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“In Its Entirety”: Built to Spill and Liz Phair

Jun 16, 2008 | 2 Comments

The news hit like a one-two kiss of sloppy, wonderful indie-rock love: both Built to Spill and Liz Phair have announced that they’ll perform their great masterpieces—Perfect From Now On and Exile In Guyville—in a series of shows around the country this year.

I’ve fielded countless questions about if I’m going to these shows, because of a truly million-to-one coincidence: I myself have actually performed both of these albums.

Okay, so maybe it’s not a million-to-one shot, but it’s pretty uncanny: in 2001 as part of a duo, and then again in 2006 with my band, Santiago, I learned and performed Perfect From Now On in its entirety. Earlier this year with my friends Dean and Steve, I learned and performed Exile In Guyville. And now, as if to answer our weird but urgent prayers, both albums are getting the ‘In Its Entirety’ treatment by the OGs.

I’m not claiming any kind of cosmic credit for altering the creative waves of the universe. Lets face it, Sonoma County’s not that big. But I will gladly use the news as a reason to talk about what it was like to learn two of the best records of the 1990s.

As anyone familiar with Perfect From Now On and Exile In Guyville can imagine, they were incredibly daunting projects to take on, especially since I had to not only figure out some truly otherworldly guitar parts but also remember hundreds of lyrics. Yet each album compelled me. They’re both crammed with mystery. I felt like if I could wrestle with them in the most direct way possible—figuring out how to play them, and then playing them in public—I could unlock some of that mystery.

When I first heard Perfect From Now On I hated it. All the songs were long and slow and repetitive, and it didn’t grab me at all. Then Built to Spill put out Keep It Like A Secret, which I instantly loved. “Finally,” I said, “I understand what all my friends have been crazy about!” So I went back and listened to Perfect From Now On. I still thought it was a boring formless piece of shit.

It was, however, a boring formless piece of shit that I kept coming back to, and I can’t explain how it happened, except that one night I was sitting alone in my apartment half-drunk, pitifully alone and staring at the carpet, and “Velvet Waltz” came on, and Doug Martsch sang those lines:

And you’d better not be angry
And you’d better not be sad
You’d better just enjoy the luxury of sympathy
If that’s a luxury you have

Suddenly, Perfect From Now On was the most incredible revelation in my entire life, bursting from its ruminations on the meaning of eternity to its sharp, final accusation: what are you gonna do? As a salve for one of my darkest hours, I listened to it every day and every night for a week, over and over. It was an enormous ocean, and I swam through it like a lost soul from a shipwreck, looking for an island.

I’d heard about a guy named Nick Jackson who played guitar and who knew how to play some Built to Spill songs, so I called him completely out of the blue. “Hi, Nick? Hey, my name’s Gabe. Rob gave me your number, and he says you know some Built to Spill songs on the guitar. I’ve got a totally ridiculous idea for you, and feel free to say no, but do you want to learn Perfect From Now On with me and play it at a show?”

His classic response: “Uh, sure. What’s Perfect From Now On?”

He went out and bought it and quickly and amazingly learned every single note, and we started practicing two weeks later. Just us and our guitars, with me singing. The show, at the Old Vic, went well, and afterwards I felt like I’d not only conquered the record in a way, but also made personal amends for talking so much shit about it all those years.

Fast-forward to 2006, and Santiago’s just finished recording Rosenberg’s After Dark, a sprawling concept album all about Santa Rosa. We needed to clean out our systems, so we started fucking around with There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. But it didn’t seem right, and we kept coming back to the songs from Perfect From Now On. It sure sounded a lot better with a full band. I called up Nick Jackson, who was down to fill in again on guitar, and we planned the ultimate joke: for our record release show, we’d play someone else’s record.

It was such an excellent idea. Then my world fell apart. In the middle of rehearsing, my mom died in a terrible car accident. Suddenly Perfect From Now On took on an entirely new emotion for me, and all of its intertwining mystery came rushing back. There was a lot of pain and confusion and heartache going on, and just as the album had earlier given me a salve for my solitude, it sprang up again and offered me a cathartic way to say goodbye.

The show we played was a blur. I remember only one thing vividly about it: singing those lines from “Velvet Waltz”—the ones about about anger, sorrow, and the luxury of sympathy. Someone recorded the show, and when I hear myself singing those lines today, I realize that I’m not one step closer to understanding Perfect From Now On. It’s still a vast ocean, and for as long as I spent swimming around in it, I never found the island. I like it that way.

Exile In Guyville is another story altogether.

I have an ex-girlfriend who listened to Exile in Guyville all the time when we were together. I’d heard about the album when a friend of mine saw Liz Phair on the cover of Rolling Stone, and at first I thought it was basically a wimpy soft-rock record with some token sex references thrown in for attention’s sake. I couldn’t understand why my girlfriend loved it so much, but how can you argue with a girlfriend who loves songs about sex? So I put up with it. She played it over and over.

Eventually, in a haze of prescription Vicodin and Seagram’s gin and English ovals, Exile In Guyville sunk in. I realized that there’s a lot of songs on the record (like “Explain it to Me”) that drone in a really cool way and some (“Dance of the Seven Veils”) that are just plain surreal, lyrically. Those are the ones that I really fell in love with. The eerie ones. My girlfriend kept on playing the ones about blowjobs, though. Years later, as our relationship soured, she kept turning to the blowjob songs for support, and I decided that I couldn’t understand her anymore at all if she still, after all those years, found more solace in “Fuck and Run” than in “Shatter.” So fuck her and fuck Liz Phair and fuck that record, I thought.

Songs don’t disappear. I eventually bought Exile in Guyville again, cuing up my favorite songs first, of course, and then listening to the whole thing. A healthy dose of distance from the mitigating circumstances of its arrival into my life helped me appreciate it all over again. And again, I picked up the phone and called some people and somehow talked them into learning it and playing it in public.

This idea actually had its genesis in 1995, when I distinctly remember walking around a small town in Indiana, waiting for a flat tire to get fixed, singing “Fuck and Run” in my best Johnny Cash impersonation with Alyssa. How crazy would it be, I asked, to take on the ultimate indie-rock feminist statement and perform it from a male point of view?

13 years later, I had even more of a reason to learn and perform Exile in Guyville. Liz Phair had started completely embarrassing herself with teen-girl-whore pop bullshit, and I needed to remind myself and others that she was once great. Also, there was a serious element of reclamation involved; a personal creed, I suppose, that I could love a record on my own terms, and that it didn’t belong to any one person, or to one ex-girlfriend, or to one gender, or to one line of thinking. Plus, a couple years after being stranded in Indiana together, Alyssa had died of a heroin overdose, and I always remembered that she thought it was a cool idea.

We learned the thing in about 4 or 5 practices, cramped into my small office room, and it was an amazing musical experience. Lots of unnerving surprises. I played piano on “Canary.” The show went incredibly well—even the songs about blowjobs—and I think, somehow, we achieved our goals. If nothing else, it was intensely satisfying.

My favorite Exile in Guyville song is still “Shatter.”

So anyway, the long and short of all this is that no, I don’t think I’m going to see Built to Spill perform Perfect From Now On in its entirety, nor do I fathom I’ll go see Liz Phair perform Exile in Guyville in its entirety. The purpose of going those kinds of shows is to commune, in the most direct way, with an album that you love, and I feel like I’ve already done that in the best way possible. Actually, I feel like I’ve inhabited those albums—and to paraphrase the song, I’m not sure I want to go back to the old house.

Harmony Festival: Missed Connections

Jun 16, 2008 | One Comment

Heath and Harmony… Damien Marley… – w4m – 28 (santa rosa)
Reply to: [email protected]
Date: 2008-06-10, 8:04PM PDT

I am looking for the cutie that my friend and I ran into while we were obnoxiously weaving throught the crowd at the damien marley concert. You were in a blue collared shirt with small stripes. Your hair was longer but it was under a hat. My friend flirted with you, said you had a great smile, and you turned away and smiled as if you were embarrassed a little. I made a comment about how you had some Jordan’s on from the ealry 90’s, you laughed because you knew I was right.

I doubt you are from Santa rosa, but I hope you find this somehow and contact me….

———-

harmony festival -me.. berkeley woman…you -santa rosa guy.. – w4m – 32 (santa rosa)
Reply to: [email protected]
Date: 2008-06-10, 7:09PM PDT
i never found you again….

we danced at arrested development… you had the nice hat …
then we danced on stage with kidjo… i left to go to the bathroom.. then you were nowhere to be found…
i though you were sweet and cute…. will you read this???? i dont know…

———-

In Serch Of A Girl Named Harmony – m4w – 21 (Harmony Festival)
Reply to: [email protected]
Date: 2008-06-11, 12:52AM PDT

I am the guy you hung out with Sunday night. My friend and I gave you a ride home to Petaluma. I lost your number and have no idea how to find you. I hope somehow you or one of your friends finds this. You were such an awesome girl, I would like to see you again.

———-

Harmony Festival – m4w – 32 (santa rosa)
Reply to: [email protected]
Date: 2008-06-09, 2:56PM PDT

You sat across from me at that back support booth. Your smile is too cute! I was drinking Iced coffee.

———-

Health and Harmony backstage – m4w (santa rosa)
Reply to: [email protected]
Date: 2008-06-11, 8:28PM PDT

We met saturday after the show on the mainstage. I felt like we really clicked, had a lot in common, and enjoyed talking. I am afraid that I might have communicated something wrong in a text message to you later that night and now I am afraid of messing things up. I really liked you a lot and dont want to come on too strong and risk looking a new friend.

Hoping you might see this understand.

———-

TO ALL THE WOMAN AT TECHNO- TRIBAL – m4w (santa rosa)
Reply to: [email protected]
Date: 2008-06-08, 10:04AM PDT

Really enjoyed the show. Just wish more of you lovely ladies would actually wear lesssssssss!!! I can literally have an orgasm just watching each and every one of you shake you things dancing and moving and a grooving to the scene. The costumes are one of the main reasons I go, to see the fish net stockings and the little skirts, short shorts and I just want to lick your toes… A HUGE THANK YOU GOES TO YOU ALL AND PLEASE REMEMBER LESS IS MORE!!!!!

Joshua Redman and Charlie Haden at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival

Jun 8, 2008 | No Comments

“It must be Healdsburg,” explained a tranquil Kenny Barron to the crowd. “It makes you so relaxed.”

Billed as “A Night in the Country,” last night’s flagship concert for the Healdsburg Jazz Festival could have easily been called “A Night in Wine Country,” with all of that term’s implied reassurance of the sweet life. In a decidedly mellow program of mostly standards and ballads, some of jazz’s finest players serenaded a well-dressed and middle-aged crowd at the Raven Theater with solos smooth and subtle as a vintage chardonnay and arrangements as quiet and nonintrusive as the engine of a Lexus.

It was the damnedest thing: Joshua Redman, Charlie Haden, Kenny Barron, and Billy Hart are all intensely creative players whom in the past I’ve seen deliver searing performances. Yet each member of the quartet last night appeared weirdly subdued, as if they either made a collective pact beforehand or were otherwise instructed to keep the show within the lines of accessibility for an unadventurous Healdsburg crowd. This is neither a compliment, nor is it particularly a complaint—although when one hears “Body and Soul” twice in one night, it’s hard not to feel one’s taste is underestimated.

So ballads it was, and if you’re gonna have ballads on order, Joshua Redman is the man to call. Redman’s velvety tone, with its Hawkins/Webster-lite hue, toyed with but never revealed the edges of the tenor sax last night; it was instantly apparent why he’s a star. Coupled with his melodic conception, Redman was perfect for songs like “What’ll I Do,” during which his captivating, lyrical solo—filled with sleek arpeggios and unfathomable bends—was the entire evening’s highlight. And that’s no small feat, since his lengthy intro to “My Old Flame” just minutes before, played alone in the center of the stage to awed silence, ran a close second; it was as if a loving monologue of anxiety and sorrow had been pulled out of thin air.

These heights, however, would have had a much stronger impact in a less plodding context. Paced incrementally, the set opened with Barron playing a stride-tinged solo version of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” and one by one, each player joined in after every couple song—but since Hart on drums came last, most of the set was without a prevalent pulse. The theater was hot. My mind wandered. The band kept playing slow, meandering tunes.

It wasn’t until the very end that things reached full swing, with an appropriate choice: an uptempo rendering of “Strike Up The Band,” with Hart rattling out some attention-grabbing drum roll-offs and prodding his cohorts to finally let loose. Everyone on the stand suddenly came to life, playing the way I was used to them playing, and after a program drenched in molasses, it felt like a majestic coming up for fresh air.

A standing ovation arrived from the sold-out crowd, but the encore, syrupy enough, was an easy-breezy-beautiful rendition of “Body and Soul.” Our tickets were $50 each, and you’d think we’d want to get all of our money’s worth, but it was just too straining. We exchanged glances and bailed.

James Newton and Bennie Maupin: The Eric Dolphy Tribute at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival

Jun 7, 2008 | One Comment

The jazz story of the year isn’t the discovery of some tapes by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It’s not some long-lost recordings of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk at Carnegie Hall. No, the jazz story of the year—and I’m serving this up to you on a platter, Downbeat—is James Newton’s recent acquisition of unheard-of handwritten sheet music by Eric Dolphy, and his incredible, incredible group with Bennie Maupin that debuted tonight at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.

There are certain works of art which we assume are too unique to ever be re-created. A stage play of Nights of Cabiria, say, or maybe a life-size sculpture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa—no one would attempt these things, because the originals are so distinctly their own. Eric Dolphy’s music is in this same echelon. By honing through incessant practice his immediately identifiable tone and stylistic approach, Dolphy ensured that when he died at age 36, no one would dare follow in his wake. People talk about jazz players having their own style. Eric Dolphy had his own language.

The flutist James Newton came into possession of Dolphy’s handwritten manuscripts through his teacher Hale Smith, a close friend of Dolphy’s with whom the great saxophonist/bass clarinetist/flutist deposited his trove of original sheet music days before he left for Europe with Charles Mingus in 1964, never to return. Now in fading health, Smith recently phoned Newton to entrust him with the collection. His instructions to Newton were simple: “You gotta take care of this.”

Tonight at the Raven Theater, James Newton and his quintet faced a huge challenge: how to present this music as Dolphy might have played it, when Dolphy himself would have presented it differently each time? Rising to the challenge of immersing themselves in another language, Newton’s group didn’t just re-create the music of Eric Dolphy. In twists and turns, they brought to life the fiery spirit, the adventurousness, the emotional resonance and the boundless optimism so prevalent in Dolphy’s muse, and they did so with both skillful prescience and loving warmth. One could close their eyes and easily imagine that Dolphy himself was in the house.

The concert opened with an Eric Dolphy composition, unrecorded and unheard in public before tonight, titled “Boycott.” In a low moan on his bass clarinet, Bennie Maupin introduced a slow solo figure. Soon, he conversed in tight harmony with bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz. Drummer Billy Hart crawled around the notes in a noteless manifestation of Dolphy’s eeriness, and Maupin, at the end of his solo, began beating out quiet rhythms by attacking the keys on his instrument. With otherworldly overtones and harmonic growls, Newton burst into the song on flute, the instrumental equivalent of a human cry, and eventually brought everyone back around to the slow, haunting theme.

If the afterlife exists, then Dolphy was watching over this premiere, caressing his beard and smiling widely.

The quintet played largely from Dolphy’s seminal Blue Note recording Out to Lunch, with each and every player perfectly filling their predecessor’s shoes. Hart absolutely nailed Tony Williams’ free horse-clop rhythms of the album’s title track, and the “new” head to “Straight Up and Down,” with the famous theme expanded and chopped, was an inspired addition to Dolphy’s exciting voicing for two instruments. During “Something Sweet, Something Tender,” Newton bent a note on his flute to the heavens while vibist Jay Hoggard ended a sensitive solo with a serendipitous cymbal crash from Hart. Magic was in the air.

The apex of the evening, however, was Out to Lunch‘s “Gazzelloni” (which, Newton told me afterwards, incredibly exists arranged for strings in the piles of Dolphy’s sheet music). Fully inhabiting the music, Hoggard gave a purely lyrical and possessed solo on the vibes, full of unstoppable ideas. Not to be outdone, Maupin followed with a ferocious unleashing of long, circular lines and inspired conception on soprano sax. The applause at the end was impulsive, grateful, and long.

After Maupin’s original composition “Equal Justice” on the piano and the blues “245” from Outward Bound, the group left the stage and the house lights came up. Lights be damned, the audience’s applause refused to die, and the quintet came out for one final number: “The Madrig Speaks, the Panther Walks,” appropriately chosen from Last Date, and appropriately earning a standing ovation.

The importance of this group’s project cannot be underestimated—in the lobby afterwards, people were overheard asking to touch Dolphy’s original charts—and their authority in Dolphy’s realm will soon be known to the world through an album on ECM, with Herbie Hancock signed on as a participant. Newton says there’s “a whole lotta stuff” in the collection of Dolphy’s sheet music he has yet to adapt, and tonight’s concert was just the first of many thrilling performances to come.

Sound the clarion call. The Scripture According to Dolphy awaits. “This is the first time we’ve played anywhere in the Universe,” said Newton, “and we thank you.”

Don Byron at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival

Jun 3, 2008 | One Comment

Though billed as “Bug Music for Juniors,” both the seven-year-old child and the fifty-something-year-old man on either side of me at the Raven Theater smiled and bounced their heads last night as Don Byron launched into “Siberian Sleighride.”

The youngster was thrilled that the cartoons were back up on the movie projector screen in the form of Meatless Flyday, a wacky 1944 Warner Bros. cartoon, and the man was thrilled at hearing one of Raymond Scott’s bounciest compositions revived by Scott’s greatest acolytes.

Holding court on a demonstrative jazz concert, meant mostly for kids, Byron spent equal time explaining chords, syncopation, and why musicians write on piano as he did playing the part-klezmer, part-swing, part-avant-garde jazz that’s his trademark. Watching the New York clarinetist explain jazz to kids, however, was a performance in itself.

“So you can kinda hear it, right?” Byron asked the kids, after playing select passages from both Raymond Scott and John Kirby. “Raymond Scott’s all wild, but John Kirby’s more elegant. He’s like, chillin’ at the club, drinkin’ Cristal. More slick, smooth, and cool. He’s like P. Diddy—you know, the way P. Diddy would hang—draped in nice clothes, clean clothes.”

One by one, Byron introduced the instruments in his sextet, conducting the proceedings like a game show announcer and ending with a drum solo that turned into an off-the-cuff version of “Shaft.” During “Powerhouse,” Scott’s most famous tune, a toddler danced in front of the stage, and Byron played off of its vocal noises during the breaks.

Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry cartoons screened in the background, as did old film reels of jazz bands; Byron also spoke at length about the Cotton Club and Duke Ellington, whose “The Mooch” opened up eventually into a free-for-all blowing session—and into the Byron that fans of records like his excellent Ivey-Divey are used to.

After a few solos during “The Mooch,” and after applauding for each one, the seven-year-old next to me turned and said, “We’ve already clapped, like, four times for this song!”

“Do you know why?” I asked.

“No.”

“Because they’re not reading from music. They’re making it up as they go along.”

“You mean they don’t know what they’re playing? Why do they do that?”

I was stumped. “Because,” I told him. “It’s jazz.”

Charles Lloyd at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival

Jun 1, 2008 | One Comment

When I worked at the Last Record Store, and pored through people’s record collections on a daily basis, I routinely flipped through countless copies of LPs by Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. There’s such a glut of these albums in the Bay Area that they’re not worth much, and I’d have to break the news gently to a daily stream of baby boomers that we had little use for what to their minds was the greatest music of the century.

There’d almost always be a copy in these collections of Charles Lloyd’s Forest Flower, which seemed strange to me until I read Bill Graham’s autobiography, Bill Graham Presents. Say what you will about Bill Graham—and you’d probably be right—but Graham truly excelled at the lost art of adventurous booking; placing Neil Young and Miles Davis on the same bill, say, or booking Gabor Szabo together with Jimi Hendrix.

Charles Lloyd, who Graham loved, found himself booked at the Fillmore along such names of the day as Chuck Berry, the Butterfield Blues Band, Jeff Beck, and the Young Rascals—and eventually wound up guilty by association, in my mind, to It’s A Beautiful Day. Lloyd to me became just another face in the crowd, and in all the times I listened to Forest Flower, I had the same dismissal: it’s close, but it’s not Coltrane.

Maybe I’ve changed. Maybe Charles Lloyd has changed. One thing is certain.

I was such an idiot.

Last night at the Jackson Theater, Charles Lloyd and his quintet gave an utterly transforming performance. Aided by Jason Moran, Ruben Rogers, Eric Harland and Zakir Hussain, Lloyd led his group on a frighteningly inventive sojourn which plunged into unchartered depth and redefined the rules of collective creativity. Amidst a furious storm of talent, the centered Lloyd remarked to the crowd, “It’s better to stick with the ship—and go down with it, if necessary.”

Now 70, Lloyd still plays in the great searching vein of late-era Coltrane, although his solos aren’t an aortic torrent of bitten reeds and quickly-changing ideas but rather more subtly crafted meditations. Last night, lifting his horn and marching in place while switching between tenor sax, alto flute, and a Hungarian instrument, similar to a clarinet, called a tárogató, he brought the audience to numerous pinnacles; or, in his own words, “up there to those elixirs.”

Dazzling pianist Jason Moran was responsible for just as many highlights, with a number of propulsive and chord-driven Gershwin-esque solos that incredibly bent the rules without breaking. Zakir Hussain, sitting in on tablas, added a rich texture that never overpowered the group, and bassist Ruben Rogers held the mast of simultaneous improvisation together with a solid, steady hand.

Lloyd and the group were unbelievable—but it was really all about Eric Harland.

So open to different paths and yet so confident of his own, drummer Eric Harland stole the show as the main superprocessor of the group’s collective thought. With impeccable touch and flawless taste, Harland not only drummed—he actually deciphered the conversation on stage into the most representational and delightful stickwork this side of Jack DeJohnette.

Given the open space offered by Lloyd’s group, Harland responded keenly to every moment on the stand, playing ahead of and behind the beat; keeping time with a footpedal connected to a tambourine; switching to piano when Lloyd directed him, mid-song, and plucking the strings inside while poking hard low notes; going head-to-head with Hussain in rapid-fire rhythm duets; executing ballet-like maneuvers while utilizing every inch of the drum kit; and always, always knowing where the song was headed and when to suddenly stop.

As if to acknowledge his blessed constituents, Lloyd throughout the night placed his hands in a prayer-like position, clasped his arms across his heart, and bowed. He also gratefully thanked the attentive audience, who leapt to their feet and handed him roses at the night’s end.

“When folks come with simple living and high thinking,” Lloyd said to the people, “it always helps us out.”

The Cure at the HP Pavilion in San Jose

Jun 1, 2008 | One Comment

We started taking bets on what the Cure’s opening song would be. “‘The Kiss,'” I said, “it’s gotta be ‘The Kiss.’ Can you imagine how awesome that’d be?”

When the lights went down and faint chimes tinkled over the stage, I knew I’d guessed wrong. The bells, the chimes, could it. . . would they. . . oh my God, for real? Like an avalanche, the Cure laid down the opening chords of “Plainsong,” the first song off Disintegration, and I squeezed my eyelids shut, balled my fists, and let out an ecstatic cry of release. And I pretty much didn’t stop until the end of the night—37 songs later.

Until Wednesday night’s show, I was never a total superfreaky Cure fan. Over the past 20 years, I’ve loved them incrementally—album by album, song by song—but never signed up as one of the fully obsessed. That’s all in the past now. Show me where to sign. On Wednesday night, during a staggering three-hour and fifteen-minute set, the Cure was even more than a great band: they were the greatest band in the universe.

Superfreaky fans abounded, that’s for sure. Around us, there was The Reciter, who blankly spoke every lyric back to Robert Smith as if it were scripture; The Dancer, who occasionally made his way out into the aisle to do some ’80s prom dancing before being shown back to his seat; and The Hoochie, a girl who kept the ticket stub stuffed in her very-exposed cleavage and who at one point stripped down to her bra, singing wildly.

As for me, I stood in awe and sang along to an onslaught of fantastic song after fantastic song—for over three hours! Take that, Bruce Springsteen!

More photos and set list below.

Diana Krall at Sonoma Jazz+

May 31, 2008 | 2 Comments

“I’m all pumped up full of steroids,” croaked a bronchitis-ridden Diana Krall to a sold-out Sonoma crowd on Saturday night, “so you’re gonna have to put up with my shitty piano playing the whole show.”

A woman in the audience yelled something about smoking.

“Oh—do you want me to stop talking?” asked Krall. “Is it like nails on a chalkboard. . . or too sexy you can’t stand it?”

It speaks volumes about Krall’s immense popularity that during an absolutely classic performance in Sonoma, her singing voice never wavered in the slightest—in spite of the fact that Krall’s speaking voice, which offered an ongoing stream of self-deprecating quips, sounded more like Edward G. Robinson. One could interpret this either as the resilience of a seasoned vocalist or one of the fringe benefits of having, in Kralls’ own words, a “smoky, sultry, cool sound.” Bronchitis would level most singers, but for Krall—who along with nighttime film-noir pianist-singers Holly Cole and Patricia Barber rarely, if ever, pushes her vocal chords—it never once hindered the show.

Though Krall acknowledged her bronchitis (announcing and then slipping into a Tom Waits impersonation during “Exactly Like You”), most of the time it worked in her favor. A fading whisper of the word “darling” during a spellbinding solo version of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” a particular husk to “The Look of Love”—these touches only added to what she does best.

With a few stride-piano intros—to “Frim Fram Sauce” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You”—that faltered greatly in tempo, Krall’s piano playing may have been lessened, but not enough to keep her from quoting Charlie Parker songs in solos which played well into her rhythm section’s impeccable backing. But it was her descriptions of motherhood and of breastfeeding her two children—she had twins a year and a half ago with Elvis Costello—which truly tickled the mostly middle-aged crowd.

“They’re both grown up now,” she joked. “They’re out in the hotel playing cards and smoking cigars. They look like their dad!” (“I’m sorry!” shouted the woman in front of me.)

At the end of the night, after a practically begged-for encore at the hands of a long standing ovation, Krall had triumphed. She even cast aside her sad, tortured persona for a split second—at the end of the bowed bass solos, sharp rim shots and dazzling guitar lines during the night’s closer “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” the 43-year-old mother squirmed on the piano bench, opened her mouth, and squealed like a little girl.

Photos and set list below.

Taylor Eigsti Quartet at Sonoma Jazz+

May 27, 2008 | No Comments

Taylor Eigsti talked nervously. Wouldn’t you, in front of a 3,000-seat tent with only a few hundred people in it? His buddy, Julian Lage, looked at him, looked out into the expanse. Laughed.

Then Eigsti sat down, punching out spare, discordant notes on his piano, as if in a musical deterioration of how eerie the whole thing was. Lage responded by picking out high-pitched chirps from his guitar strings below the bridge, and eventually, Ben Williams and Eric Harland sidled in. Out of all this, a song eventually self-sculpted: Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” full of wit, verve, dramatics and a fleeting debt to Bill Evans.

Another amazing night by Taylor Eigsti and Julian Lage was underway.

For some reason, I turn into a 1960s television host when talking about Eigsti and Lage. These kids, they’re a real gas, just righteously groovy. I go ape for ‘em, you dig?

I wasn’t alone: at the finish of the group’s next tune, “Time Lines,” a thundering, raging storm of full-fingered jazz, the crowd jumped immediately to their feet. There’s something so beautiful and weird and gratifying about watching a huge tent that’s only 30-percent full going absolutely bananas for the relative unknowns, and especially when those unknowns are ruling as hard as Eigsti and Lage.

Eigsti is 23, Lage is 20, and people can talk all they want about young players only studying theory and technique and recycling old ideas in place of emotion—it’s just not true with these two. They’ve got an emotional depth that goes acres deep. I’d seen this on display as a duo before, but with Williams and Harland they were a powerhouse. Though the two did play some duets together, the bluesy “And What if I Don’t” by Herbie Hancock and the original composition “True Colors”—and offered an introspective take on the surprise indie-rock tune of the set, the Eels’ “Not Ready Yet” (!)—the two truly shined in a full-force setting.

Through every open door, both Lage and Eigsti tiptoed carefully; the majority of their solos began with sparse hesitation, a note here, a run there. Feeling out the field. Wayne Shorter’s “Deluge” saw Lage open his solo with palm-muting intermittent bent notes on the fretboard, which slowly unraveled into more loosely muted hammer-ons, which eventually unraveled into a full-speed-ahead trek both in and out of the scale, going by so fast it was impossible to completely grasp.

Harland must have been in on this plan, too, because he’d take eights like this: 1) rubbing his stick end on the bell of his ride, and 2) same thing but with some bass drum, and 3) rim shots mixed with toms building up to 4) ending by wailing away. Mas y mas.

Yes, these dizzyingly executed extended crescendos abounded, even amongst all four members. “Caravan,” the set’s closer, opened with what Lage calls “my only toy”—a delay pedal, used with flat-fifths and slides and layered rhythms—while Eigsti reached inside the grand piano and dampened the strings with one hand, pounding out fast notes with the other. I’m of the belief that there’s no lousy way to play “Caravan,” but this was on some other shit entirely; Eigsti’s marathon solo, in particular, was unleashed like he was hungry, ravenous, stabbing at the keys. It was so impactful that the crowd started cheering in the middle and didn’t let up until the triumphant end minutes later.

Eigsti’s group—this same quartet—is playing tonight at Yoshi’s in Oakland and tomorrow at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. Go, go, go. Also, Eigsti has a new album out this week called Let It Come To You, and it features incredible performances that come damn close to capturing his live show. So well, in fact, that I’ll forgive the goatee.

Also, be sure to check out Lage’s trio when they open for Charlie Haden and Joshua Redman at the Raven Theater on June 7 as part of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.

Herbie Hancock at Sonoma Jazz+

May 24, 2008 | One Comment

Herbie Hancock is a jazz legend. It’s a fact. You can’t strip him of it.

At what’s billed as a jazz festival, you’d think people would be into Herbie Hancock. But after his first song last night, the Blue Note jazz classic “Cantaloupe Island,” an exodus of half-tipsy middle-aged Wine Country dilettantes who’ve been trained that Michael McDonald is “jazz” filled the aisles and headed to their SUVs.

This, I’d think, might be slightly embarrassing for the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival, who have suffered as many exhortations to simply change their name as Hilary Clinton has to drop out of the primaries. Frankly, I’m overwhelmingly for it. If you’re going to represent yourself as a “jazz” festival but then book mostly R&B, blues, or pop acts, you’re not only insulting an original American art form but also, I might add, essentially defying a Congressional decree calling for the recognition and preservation of jazz as a rare and valuable national American treasure.

Herbie Hancock, along with Julian Lage and Taylor Eigsti, represents the true jazz minority at this year’s festival, and Hancock occupies a decidedly unique place in jazz, however mainstream it may be. Though most of what he’s done lately falls into classical or pop realms, he has constantly pushed, in his music, the jazz ideal of exploration and possibility. No amount of Starbucks-friendly collaborations with Corrine Bailey Rae can taint that fact, and in a twisted way, his forays into funk fusion, industrial breakdance music, and other non-jazz idioms actually support it. If jazz is a journey, then Hancock is an overarching participant, straying from the designated path with equal parts vision and experimentation.

Example: while Hancock introduced his second number last night, the equally classic “Watermelon Man,” he announced that he and his quintet would tackle it with a few variations. First, they’d incorporate a 17-beat count into the song, based on African music. Second, they’d introduce one extra beat at a time, until they reached 17 beats. Oh, and another thing: they’d bring out a DJ to play turntables on the song.

The exodus continued.

What followed was an entirely creative take on “Watermelon Man,” with bassist Marcus Miller holding down the solid groove while Hancock switched from grand piano, to synthesizer, to. . . wait a second. . . a Key-tar?! Yep—Hancock and his harmonica player traded harp and Key-tar licks, the DJ threw in some scratching and the guitarist played wild octave-pedal scales. In its offbeat and original way, it was jazz—and the idea of jazz—at its finest, and to be fair to the crowd, the multitudes of people who stuck around gave him the first of many deserved standing ovations.

A trio of Joni Mitchell songs from Hancock’s what-the-hell Grammy Award-winning Album of the Year River: The Joni Letters followed, with vocalists Lizz Wright and Sonya Kitchell delivering stellar versions of “Edith and the Kingpin” and “The River,” the latter ending with angelic harmonies between the two. However, Kitchell’s take on “All I Want,” a breathy, sexy rendition, was a misfire compared to Mitchell’s laughing, playful original.

I actually listened to Mitchell’s Blue before coming to the show, and “All I Want” is such a great, weird dichotomy of a song—it’s full of longing and loneliness, but it’s also buoyant and optimistic, like Joni’s looking towards the day that she’ll be happy, feel free and knit sweaters. As the listener, you think that day could be tomorrow and the sweater she’ll knit is just for you. Kitchell sang it instead like there was no hope in sight—just a lot of self-wallowing and bluesy inflection.

Hancock himself played fantastically, but the greater impression left was that of a scientist in a jazz lab, professorially dissecting each number with sheet music in hand and explaining how the quintet would approach each new discovery. Introducing “Jean Pierre,” a vehicle for bassist Miller, he even joked about the song’s sketchy genesis. “This is a composition by the great Miles Davis,” he said, to scattered cheers. “You think Miles wrote it alone? Who knows!” (for further reading on Davis’ notorious habit of plagiarizing other’s songs, I recommend the book Shades of Blue by Bill Moody).

With Hancock’s classic Blue Note era covered by “Canteloupe Island” and “Watermelon Man,” with the Headhunters era covered via the encore “Chameleon,” and with the pop era covered with the Joni Mitchell songs, there was only one stone left unturned in Hancock’s set. I would have never thought he’d play it, not in a million years.

“Are you ready?!” he shouted. “For the first time in 25 years, are. . . you. . . ready?!”

And with that, he strapped on the Key-tar, motioned to the DJ, and led the band in a run-down of the great breakdance jam I used to backspin to when I was nine years old: “Rockit.” The crowd erupted. It wasn’t exactly jazz, but it felt good, and all egregious festival misnomers aside, that’s what any good festival is supposed to offer.



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