Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Rocking the World with John Koprowski

Singer John Koprowski’s Five Years That Rocked the World, 1964-1969 is the rare cabaret show that’s both family-friendly and edgy. That may seem like the world’s biggest oxymoron, but Koprowski (abetted by musical director and perennial MAC awardwinner Tracy Stark) has put together a somewhat stagy revue that tells the story of the Sixties via an informative, sometimes predictable but often counterintuitive mix of rock and pop songs from the era (and a little afterward, if you count the Kinks and the Grateful Dead). It’s a rock show for cabaret rooms at this point: with some work, it would have legs on Broadway, as last night’s performance at the Laurie Beechman Theatre more than hinted. Eric Michael Gillett’s direction keeps the show moving along briskly: between songs or medleys, Koprowski’s narration comes across in the style of a low-key, friendly AM disc jockey with a casually encyclopedic, historical awareness of oldies rock that transcends the trivia usually associated with those songs.

This isn’t some anonymous pit band phoning in Abba covers for the umpteenth time, either: Stark, a luminous pianist, strikes an imaginative balance between the hippie inspiration of the originals and an artsy, frequently harder-rocking edge. Eclectic guitar virtuoso Peter Calo and the incomparable Susan Mitchell on violin bring serious downtown cred, backed by a rhythm section of Owen Yost on bass and Donna Kelly on drums along with Wendy Russsell and Cindy Green on vocals. Koprowski projects a friendly, knowing I-was-there vibe: a comedic explanation for why he’s able to remember it comes around when he explains how much of his friends’ time and energy was consumed by the ever-present search for drugs (a subject that he tackles deftly and then deflects, something that parents will appreciate).

There are some transcendent moments here. Russell and Green give Koprowski a lurid backdrop to eerily explode out of with a gimlet-eyed menace on an absolutely chilling, gothic reinterpretation of Creedence’s Bad Moon Rising. Mitchell’s sizzling gypsy-blues solo on a Hendrix-inspired All Along the Watchtower (which Calo caps off with a surreally savage one of his own) is worth the price of admission alone. Mitchell and Calo also unearth the rustic country song beneath Arlo Guthrie’s Coming Into Los Angeles, then segue effortlessly into the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension (that band, along with Dylan, is an obvious favorite here). Koprowski’s strongest moment, a bitterly declamatory take on Phil Ochs’ I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag, is again set up by Green and Russell, this time with deadpan cruelty, a potent evocation of the antiwar struggle, not to mention the sheer body count of the Vietnam War. The nascent gay liberation movement is also addressed via a winking version of the Kinks’ Lola. Among the rest of the songs, including hits by the Mamas and the Papas, Country Joe and the Fish, the Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles (a spot-on version of Revolution lit up by Calo’s overdriven guitar against Stark’s warm, flowing chordlets, and a less successful version of With a Little Help from My Friends), the only dud is America, a shaggy-dog story from the Paul Simon songbook that comes across as something like a Pinataland outtake.

Koprowski is funny, humble and sings the songs in context, something that a younger singer might not be able to pull off so effortlessly. But to a millennial generation raised on autotune and American Idol (and their long-suffering parents), it couldn’t hurt to bolster Koprowski’s vocals, which are those of a survivor, dents and all. Consider: the people who wrote these songs were all in their twenties. To relegate Green – a versatile, tremendously compelling talent – to the occasional harmony is a mistake (was she a last-minute addition to the cast?). Likewise, the show would benefit from considerably more time in the spotlight from Russell: her quietly crescendoing lead vocal on Janis Ian’s plea for racial harmony, Society’s Child, is unselfconsciously poignant. Obviously, with shows like these in their early stages, rehearsals all too often are limited, but since so many of the original versions of these songs featured all sorts of vocal harmonies, the opportunies that the presence of Russell and Green – and Stark as well – offer are tantalizing, and with a little work could be every bit as compelling as the instrumentation. With a little more help from his friends, Koprowski could take this to a much bigger stage.

May 3, 2012 Posted by | concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pamela Fleming & Fearless Dreamer at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, NYC 9/18/07

Two long, exhilarating sets of jazz from the highly sought-after horn player/bandleader and her seemingly favorite cast of characters. Pam Fleming has played with everybody. She spent a few years in reggae legend Burning Spear’s band as one of the all-female trio the Burning Brass, toured with Natalie Merchant and has lately been the not-so-secret weapon in Hazmat Modine. Her trademark is the instant crescendo. Whether playing trumpet or flugelhorn, she can pull one out of thin air in a split-second and make it seem perfectly natural, a trick that only a few musicians (Robert Cray and Mary Lee Kortes come to mind) can pull off. As breathtaking a soloist as she is, it’s ironic that in her own band, she doesn’t get to do that much. Most of her compositions seem to be written through, in other words, meant to be played note for note without much if any opportunity for soloing or extemporization.

Fleming typically writes in three disparate styles: vividly evocative, richly melodic songs without words; long, sprawling, psychedelic one-chord jams that sound like early 70s gangster movie soundtracks, and jazzed-up reggae tunes that wouldn’t be out of place in the Monty Alexander songbook (imagine if Alexander was a horn player instead of a pianist). Many of the compositions she played tonight had a narrative, cinematic feel: Hollywood would do well to seek her out.

Tonight she had almost all of the unit from her latest album: the always surprising, brilliantly musical Todd Isler on drums and percussion, the fast, stylistically diverse Peter Calo on electric guitar, Leo Traversa holding down the bass, Jim West on keys, and new group member Erik Lawrence on tenor and alto sax and flute. They opened with the reggae tune Slimy Business (guess which business that is), Fleming and Lawrence conversing through their instruments and trading off on sections of the melody, a sonically textural treat. They followed that with the gorgeous, major-key Because of Anthony from their first album. The brand-new, defiant, bluesy I’ve Had Enough gave both Fleming and Lawrence their first chance to stretch out. The haunting, achingly beautiful More Than Anything began with West playing the song’s central hook and built from there; from what Fleming told the audience, it seems to be a love song, but it’s very, very dark: West’s tasteful, traditional approach to his part worked wonders. After that, they did Intrigue in the Night Market, a rousing gypsy dance she wrote for Metropolitan Klezmer (another band she plays in regularly), featuring a boisterous, imaginative hand drum solo from Isler.

The highlight of the first set was Say Goodbye, which actually isn’t nearly as mournful as the title might imply: it’s a comfortable, familiar-sounding theme (perhaps this is a personal interpretation: maybe I’m so used to saying goodbye that it feels comfortably familiar). With its nostalgic, homey central hook, it sounds like it ought to be playing over the opening credits of a popular tv drama (any HBO people out there?).

The evening’s most mesmerizing piece was Fleming’s ominous 9/11 theme, Climb, the title track from her most recent album. From the song’s tersely harrowing opening hook, it’s obvious what’s going to happen, yet the foreshadowing is white-knuckle intense, right up to inevitable crash – and the band missed the crescendo when they hit it. To their credit, they turned on a dime and then brought out every bit of the macabre, disastrous feel of the following succession of chords as the song literally fell apart. Live, watching the melody break down and disintegrate was absolutely riveting. It’s a credit to this band that they can absolutely nail Fleming’s sometimes completely unexpected thematic and mood changes.

The night finally came to a close with Ba-Bo-De, a world-music inflected, two-chord vamp that unsurprisingly evoked a Burning Spear jam, which Fleming opened by playing a conch shell for a few bars. Fleming had had a devious look on her face the entire night, and took this as her opportunity to finally leave the stage and circulate amongst the audience, getting seemingly everyone to sing part of the melody. The crowd loved the personal attention, and the band jumped on the opportunity to get mischievous while she was out mingling with the audience.

This show was part of an ongoing series here called Women Take the Bandstand, featuring a new female-fronted act on the third Tuesday of every month. Given the venue, it seems to be mostly jazz and world music. Kudos to the reliably friendly, sonically superb Nuyorican for creating the series: it’s an admirable concept.

September 20, 2007 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments