamed we played Forest Flower while flying on our backs.” Higgins died in May 2001 but is still very present in Lloyd’s life. Lloyd believes that Higgins guided him to Eric Harland, the drummer in his current quartet.

It happened during a September week in 2001. Lloyd was in New York City, scheduled to play the Blue Note starting on Monday, September 11. We know what happened on that day. Lloyd began his Blue Note stand on Friday, September 15, with the first in a series of free concerts meant to give New Yorkers hope. Later that night, he heard Harland play in a jam band. “I knew Higgins sent him to me,” Lloyd says, “because of that radiant smile.” Sangam is their first recording together. It’s a trio effort with table master Zakir Hussain, and a tribute to Billy Higgins.

Late in the Q&A, someone asks Lloyd, “How do you feel about playing Forest Flower tonight?” Never predictable, Lloyd answers, “I didn’t know I would be playing Forest Flower tonight. You’re assuming I’ll play Forest Flower…. No one has ever told me what to play. I’ve made a career of that,” he adds wryly, “but it’s not much of a career.”

Thankfully, he does play it, and we’re grateful. This time, Geri Allen is at the piano, queenly in a red silk caftan. Eric Harland is fierce and beautiful on the drums. Rueben Rogers mans the bass; sometimes a single note from his instrument is all we hear, and it’s enough. Lloyd’s saxophone whirls and caresses; his flute dances, as does Lloyd himself, standing behind Harland while the others play.

Is this music really 40 years old? It doesn’t sound dated. And it doesn’t sound modern. It’s music of the moment, and the forest flower blooms again.

P.S. The Arena at the Monterey Jazz Festival is very large. Thoughtfully, the Festival provides a giant screen and plentiful close-ups. Kudos to the camera operators, who almost make you forget you’re sitting hundreds of feet away from the stage.

Originally published at JazzPolice.com

Saturday, September 16, 2006

MJF/49: Eldar and Elling at the 2006 Monterey Jazz Festival

A great jazz festival is a frustrating experience. You want to be in several places at once, but ultimately you must choose: the Yellowjackets with Kurt Elling? Or the Robert Glasper Trio, or Roy Hargrove & RH Factor, or up-and-coming singer Sasha Dobson, or young powerhouse pianist Eldar? They all performed at approximately the same time on the opening night of the Monterey Jazz Festival, the longest-running jazz festival in the world.

Now in its 49th year, presented by Verizon, the three-day festival boasts an impressive lineup of revered elders. Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, and Charles Lloyd are all scheduled to appear starting on Saturday night. As we made our way down the fairgrounds, peering into various venues—Dizzy’s Den, the Night Club/Bill Berry Stage—we stopped at the open-air Garden Stage, where Eldar was blazing through Oscar Peterson’s “Place St. Henri.”

Eldar by John Whiting
Backed by Sicilian bassist Marco Panascia and Brooklyn-via-Texas drummer Kendrick Scott, the 19-year-old prodigy from Kyrgyzstan continued with an original composition, “Daily Living,” a blend of thundering chords and lightning-fast runs. 

Eldar exudes strength; if you ever shake his hand in greeting (as we did at the Dakota in Minneapolis when he played there in November 2005), watch out. Yet he’s also capable of sweet delicacy and restraint. 

We stayed through a bluesy version of Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’,” whose center belonged to bassist Panascia. At times, Eldar’s playing sounded like piano, twelve hands.

The Garden Stage is an ideal place to start your Monterey experience. Like the larger Arena, where the big guns play (Arena tickets sold out months ago), it’s open-air. The combination of live, in-the-moment jazz with salty California breezes and starry skies is intoxicating. People bring in lawn chairs or sit on the benches or bleachers, often on foam cushions they bought at a festival years ago and have carted around ever since. It’s a diverse, relaxed, and enthusiastic crowd of all ages, including snoozing babies in strollers and elegant ladies in fancy hats. At a time when many jazz artists play to sparse houses, it feels good to be surrounded by people who love the music.

From the Garden Stage, we went to the Arena to hear Kurt Elling with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Elling is the festival’s Artist-in-Residence. He’s been visiting Monterey since April, performing at concerts and participating in youth education programs. The Festival completes his residency, and he’s omnipresent, headlining performances and discussions for all three days. On Friday, following an earlier performance with the Yellowjackets,  Elling waited backstage while the magnificent Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra warmed up the crowd with rousing versions of “Silver Celebration” (a tribute to Horace Silver) and Ray Brown’s arrangement of Johnny Hodges’ “Squatty Roo.”
Kurt Elling and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra by John Whiting
Conductor and bassist John Clayton introduced the band (including 88-year-old trumpeter Snooky Young), explained that it has three leaders (himself, his brother, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, and drummer Jeff Hamilton) “to share the debt” and invited Elling back on stage. Elling began by performing three of the many songs he’s known for: “Close Your Eyes,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “Man in the Air,” co-written by Elling and Hobgood for and about Wayne Shorter.

Elling was in superb voice. Surprising for those of us who’ve seen him in concert several times over the years (at the Dakota in Minneapolis, at Birdland in New York, at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall), he has cut off his trademark ponytail and shaved his goatee. With his hair slicked back, impeccably dressed as always, he’s looking sleek and wolfish.

He thanked us for staying up late and for “bringing your fleece-lined items.” By now, the night air was more than chilly, and the Arena’s infamous metal folding chairs were icy cold. Elling encouraged us to stuff our sleeves with sawdust (there’s plenty of it on the Arena’s floor; it doubles as an equestrian stadium) and get to know our neighbors. “As promised,” he said,” we have something new.” He and the orchestra premiered a work in progress: “Red Man-Black Man,” which explores connections between African-American and American Indian music. Clayton was inspired to write it when he heard Elling perform at Birdland last January; Elling contributed original lyrics and added poems by Native American poet Maurice Kennedy and African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

The “work-in-progress” description fits; I’m not sure “Red Man-Black Man” is entirely successful yet. It seems a little strange to hear Elling sing about being one with the grass and wrestling with the thunder, and at one point the percussion consisted of musicians dropping chains on the stage. But it had some lovely moments and a big finish. Most of the audience seemed to enjoy it and gave it a standing ovation. As people began to leave, Elling and the orchestra treated the rest of us to a lilting, affectionate “Lil’ Darlin’,”with Jon Hendricks’ lyrics bookended by Elling’s own.

Earlier, when Elling told the crowd to expect “something new,” a fan shouted “Winelight!” “Come to Dizzy’s Den,” he responded, giving us a hint of what to expect on Saturday night at 8:30…except we’ll probably be at the Arena celebrating the 40th Anniversary of “Forest Flower” with Charles Lloyd and his quartet. Or at the Night Club for the Jeff Hamilton Trio. Or at the Starbucks Coffee House Gallery for Hiromi. It’s so hard to choose.

Kurt Elling signs autographs after the show, by John Whiting

Monday, February 6, 2006

Christine Rosholt at Rossi's: CD release concert review

Until recently, fans of Twin Cities singer Christine Rosholt who needed a fix between live shows had to content themselves with a four-song demo CD. Recorded in 2003, featuring Jay Epstein on drums, Michael Gold on base, and David Roos on guitar, it’s delightful but leaves one wanting more. With the release of Detour Ahead, her first full-length CD, we can settle in for 13 classic tracks—some instantly familiar, some less so, each delivered with a dusting of sugar.

Drummer Jay Epstein returns, but the rest of the band is new: Michael O’Brien on bass, Tanner Taylor on piano, Robert Everest on guitars and voice, Steve Roehm on vibes. All five are on hand (O’Brien having flown in from his new home in New York) for the official Detour Ahead CD release on Friday, February 3, at Rossi’s Blue Star Jazzroom, arguably the area’s noisiest jazz club.

Christine looks adorable in the fur-trimmed black dress and black hat she wore for the Detour Ahead cover shoot. Before the show begins, she walks the room, greeting family and friends. Her husband, Brooks Peterson, beams from beneath his signature pork-pie hat. Three “CD girls”—friends of Christine’s wearing pink and magenta wigs and little black dresses—go from table to table selling copies of the new CD. (It turns out they sell a lot.) Following a hasty introduction by someone who can’t pronounce the headliner’s name (it’s “ross-holt,” not “rosh-holt”), Christine joins her band onstage.

In a concert preview published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Tom Surowicz called Christine “the hardest-working, most bubbly new jazz singer in town.” She’s approachable, she’s warm, and she has no diva airs. When she meets you, she remembers your name. If you show up to see her perform, she’s thrilled. She’ll put you on her email list, if you want, and keep you informed of her upcoming gigs, of which there are usually several—at places like Nochee and the French Press, the Wabasha Caves (with Beasley’s Big Band), the Times, the Dakota, Bar Lurcat, Norton’s Restaurant in Bay City, and the Twisted Grill in Hudson. Like many jazz artists, she does benefits, bookstore openings, happy hours, and private parties. Some of the Twin Cities’ most popular and respected musicians play in her bands: Dave Karr, Chris Lomheim, Clay Moore, Reuben Ristrom, Gary Raynor, Pooch Heine. Even other singers say nice things about her. This is Minnesota, where high-road behavior is the norm, but still, singers who have been around a lot longer than Christine admire her drive, energy, and talent.

The show opens with a trio (Epstein, O’Brien, Taylor) and the first cut from the new CD, “East of the Sun (And West of the Moon”). It’s lilting, lovely, and in other clubs the crowd would have shut the heck up to listen. The second song, Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me,” is not on the CD, hinting that tonight is also about repertoire. From there, Christine leads her band through a speedy “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from Oklahoma, revealing another of her strengths: crisp, clean articulation. Those of us who saw her in “Take All My Loves: Christine Rosholt Presents an Evening of Shakespeare” at Macalester’s Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center a year ago already know that about her. Singing jazz arrangements of Shakespeare songs was a tongue-twisting, brain-bending challenge, and she pulled it off—wearing a ruff.

The fourth song revisits the CD: Harold Arlen’s “Out of This World.” Christine is singing music she loves, and it shows. She’s relaxed and chatty. Steve Roehm comes onstage, Christine exits for a short break, and the quartet plays Chick Corea’s “Sea Journey.” When she returns, it’s for Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” and we’re in heaven. The pensive Ellington-Strayhorn “Daydream” follows. The live performance features Roehm, as does the recorded version; both times, voice and vibes blend beautifully. Christine reminds us that everyone heard on the CD is appearing with her tonight. A live show is always different from a recording, but it’s nice to know we can bring home the same people and essentially the same sound we’re hearing now.

Off goes Roehm and on comes Robert Everest, making his first appearance of the evening. It’s also his first live-in-front-of-a-crowd performance with Christine. Matthew Zimmerman of Wild Sound Studio, where Detour Ahead was recorded, suggested Everest to Christine, and it’s a perfect pairing. Singer, songwriter, guitar player, and world traveler, he joins Christine for Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade (No More Blues).” Her voice grows silkier to match his—the soft, convincing caress of the Brazilian style—and the elegant sound of his guitar, which somehow manages to penetrate the Rossi’s din. She sings in English, he in Portuguese. We make a note to hear more of Everest in the future: at Maria’s Café on east Franklin, where he regularly performs for Sunday brunch, or perhaps at Barbette or Lurcat

O’Brien opens “Besame Mucho” with a bowed bass solo, and couples rise from their tables and move to the small dance floor while Christine sings. Afterward, she leaves the stage to Everest, who leads O’Brien and Epstein on another Brazilian journey. Christine and Roehm return for Jobim’s “Wave,” and the blend of vibes, nylon strings, bass, and drums is delicious. Following another instrumental, this one without Everest, Christine regroups with the original trio of Epstein, O’Brien, and Tanner for “I Cover the Waterfront” by John Green and Edward Heyman, which is heard on the new CD, and “Comes Love” by Lew Brown and Sammy Stept, which is not. They conclude the set with an ebullient “Tea for Two” in cha-cha style.

Our stay at Rossi’s is over. Christine and her band are halfway through theirs; they’re scheduled to perform another two hours (until 1 a.m.), during which (we can only suppose) they’ll treat the crowd to the other half of Detour Ahead—songs including “From This Moment On,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.” This has been an evening of high points and surprises: Everest’s sensuous guitar, O’Brien’s brilliant bass, the freshness of a top-notch band shifting from trio to quartet and back again, a fine selection of songs, and holding it all together, the sweet-voiced, effervescent Christine. It’s a detour we’d gladly take again.

P.S. The only drawback to an otherwise excellent evening was the venue. At Rossi’s Blue Star Jazzroom, live music is an excuse for the crowd to talk even louder. Please, people, can we refrain from shouting “Hey, Pauly, baby!” to a friend across the room when a singer is singing? Can we turn off the televisions at the bar during a show?