Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Jenifer Jackson at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 5/26/09

Yet another reminder of how the true test of a performer is how they hold up under less than ideal circumstances. In this case Jenifer Jackson was battling some nasty but hopefully short-acting bug, sweating and rallying and ultimately coming out victorious – if she hadn’t told the crowd, hardly anyone would have noticed. Jackson has gotten a lot of ink here and will continue to, because she’s criminally underrated: plainly and simply, most of the songwriters on her level are either dead (Lennon, Jobim, Arthur Lee) or in the accepted canon (Lou Reed, Loretta Lynn, Gamble & Huff). Those references are deliberate because Jackson either draws on or has a song or three resembling all those greats. This show was mostly a mix of newer material from her next cd, which is inching tantalizingly toward completion. Like her most recent song titles – Time, Words, Maybe – she’s mining a strikingly terse, richly lyrical, melodically simple yet minutely jewelled vein. And though visibly struggling, she still toyed with her vocal melodies with an otherwise effortless expertise, harmonizing off her usual vocal line or, at the end of the show, finally breaking into a soaring wail.

Backing her this time out were longtime bandmates Oren Bloedow (of the magnificent Elysian Fields) on guitar and the equally haunting, tasteful Matt Kanelos (who has a brilliantly subtle new album of his own out) on piano as well as her longtime drummer Greg Wieczorek AKA G Wiz who joined her on the last few songs of the set. The newest material continued to be the most impressive: the sadly resolute 6/8 country ballad The Beauty in the Emptying; a jazzier take on early 70’s Carole King, with a cautionary note to seize the day; a hypnotic, Velvets-ish version of the completely un-bluesy Let the Good Times Roll (another carpe diem theme); an absolutely riveting, minimalistically ominous version of the forthcoming Groundward and the best song of the set, Maybe, Bloedow adding a soulful energy to the lyric’s stoic resignation via a masterful series of slides and bends. If the new album is anything like what she played at this show, it’s a serious contender for best of the year in whatever year it comes out. Watch this space for upcoming New York dates.

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May 29, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Images from Jenifer Jackson at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 3/24/09

A photoblogger’s dream. In lieu of actual photos, some indelible moments:

 

Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow, a longtime Jackson bandmate, grinning ear to ear as he launches into a warm succession of chords straight out of Nashville, 1966. Not what you’d expect from the leader of a brooding, noir downtown art-rock band…

 

– Jackson‘s songs tend to be soft, but she punishes her guitar strings. There’s a moment during a newer one, Let the Good Times Roll (nothing like B.B. King – or the Cars) where she holds down the rhythm during an instrumental break, bending over, wailing on the strings, hair all up in her face like Courtney Love. Who is sort of the opposite of Jenifer Jackson.

 

– Pianist Mattt Kanelos, completely unrehearsed, all deadpan as he does the smart thing – playing one beat behind the band – as they launch into the old doo-wop hit La La Means I Love You.

 

– Jackson singing those la-las with real feeling. After all she’s been through – if her lyrics are any indication – she’s still a believer. Back for another ride through hell.

 

– “Plain, fancy, plain,” Bloedow reminding the troops about how to make the music match the vocals on the song’s outro as they launch into an audience request, the Beatlesque When You Looked at Me, from Jackson’s first full-length album, from ten years ago. Has it really been that long?

 

– Jackson looks down as she launches into the chorus of the restless yet ambient Groundward, telegraphing where the song is going. Most of the crowd don’t know the song yet – lots of folks who weren’t there at her March 10 show. They will sooner than later. They’re rapt. They miss the singer who used to play just about every week around here. Watch this space for upcoming NYC dates. 

April 1, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Jenifer Jackson at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 7/20/08

What a treat to see such a major artist, a Lennon/McCartney/Elvis Costello-class songwriter, in such an intimate, sonically beautiful setting. This was the fun set. Jenifer Jackson’s an urban person at heart, and tonight she might as well have been wearing one of those “I heart New York” shirts. Although Jackson relocated to Austin last year, she and her cohorts onstage – Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow and her longtime drummer Greg Wiz – were just about jumping out of their shoes, unabashedly delighted to be playing with each other again after a long hiatus. Which was particularly striking, because her stock in trade is lush, jazz and tropicalia-inflected songs with a pensive, moody edge. But tonight was just as much a clinic in good times as good songwriting, featuring mostly new material.

The drummer was playing all the new stuff cold, but nobody would have known it if Jackson hadn’t spilled the beans: his feel for her songs is absolutely intuitive. Bloedow played invigoratingly virtuosic, fast bluegrass-inflected lines all night, a striking change from the jazzy noir feel of his own band. “It’s hard to play chicken-scratch sitting down,” Jackson marveled, but it seemed as if Bloedow would have gladly done it behind his back, and well, if anybody had asked him to. The new stuff is sensationally tuneful and emotionally impactful: since her first full-length album, 1999’s Slowly Bright, Jackson hasn’t lost a step. Vocally, her range has expanded, in both senses of the word: she has the voice of a survivor, indomitable, confident, despite a few dents probably too deep to ever be completely smoothed out. There’s solace in that voice, but there’s also a bon vivant who refuses to miss out on anything good. The night’s best song, a new number, reflected exactly that. Building on a dark, steady, deliberate descending progression to a passionate crescendo, Jackson sang of letting it all go, defiantly refusing to accede to despair.

Another number had something of a sassy 60s Nancy Sinatra jazz-pop feel. The effortlessly sultry, 6/8 Whispering Words, a sprightly song perhaps titled Spring (as in “maybe love will come again in Spring”), and a particularly haunting breakup song, The Beauty in the Emptying – all new – kept the audience rapt. Nobody said a word, even when the guitars were constantly being retuned (the hundred-degree, humid night outside had a lot to do with that). Which pretty much sums up the show. You would be crazy to miss her the next time she plays here.

July 21, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Jenifer Jackson at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 11/18/07

A triumphant homecoming of sorts. Jenifer Jackson was an East Village denizen and made a name for herself here before relocating to Austin this past spring. It was obviously the right move. She’s never looked more at ease onstage or sung better than she did tonight. Like Erica Smith and Rachelle Garniez, Jackson is another one of those multistylistic songwriting machines, someone who can appropriate literally any style of music and make it work, with fluency, poise and passion. Likewise, Jackson has been known to tweak her vocal style from time to time. On her earlier material, she sang with a gentle, tender delivery, then she went through a brief but spectacularly successful phase as a big belter. Tonight it was obvious that she’s gotten more in touch with her lower register, giving her vocals a new warmth and confidence. It suits her well.

When her latest cd The Outskirts of a Giant Town came out last spring, we said it was the best album to come out so far in 2007 and that claim still looks to be valid. Playing a sparse, trio show backed by Roland Satterwhite, who played layers of ambience on violin, and Elysian Fields axeman Oren Bloedow, whose virtuosic, jazzy guitar was spot-on all night, she mixed tracks from the new cd along with a couple of brand-new gems and some older material. On the 70s soul-inflected Power of Love, Bloedow grinned as he went into generic Wes Montgomery mode, playing a solo made up solely of octaves. Was there room on the fretboard for the last note of the verse? Yes! Moments like these are typical at Jenifer Jackson shows.

One of the best things about small-group performances like this is that the songs get stripped down to just the moving parts, which can be fascinating to watch. The title track to Jackson’s new album actually turned out to be built on a totally generic indie rock progression that pretty much anybody can learn how to play in a few minutes’ time. Yet Jackson pulled it off with her airy, jazzy vocal melody, combined with Bloedow’s artful passing tones. I Want to Start Something, with its stratospherically high vocal melody – which Jackson absolutely nailed – was particularly captivating, all impatience and longing for something secure. Their absolutely gorgeous, minor-key, bluegrass-inflected take of Dreamland, arguably the best cut on the new cd, got a welcome boost of energy. Of the new songs, the best new one was a jazz-pop number called Words, seemingly about miscommunication. Jackson’s songs, and especially her lyrics, are remarkably terse and crystallized, so it’s understandable how not being able to precisely express something would really bother her.

They encored with an audience request from her second album, Mercury the Sun and Moon, a tune Jackson wrote back in the 90s while still in her teens. Stripped down to its eerie tango roots, this version saw Bloedow playing a bassline on the guitar with his thumb as he did on several of the other songs. The crowd wanted more, but Jackson hadn’t rehearsed anything else with these longtime cohorts of hers. Always leave the audience wanting more, the saying goes. Tonight Jackson and her band did just that.

November 20, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Jenifer Jackson – The Outskirts of a Giant Town

Her best album, the first instant classic to be released this year. Over the course of her previous six albums, Jenifer Jackson has carved out a niche that is uniquely her own, even though she wears her influences on her sleeve (Bacharach, the Beatles, and Brazilian jazz/pop most notably). There’s an impressive clarity of vision that pervades her music – a courageous one. It’s what Camus meant by lucidite – it’s evident from the first song on this album that this is someone who is firing on all cylinders, every synapse wide awake and often painfully aware of what’s going on. Her melancholy, intricate, jazz-inflected psychedelia doesn’t shy away from despair or loneliness. But there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel: as strange as it may seem at first listen, this is ultimately a hopeful, optimistic album. Recorded live in the studio in order to evince as much interplay as possible out of her stellar backing band, the cd is a multistylistic tour de force, opening with Don’t Fade, old school 60s- 70s soul with fluttery organ fills and a soaring vocal. Like Sandy Denny, Jackson’s formidable prowess as a singer may not be physical – she’s not a big belter – but she packs an emotional wallop.

The album’s next cut Suddenly Unexpectedly, set to a fast shuffle beat with a bossa melody and layers of keys, is pure psychedelic tropicalia. The following track, Saturday, is something of an epic, and might be the most powerful song she’s ever recorded. It starts out somewhat Beatlesque, like a George song from the White Album. She pedals a chord through the verse, then all of a sudden the minor-key chorus descends: “It doesn’t matter anyway – I’ll keep it in my memory, that lovely Saturday.” Then the second verse kicks in, and everything picks up a notch. Jackson is also a painter, and as the images unwind, this tersely imagistic portrait of a young woman absolutely and heartbreakingly alone is absolutely, heartbreakingly beautiful.

After that, we get I Want to Start Something, more old-school soul with psychedelic flourishes, accordionist Sonny Barbato playing some delicious licks off Jackson’s equally tasty rhythm guitar. Her voice takes flight again at the end of the verse: “I’d like to find a place that feels like home…been so many places I don’t know why I can’t find it.”

The next cut, Dreamland, begins with a strangely captivating, tinkly piano intro into a wash of cymbals, then Jackson’s guitar kicks in all by itself. It’s Nashville gothic with all kinds of eerie, echoey effects from lead player Oren Bloedow’s guitar. It’s scarier than the fast, bluegrass-inflected version she used to play live, with a gorgeously sad lyric: “The way you loved me was a sin/I played a game I couldn’t win/Still I tried so hard to enter in/To the outer edge of Dreamland.”

Other standout tracks on the cd include the title track, gentle pastoral raga rock evocative of Meddle-era Pink Floyd, with an amazing piano break by Barbato; Anywhere I Would Journey, with its slow descending progression and watery lead guitar; The Change, an epic old-school soul groove-fest that would be perfectly at home on an Isaac Hayes live album from the early 70s; and For You, which with its tricky time changes and 60s garage rock feel wouldn’t be out of place on a Love Camp 7 record.

This album is generously multi-purpose: it’s a hell of a headphone album, it would make a great bedroom record, but it’s also a good thing to give to anyone you know who’s going off the deep end. Jackson’s gentle, soft voice and her wise, knowing lyrics offer a kind of solace that’s completely absent in indie rock, and the inspiring interplay of the band behind her can be mesmerizing. She deserves props for having the guts to reach down into the abyss to come up with some of the songs on this album, while never losing sight of the subtle, frequently surreal wit that imbues so many of them. It’s only April, but I think we’ve found the best album of 2007 and this is it. Cds are available at cdbaby.com at the link above, in better record stores and at shows.

April 12, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments