Monday, November 15, 2010

Jazz/pop/hip-hop concert review: “Lush Life” at the Southern

The end of the show: a "Moon River" sing-along.
When: Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010 • Where: Southern Theater • Who (deep breath): Devon Gray (dVRG), piano; Josh Peterson, guitar; Sean McPherson (Twinkie Jiggles), bass; Peter Leggett, drums; Chris Thomson, saxophone/clarinet; Steve Roehm, vibraphone; Adam Levy and DJ Jake Rudh, hosts and vocals; Janey Winterbauer, Mayda, Toki Wright, Bethany Larson, Omaur Bliss, Ashley Still, Carnage the Executioner and Desdamona (Ill Chemistry), vocals

It could have been ironic. It might have been a mess. Instead, it was courageous and entertaining, fresh and sincere.

On Sunday night, some of the Twin Cities’ top pop and hip-hop artists gathered at the Southern Theater to explore the American jazz canon. Specifically, the Great American Songbook, what co-host Adam Levy calls our “free lunch” and our “vast cultural inheritance, shaping not only our notions of American music and the popular song but our very ideas of romance, love and morality."

The sold-out show felt like a gathering of friends, a jam session in someone’s living room, complete with a sing-along at the end. Not every performance was successful, but some were revelatory and all came from the same place of wanting to know more about the music and treat it right.

The program was a series of songs and conversations with the artists about why they chose a certain song, what it means to them, how the Great American Songbook figures in their personal experience, their influences, and so on. Levy (of the Honeydogs, Liminal Phase, etc.) shared hosting duties with DJ Jake Rudh. Both also performed. (It was Rudh’s first time singing in public, and he admitted to lessons beforehand with Janey Winterbauer. The Don Draper look was his own.)

The songs included “Lush Life,” a piano solo by music director Devon Gray (dVRG), who played it straight and added runs and fills: Strayhorn via Van Cliburn. That opened the show and set a serious tone. The other songs were equally familiar to any jazz fan in the audience: “My Funny Valentine,” “Stardust, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Waters of March,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Tenderly.” The house band was the instrumentalists of hip-hop heavies Heiruspecs, joined by Chris Thomson on tenor sax and bass clarinet and Steve Roehm on vibes. Some of the singers (Mayda, Levy) also played guitar.

Highlights were many. Toki Wright wrote his own spoken-word lyrics to Fats Waller’s “Black and Blue,” turning an already political song into a wrenching meditation on the slave trade. Bethany Larson shed her alt-country persona and sang “My Funny Valentine” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” like an old jazz soul, inhabiting the spaces between the beats. Omaur Bliss morphed “Ain’t Misbehavin’” into sexy funk. Ill Chemistry—beatboxer Carnage and vocalist Desdamona—performed the world’s coolest-ever interpretation of Jobim’s “Waters of March."

Though all of the songs are generations old, dVRG’s arrangements and the band’s playing—especially Peter Leggett’s drumming—gave them a modern sound. Of particular note was Ashley Still’s version of “Alfie.” Burt Bacharach’s original is full of chord changes; here the band stayed (mostly) in one place, playing a repeated riff while Still wove the melody over and around and through it.

Between songs, we learned that Winterbauer had a vocal coach who made her learn “Stardust,” then gave her an F for pitch. Ever since, she’d been waiting for the chance to sing it again. Levy reminded us that a lot of American songwriters originally came from Russia, and that the Czar of Russia may have been largely responsible for the birth of the Great American Songbook. Larson revealed that she “grew up singin’ in church and watchin’ musicals.” (I’m not makin' fun; she was charming.)

Janey Winterbauer has a strong and lovely voice but could have been more adventuresome on “Stardust” and “Tenderly.” Mayda was kicking “Putting on the Ritz” into orbit when she abruptly cut things short. She returned in the second set with “Lady Sings the Blues” and burned the house down in the night's most exciting performance. This time, she was wearing glasses. Perhaps she couldn’t read the lyrics to “Ritz”?

Some of the artists aren’t used to singing melodies, and it showed, although Desdamona should worry less about that than she does. Those who veered off pitch get points for going beyond their comfort zone and expressing real feeling. Some were more confident and adept with their songs, but they all took them seriously. And some of the talking parts got a bit too talky.

So, was “Lush Life” perfect? No. Was it successful? Yes. We may see more of these artists taking chances with classic American songs. Levy has already announced a new project with Still—singing old tunes. All of the performers pushed themselves to deliver; some in the audience probably pushed themselves to receive. Music in the Twin Cities took a step forward. We’ll see where it goes.


  1. Hey, there. You got a click today from someone on my blog, MusicSprings

  2. Came to the concert from a small town background so a lot of it stretched me. Bethany Larson was the most "real". Others seemed to just want to bang it and the "making the music" new in from a different perspective didn't work sometimes, especially Mayda. But you all have your preferences and mine were definitely more small-town.

  3. Not sure I consider my perspective "big city" or anything like that. I've just always enjoyed new and unusual covers of older songs. (I also like it when a group like Tiempo Libre mixes Bach with Cuban rhythms.) Whatever moves the music to new ears and places, I suppose. Thanks for reading, and for taking the trouble to comment.


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