Last night my fiancee-in-crime and I hosted our first house concert. A couple dozen people piled into our living room to listen to Sacramento’s Ross Hammond play an hour of blues, spirituals and improvised music on the resonator guitar. It was a magical night. I want to share some of it with you, so here are three of the songs Ross played last night. Find his music at http://www.rosshammond.com.
Nellie McKay performs at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in New York City. (Photo from a 2010 performance by Amy T. Zielinski)
Nellie McKay Occupies Feinstein’s:
Tin Pan Alley Environmentalism In The Belly Of The Beast
(NEW YORK CITY – MARCH 23, 2012) Hearing Nellie McKay sing about Rachel Carson at Feinstein’s on March 22 was like watching a Michael Moore movie at a Goldman Sachs board meeting.
The evening didn’t start well. In line was a couple complaining about how they’re always there and they just can’t understand why they don’t have their usual table and blah blah blah blah. (“We’ll seat you at Mr. Feinstein’s personal table, ma’am.” Ugh.) Everyone had fur on and the place looked like the set of a 1940s mob movie, except for the very modern prices. Given the announced program for the evening — a musical revue about an environmentalist — it seemed that something must have gone horribly wrong.
But it took just a few minutes into the first song to see that if a joke was being played, McKay was definitely in on it. Her subversive set of activist-inspired protest pop would have found a friendlier audience in Zucotti Park, but part of the genius of the show was that people in furs paid $40-70 each plus a $25 food-and-beverage minimum to have someone criticize their existence while playing a ukelele.
Rachel Carson was a pioneering environmentalist whose book Silent Spring galvanized the nation in support of protecting natural resources. McKay’s revue (“Silent Spring — It’s Not Nice To Fool Mother Nature”) was part biopic, part polemic, part iVictrola playlist of music from the Tin Pan Alley era.
McKay never stopped smiling for the entire show, except during the few occasions when it was appropriate for the narrative. But the smile seemed to be directed as much at her band or at Carson’s hovering ghost as at the audience members eating $15 plates of lettuce. This was cabaret for the endtimes, which is appropriate given that global warming means the piano at Feinstein’s will likely be underwater during McKay’s lifetime once the Atlantic Ocean reclaims the isle of Manhattan.
The evening’s song selections included a host of standards, from Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” and Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” to “Ten Cents A Dance” by Rogers & Hart and “Lazy Bones” by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. But in between these more Feinstein’s-appropriate numbers were surprising choices – Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus,” for example, both probably being performed for the first time on that particular stage.
McKay also included several of her own compositions. They were among the strongest performances of the night, even given the illustrious songwriting company mentioned above. Her puckish humor and coquettish delivery were perfect for the deadpan (is it deadpan if you’re always smiling?) punch to the stomach she delivered with the story.
The story followed Carson’s life from childhood to her death in 1964 at age 56. Along the way, McKay used props, recorded dialogue and live acting to tell the story of Carson’s evolution from a nature-loving child to a Washington bureaucrat to a popular author and crusading environmentalist. The biographical elements of the story weren’t overly detailed, often hinting at the elements of Carson’s life rather than providing specific descriptions. At times, the songs served to fill in the gaps, although often they were as much to create a mood or illustrate the time period as they were programmatic devices.
McKay ended the revue with a James-Brown-inspired performance of “Let’s Do It,” complete with the Godfather of Soul’s patented drop to the stage and cape-assisted exit. The cape, by the way, had the initials “RC” on the back.
McKay then ran back on stage and performed a joyous version of her reggae tune “Caribbean Time.” Incredibly, she got the Feinstein’s crowd to join her in a call-and-response section. Never have so many men in bow ties sung “oh-ee-oh.”
The revue is an excellent idea, well executed. It deserves to be heard by a wider — and more ecologically minded — audience. But kudos to McKay for having the guts to perform this music in the belly of the beast.
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VIDEO: Here’s McKay performing “Caribbean Time” in 2010:
NOTE:Photo of Nellie McKay as Rachel Carson by Rick Gonzalez.
I spent most of the day on the train yesterday, traveling back and forth between NYC and New Haven, CT. By the time I got back home to Brooklyn I was tired and planning to crash for the night. But I decided to see who was playing around town, just in case. I noticed that Chilean vocalist and guitarist Camila Meza was at Small’s Jazz Club. I’d never heard her music so I visited her site, listened to about two minutes of her singing, and hopped back on a train to Manhattan.
Meza has a rich voice that’s playful without being too syrupy. Her repertoire was straight from the Great American Songbook (with the exception of Ibrahim Ferrer’s “Silencio”), but she managed to make the music sound fresh with her obvious enthusiasm and her emotional connection with the songs.
Meza was joined by bassist Pablo Menares, another new-to-me player. Menares was equally skilled at holding down the bottom and making interesting harmonic choices throughout the range of his instrument. And his soloing was melodic and creative.
Meza’s guitar playing was equally impressive — and would have been completely at home in the 1950s. Her solos were fluid and well constructed without falling back on cliches. Several times she doubled her solos with her voice.
For the final song of the night (“But Not For Me”), Meza and Menares were joined by saxophonist Melissa Aldana, who fit perfectly with the old school vibe that was happening on stage. Aldana leads a regular jam session at Cafe Vivaldi and played with Greg Osby in August.
My only request for Meza’s next gig would be more songs in Spanish and from farther afield than the Great American Songbook. She’s playing in Berne, Switzerland for five nights in October, and then at several New York locations later this fall. Go see her.
I’ve written about Carmen Staff before and told you how impressed I am with her as a pianist. I’ve also interviewed her for The Jazz Session. And last night I had the chance to see her perform in a trio setting at one of my favorite New York music spots, The 55 Bar.
The 55 Bar doesn’t have a piano, so Staaf played a Fender Rhodes, which made for a very different listening experience to the acoustic performance I’d heard previously. The Rhodes is a tricky beast, and the skills necessary to playing the piano don’t necessarily make a successful Rhodes player. Staaf did just fine, though, using the Rhodes to its full capacity and showing the same fluid touch that struck me before.
Staaf was joined by bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ronnie Burrage. This was the trio’s first time playing together, and they weren’t ashamed to work some things out on stage, particularly Burrage’s tunes. Burrage spent some time as McCoy’s Tyner’s drummer years ago, and he introduced one of his tunes as one which McCoy has “played the crap out of.” (Eliciting the comment, “No pressure, Carmen,” from one of Staaf’s friends in the audience.) Whether it was the McCoy comparison or just the adrenalin that comes from fighting your way through a brand new tune, Staaf rose to the challenge and delivered a smart and muscular solo that used the full range of the Rhodes.
Another highlight for me was Staaf’s breathtaking “Nymphs of the Milky Way,” which I wrote about when I saw her at Issue Project Room. The piece is gorgeous, and was made more so by Roeder’s sensitive bass work. I’ve seen him in a number of contexts here in New York, and he always knows just how to serve the music.
Here are a few other things I tweeted during the show:
@carmenstaaf trio playing a 3/4 or 6/8 or 150/200 version of “All The Things You Are.” Ronnie Burrage on cajon. (Also note the album cover on the wall with “Carmen” on it. A different Carmen, of course, but still a fun coincidence.)
Nice deconstruction of “In Walked Bud” by @carmenstaaf.
Last night gave me the chance to see a new side of Carmen Staaf and once again I was very happy to be there. Staaf is playing at the 55 Bar at the end of September (watch her site for the exact date). You can also follow her on Twitter at @carmenstaaf. And if you’d like to get my updates and photos as they happen, you can follow me on Twitter at @jasondcrane.
I met pianist Dalton Ridenhour through a mutual friend a couple weeks ago. As soon as he told me he played stride piano, I asked him to make sure to let me know when he was playing. I happened to be in town for tonight’s gig and had a chance to see Dalton — and some friends — take the crowd at Small’s on a tour through jazz piano history.
Ridenhour has a great ear for melodies. He mostly played immediately recognizable tunes — “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” or “Alberta, Alberta” — but he sprinkled in some pieces that were new to me such as “Cryin’ For The Carolines” and a James P. Johnson tune that I think was called “Riffs.” Throughout the set, Ridenhour showed not only a mastery of the piano, but a real sense for pacing and flow and for the general shape of a song. His improvisations were fluid and interesting, which was particularly impressive given the harmonic and rhythmic rules imposed by the genre.
Twice during the set, Ridenhour featured vocalist Mara Kaye, who belted out “Sugar In My Bowl” and “Any Kind of Man” and slunk her way through “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” She had a strong and very anachronistic voice that perfectly fit the music. (Although it was sometimes a little more than the sound system could handle.) She’s definitely someone I’ll watch for around her native Brooklyn.
Ridenhour is a talented player. I’ll be seeing him again. If you’d like to be transported back in time to hear piano music from a bygone — but still very fresh and alive — age, you should see him, too.