It was the type of show that you drive home from, only to come through the door, sit down in your living room and wish that you had a recording so you could listen to it all over again. Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke: three jazz legends, all headliners in their own right. What sort of miracle brought them together in a trio? Jack DeJohnette’s 70th birthday, that’s what. “I asked them if they’d like to help me celebrate,” DeJohnette said from the Napa Valley Opera House stage tonight, “and to my surprise, they said yes.”
When you’ve got such artistic heft flying by all at once, it’s hard to keep up. Which, of course, was part of the fun. Clarke’s percussive harmonics to open “Light as a Feather,” with Corea reaching into the piano to dampen the strings. DeJohnette’s horse-clop rhythm to begin “Someday My Prince Will Come,” as if said prince was riding in on a stallion. Corea clapping along with DeJohnette during Joe Henderson’s “Recorda-Me.” All were little easter eggs in a 90-minute set of constant, conscious interplay, full of head-nods, smiles, raised eyebrows and pointing among the three men.
The applause from the audience, who’d already given the trio a warm welcome, continued to increase throughout the night until the set closer, McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance.” I’d seen DeJohnette play the same composition with Tyner in 2002, and tonight, 10 years later, he played it with even more fire and propulsion. When it came time for his drum solo, he dedicated five minutes to soloing solely on one ride cymbal—which if you weren’t there sounds indulgent and dull, but was perhaps the most captivating moment of the night.
DeJohnette has just one more show with this dream trio, and then he’s back to playing with his regular band. Those who caught this historic collaboration, either in Napa, Santa Cruz, or at Yoshi’s… they know how lucky they are.
“We were butcherin’ up the Sonoma Country Club today,” said Branford Marsalis, before his band had played a note at the Napa Valley Opera House. “We were playing so bad we decided to let some girls play though so they wouldn’t have to look at us. So we invited them to the show tonight… and there they are, sitting right there!”
It was a warm, welcoming way to start the show—Marsalis shouted out, by first name, a long list of friends in the audience, “and all you people we don’t know, we’re glad you’re here too,” he continued. “This is just a hang. A big hang.”
And then the band catapulted into “The Mighty Sword,” and man, all hell broke loose. Marsalis led a solid seven-minute block of quick-paced, rapid-fire jazz, churning and whirring over the angular bass of Eric Revis and the interwoven lines of pianist Joey Caldarazzo, and thwomped the whole thing to a sudden stop. I tilted my head back and laughed in awe.
Yes, awe. The unbridled propulsion with which the quartet is playing these days comes from young drummer extraordinaire Justin Faulkner, who Marsalis hired away from his previous job at Benihana wielding ginsu knives. Or at least it seems that way. Faulkner is a dizzying presence at the kit, sounding like two drummers at once. He tackles the entire drumset, beating toms and cymbals and stands and whatever’s handy, and has a polyrhythmic thrust that calls to mind Elvin Jones. Did I mention he’s only 21 years old? Get used to the name, folks: Justin Faulkner.
Older track “In the Crease” that was the set’s highlight, with Caldarazzo’s solo building to such a climax that he leapt off the bench. This was followed by Faulkner’s shining moment, a blistering solo that was just plain unexplainable—except to say that contrary to popular belief, dropping a pile of drum sticks on the stage can be a percussive moment.
All through these moments, Marsalis himself was fine with sitting out behind the band to let them shine. That’s the right thing to do with this band; they’re remarkably tight, and even with Faulkner, who’s relatively new, they listen intently to each other. The Marsalis quartet has an album coming out next month, Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, and based on the songs played tonight, it’ll be excellent. “Teo,” the Thelonious Monk composition, magnified the playfulness of Monk’s melodic conception; “Maestra” was a nice, plaintive ballad.
A set-closing “Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” caused calls for an encore, and suitable “52nd Street Theme” was a fun, frivolous, lively closer. It’s a thrill to have jazz of this caliber played in the small confines of the Napa Valley Opera House, and I doubt many who were there will forget it anytime soon.
The only thing missing at the Napa Valley Opera House Wednesday night was the tent.
Billed as the “Soul Salvation” tour, the co-headlining lineup of Ruthie Foster and Paul Thorn brought the fervor of a religious revival, with a decidedly temporal bent, to the gathered congregation.
Both Thorn and Foster have early backgrounds that include heavy doses of religion—Thorn’s father was a Pentecostal preacher; Foster sang in and played piano for her church choir. Take those gospel influences, mix with equal parts of blues and soul, and you get an energetic and entertaining performance with somewhat different approaches.
Thorn can rock when backed by his touring band, but when performing acoustically, his regular guy, southern-accented attitude with some “aw, shucks” self-depreciating humor allows the listener to focus on the humor, love and pathos in his writing. His self-introduction, “Hi, I’m Paul Thorn and I’m gonna play some songs I made up,” set the tone for a wide array of song subjects.
He opened with “I’m Still Here,” giving thanks for making it through another day’s often bizarre trials and tribulations. The song “I Don’t Like Half The Folks I Love” said what many of us feel, but are afraid to say, about extended family—”I like it when they come, but I love it when they go.” Thorn told the story of “Joanie, the Jehovah Witness Stripper,” who was a good girl at heart just trying to make ends meet.
Death and destruction played roles in Thorn’s gospel revival: the touching “I Have A Good Day (Every Now And Then)” was prompted by the suicide of a friend, and Thorn promised “I’ve got a can of gas and I’m a dangerous man” to an unfaithful wife in “Burn Down The Trailer Park.” He paid tribute to his mother, who lived in the shadow of his preacher father for so many years, with the song “That’s Life,” stringing together different phrases she used throughout her life. Then, channeling his father, Thorn promised the crowd “If you don’t buy my CDs, you’ll go to hell,” before closing with “Everybody Looks Good At The Starting Line,” a tune about those good intentions we all have.
Ruthie Foster came to celebrate. She was genuine, warm and energetic, and her gospel roots inhabited every song. Although Foster was honored by the Blues Foundation last year as Best Contemporary Female Blues artist, she effortlessly blurs musical lines of Mississippi blues, Texas roots, Memphis soul, Cajun funk and Southern gospel. It’s an infectious mix that just exudes energy.
Her band took the stage one by one—Tanya Richardson on bass, Samantha Banks on drums and Scottie Miller on keyboards—slowly working into a slower, jazz-infused version of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer,” one of the songs from her recently released album Let It Burn. The band changed instruments, with Richardson on violin, Banks on a wood block and spoons and Miller on the mandolin, to brilliantly cover Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richmond Women’s Blues.” They went a cappella to perform “The Titanic,” on which Foster is backed on her new album by the Blind Boys of Alabama. (The foursome on stage did a magical job, so much so that Foster beamed, “We get the Blind Boys with us on that and woo, we have church!”)
The energy began to build as Foster belted out what may be her signature tune, “Phenomenal Woman.” With the immediate standing ovation, the night could have ended right there, but she then went solo a cappella with the Son House song, “Grinnin’ In Your Face.” A slow-cooking “Real Love” followed, and the band closed with an extended version of the traditional “Death Came A’Knockin’.” Lyrically a generally morbid song, it was transformed into a lengthy upbeat jam, giving each of the musicians some quality solo time.
Thorn joined Foster and the band for two encores. With everyone on their feet, they did Fosters’ “I Hear Music In The Air” and closed with a new Thorn song, “Take My Love With You,” both high-energy, gospel-swaying, hand-clapping crowd pleasers.
With the spirit in the building, it’s a good thing they’ve renovated and strengthened the rafters of the Napa Valley Opera House. And at that point, if your soul wasn’t saved, well… maybe you just weren’t listening.
I said everything I needed to say regarding the experience of seeing Philip Glass play live in this concert review from the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, in 2007. That said, seeing Philip Glass play the piano is not an opportunity to be missed, because his music is more about how one reacts to it than what it sounds like, which is, pointedly: the same as it always does.
Philip Glass had performed his 3 1/2-hour opus Music In Twelve Parts at Davies Symphony Hall a few nights earlier, so playing a solo piano show for 90 minutes in Napa might not have seemed like a big deal to him. It was a huge deal, however, to the full house on Thursday night, who in the wonderfully intimate theater were treated to Mad Rush, Metamorphoses No. 4, 3 and 2, some Etudes for Piano (even Glass humorously forgot which ones), and Closing, from his Columbia album Glassworks. Some people leaned forward, enraptured. Others either sat politely, or swayed back and forth to the repetitive patterns, or fell asleep. I closed my eyes and got lost in it all, thinking about love, family, and the future.
Margrit Mondavi, whom the Napa Valley Opera House theater is named for, was sitting way up in the balcony, and afterwards, when Glass came out to the lobby to meet his fans, she presented him with a few bottles of wine. Watching Mondavi, who has done so much in support of the arts, share a warm conversation with Glass, who essentially personifies “the arts,” was pretty intense. Glass then took a good half-hour or so to sign autographs, answer questions, and take photos with his fans. Again, this mightn’t have been a big deal to Glass, but everyone was happily surprised that he’d be so accommodating, and it transformed a great concert into a special night.
You’d think, with a healthy affinity for Broadway and a probably unhealthy affinity for pop vocalists from the ’50s and ’60s, that I’d be all over the Rufus Wainwright thing. One problem: I’ve heard his records, and they’re too syrupy and overdramatic, bogged down by pretense and orchestration. When he toured last year for Release the Stars with a large ensemble and wore, like, five different poofy outfits onstage, I didn’t feel like I’d missed much.
But today, friends, I stand before you a changed man. Wainwright played a solo show at the Napa Valley Opera House last night, spotlighting his songs in a stripped-down format, and it was absolutely incredible. I can’t say that I’d follow him around on tour, or hold up star-shaped signs, or jump up applauding after every song like some of the more fervent dyed-in-the-wool fans in the crowd did last night, but if there’s a regular old kind of casual fan club, then sign me up, brother.
The fact that Wainwright was playing such a small venue made the evening feel like a special event indeed. Apparently in the know about his obsessive fans, Napa Valley Opera House Artistic Director Evy Warshawski introduced Wainwright as “you-know-who,” and was forced to deny requests from the audience demanding to know which hotel he was staying at afterwards. Quite a build-up.
Getting off to a shaky start, Wainwright came out, sat at the piano and banged away on the piano for “Grey Gardens,” an otherwise nice song affected by an awkward attack and bad dynamics. Something must have been going on with the monitors, because for the first three songs, it felt like he was overcompensating for imaginary sounds in his head. Eventually, either Wainwright or the soundman figured things out, and throughout the hour and fifteen-minute set, his accompaniment only got better, and was especially sensitive on numbers like “Zebulon” and “Going to a Town.”
Wainwright’s still not the most suitable guitarist—abrasive strumming and fret buzz got in the way—but his piano playing became beautiful and exhilarating, especially during the hands-down best song of the night, “Nobody’s Off the Hook.” Contained in reverence from start to finish, with a pensive instrumental passage, a heartbreaking final verse and an upper-register quote of “Over the Rainbow,” it elicited a communal awed silence before bringing the house down.
From the small stage, Wainwright took advantage of the intimate Napa Valley Opera House, talking with the crowd like old friends. “This is such a cute little Opera House!” he exclaimed midway through the show. “I’m imagining a cute little production of Aida. . . with baby elephants playing big elephants. . . little midget singers. . .” The crowd couldn’t stop laughing, and Wainwright, trying to bring the mood back down for the sad lament “I’m Not Ready to Love,” begged, “Get sad!” When that only dragged out the laughter, he got mock-desperate: “Oh, this is a nightmare!”
“Matinee Idol” sparked an ongoing discussion with the audience about River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Jon Voight and Cary Elwes, and during “California,” Wainwright changed the lyrics, pointedly singing that “life is the longest death in SOUTHERN California.” When the crowd hooted, he cattily admitted to the pander, saying, “I said ‘Northern’ down there!”
“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” and “April Fools” were woven nicely into medleys, and though Wainwright didn’t do any Judy Garland songs (like the night before in Monterrey when the crowd sang “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”) he convinced the crowd nonetheless to tackle the vocally gymnastic bridge to “Sansoucci,” his ode to the German palace which he hilariously referred to as “the Madonna Inn of Germany.” He also got off a side-splitting line about meeting up again with an old high school crush, a story which isn’t worth repeating here, unfortunately, because it would lack the necessary wit and zest-laden delivery of coming from Wainwright himself.
Wainwright’s songs are so good, his melodies so well-crafted, his sense of bombast so refined, and yet throughout the set all of these attributes sometimes took a backseat to his personality. Before the elegant final encore of “Dinner at Eight,” for example, Wainwright thanked opener Spencer Day for flying in at the last minute to help offset the Daylight Savings Time change. “And,” he quipped, “for providing me with an extra hour to look at myself back there.”
Some performers are performers and some performers are superstars. Wainwright isn’t a superstar, not yet, at least, but at least he’s adhering to the first rule of art, that of striking a pose. Wainwright’s chosen pose—a tortured diva who could crumble at any moment—would easily be an excruciating cliche, except that it’s backed up by such a richness of talent, and eventually, it will see itself fulfilled by said talent. So preen away, Rufus, and look at yourself for another hour. History will catch up.