Monday, April 8, 2013

Jazz Appreciation Month: From the Sublimated to the Ridiculous, All in Good Music

© Andrea Canter

April is Jazz Appreciation Month across the country, and special events can be found from small town theaters to major city venues. We’re fortunate to live in an area that not only sports a couple of those major venues, but a wide range of jazz across predictable and unlikely settings.  And it’s hard to imagine more disparate renderings of “jazz” than the past weekend in Minneapolis, with a 3-concert, multi-ensemble marathon celebrating John Zorn at the Walker Art Center (Saturday) and what might be described as an evening of “Berlin Vaudeville mit Kabarett” (pardon my German) at the Dakota (Sunday).  While the specifics of the music seemed worlds apart, both shows shared a significant element – uncommonly virtuosic musicians performing jazz as theater under the leadership of pure genius.

John Zorn (press photo)
John Zorn @60 at the Walker

One of the guiding lights of the nouveau jazz avant garde, Zorn is taking a broad spectrum of his career on the road in 2013 in celebration of his upcoming 60th birthday on September 2nd. At the Walker, he presented three sequential concerts separated by approximately 90-minute breaks, essentially a non-chronological overview of his most and least accessible compositions as well as a diverse set of recent works, featuring some of his long-standing cohorts as well as a handful of like-minded local artists. Pre- and post-concert events including the kick-off “interview” with curator Philip Bither and the evening’s “coda” – a free midnight solo organ performance across the street at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. Admittedly I did not hang in there for the organ finale. But from the auspicious “interview” in Walker Cinema through the blaring, free improv encore in McGuire Theater, Zorn was the center of an entertainment cyclone, sometimes a sonic ruckas, sometimes a lyrical hoedown, always riveting.

Joey Baron
Philip Bither may have asked a question or two, but the “interview” with Zorn was better described as John’s Soapbox and Comedy Hour, during which time we learned less about Zorn’s music and more about Zorn’s persona and cultural politics. And he’s in charge. Throughout the evening he did not “perform” often but he directed every note. Or every screech and scrape, every crash and crescendo, every slide and sigh. Even when, in solo, guitarist Marc Ribot mashed the strings or popped a balloon, Zorn was nearby, seemingly the telepathic conductor (Program I, Game Pieces, “The Book of Heads”). His presence was more direct squealing whistles and batting small percussion tools with Erik Friedlander and Kenny Wolleson (Game Pieces, “Hockey”) or squawking the daylights out of his reed when he finally picked up the saxophone on the Program III finale, complete with dark stage and subliminally interactive video projection. Yet his presence as conductor/director/coach during ensemble performances (“Cobra” in Program I; Masada String Trio and the larger Bar Kokhba in Program II;  “Nova Express” and “The Concealed” in Program III) was equally central to the music.  It was quite cool to see the energetic performances of Ribot, drummer Joey Baron, percussionist Cyro Baptista, keyboardist John Medeski, cellists Erik Friedlander and local heroine Michelle Kinney, violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Greg Cohen and more. But with or without an instrument, this was John Zorn’s show. After all, it was his party. And it was a grand spectacle, for both eyes and ears.

Max Rabbe and the Palaster Orchester at the Dakota

Perhaps it is the limits of translation but there are no English words to adequately describe Max Raabe and the Palaster Orchester. “Slick, nostalgic, and unmistakably modern, their performances are executed with uncanny precision, drama, and humor” was the hype on the Dakota website, but that hardly does justice to what must be referred to as an “event.” Originally scheduled at Orchestra Hall, that season’s loss was definitely the Dakota’s –and the audience’s—gain; while the performance would surely have been a hit in the big hall, it was a total immersion experience in the club setting.

Max Raabe  and Pallaster Orchester (press photo)
Max Raabe is a Wagernian baritone turned cabaret crooner devoted to the music and styles of Berlin in the Weimer era, surrounding himself with an exceptionally talented 12-piece orchestra that is never quite what it seems. Even the staging was unique, with a “loft” above the grand piano holding a one-man percussion section. The lighting and sound –as good as it’s ever been at the Dakota—replicated a 30s talkie or radio broadcast; Raabe was decked out in black tux and tails with his slicked-back gray hair and pale complexion only adding to the wry humor of his stead-fast dead-pan affect that never wavered; and that baritone stretched well into high tenor on such standards as “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Night and Day.”  Raabe’s commentary between the set’s 20+ songs sometimes offered a bullet-translation of the German lyrics (about one-third of the repertoire was sung in German), adding considerable humor with nary a twitch in his delivery.

In sharp (and humorous) contrast to their leader, the orchestra musicians were lively, animated, well choreographed and multi-talented. Most of the horn players doubled or tripled; the bassist alternately played the sousaphone (which looked more than a little ridiculous in the formal staging of the orchestra); the guitarist traded off on banjo and violin. And in one of the most clever sleight-of-hands I’ve seen on an orchestra stage, on the tango translated (by Raabe) as “You’re not the first one but you can be the last,” no less than nine musicians suddenly became a violin choir for the final verse. And they weren’t done, transforming themselves into a spot-on-bell choir for the following waltz, which Raabe described as “not as elegant as a Viennese waltz but much louder.”

Bela Fleck and Chick Corea
These are but two highlights of the local April jazz calendar thus far – a month that began with a night of Chick Corea and Bela Fleck, then two nights of Madeleine Peyroux at the Dakota, followed by an evening of reinvented and new music from trumpet/voice teams  at Jazz Central (Adam Meckler/Jana Nyberg and Benje and Ashley Daneman), and the long-awaited return of organ “legend” Billy Holloman at the Artists Quarter. How can one not appreciate the broad genre of jazz –or at least one piece of it—when it covers more than a century of magic from ragtime to out-of-time, from crooners and banjos to string stranglers and balloon poppers, from Max Raabe to John Zorn?