Sick of Jazz 

Thursday, Jul 29 2004
Photo by Sam Taylor

at the Greek Theater, July 16

Diana Krall seems to be sick of jazz, or at least the kind that has brought upper-middle-class easy listeners willing to pay $100 for a toe-tapping evening of jazz standards, reconfigured pop songs and faultless piano solos as physically impressive as they are soulless. (The Tommy Dorsey classic “East of the Sun” still sounds precisely as it does on Krall’s Live in Paris.) When a man called out his request for Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” another Live in Paris favorite, Krall’s customary disaffectedness simmered over as contempt: “Do you think because you pay high ticket prices you get to hear what you want?” she shot back (the crack has been repeated in other cities to other requests), and continued introducing her version of Tom Waits’ “Temptation,” which she performed with a conviction she now generally reserves for songs she writes, songs her husband writes, and songs by Mose Allison (“Stop This World”) or Joni Mitchell (“Black Crow,” on which she plucked the piano from the inside). Just about everything else sagged under the weight of Krall’s own indifference and guitarist Anthony Wilson’s clichéd hollow-body sound, which neither drummer Peter Erskine nor contrabassist Robert Hurst could counter (although, to be fair, only Erskine tried).

It’s hard to be too harsh: Krall has found a satisfying new groove in her marriage and collaboration with Elvis Costello, manifested in the fine new The Girl in the Other Room; she’d probably prefer to leave the old stuff behind. But the best part of Krall’s live show these days comes in her reluctant encores, when the band leaves her alone with her brooding self to train her emotional alto on the wistful valentine to her British Columbian hometown, “Departure Bay,” and mutter goddamnit when she hits a wrong note. Krall has never disguised her darker moods onstage, and her audiences have long tolerated her prickliness. But it’s not likely they’ll be as understanding of her boredom.

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at the Schindler House, July 24

You know conceptual improvisation can be a swamp. But then you recall skillful past navigations, note the quality of the performers and attend. This effort drew from a Surrealist exercise where several artists complete one picture without seeing the others’ contributions. Society for the Activation of Social Space Through Art & Sound co-programmer Cindy Bernard said it was co-programmer Joe Potts’ idea to take off from that “exquisite corpse” notion via a series of musical pairings tailored to the Schindler’s unique right-angle courtyard openings (yes, the players could hear each other), and co-programmer Tom Recchion helped assemble the cast. It was good, especially in memory.

Bearish Kris Tiner, the solo opener, breathed animalistic trumpet multiphonics, and his single-note urgings provoked responses from our feet even sans beat. Joining opposite, Joseph Berardi bent scribelike to execute subtle clanks, clonks, bass thumps and strange grooves (from Nippon to Buddy Rich) on his percussion mess. Tiner faded; Berardi went solo — that was the format throughout — and the latter’s triggered voice samplings eased a subliminal transition to elegant vocal priestess Weba Garretson, whose intense narrative dynamics ranged from cool water to violent freezing orgasm and sleep. Keyboard miser Mitchell Brown dreamed/droned onward in harmony, wafting a Zen mood with solemn organ and gentle synth loops. A fresh but sad Petra Haden overlapped, singing bare and vulnerable before stretching resiny beauty from her violin. G.E. Stinson ghosted his white goatee into the dusk with rarefied guitar effects, interpolating a loop of Asian chanting that reinforced one of the evening’s unstated motifs. Tiner faded back in to close the circle, and it all slipped away.

The quiet music was most appropriate to the location and the funereal theme. A chill breeze had passed through. Day had become night unnoticed.

We had all continually interacted with the garden doves and the helicopters. Liberté, égalité, variété. (Greg Burk)

at the Hammer Museum, July 15

Museums are perfect places for first dates. Few scenarios weed out riffraff Lotharios and dull intellectuals quicker than forced exposure to art, and the obligation to share one’s feelings about it. But curators who emphasize the social aspect by tying music to exhibitions rarely notice how their programming may disturb the fragility of the natural dance — for young lovers, art aficionados and artists alike.

Take the Thursday “Mixed” portion of the Hammer’s “Made in Mexico” show. First-time lip-smackers explored typical mating rituals during the two-hour set by Fussible and Panoptica, a pair of electronic musicians from Tijuana’s criminally underappreciated Nortec Collective. But dancing wasn’t on the menu. Neither was a stroll amid the contemporary art that inspired the tricolores technophiles to prop their laptops in the Hammer’s yard. The beats were a fuzzy social backdrop rather than a primary focus.

Robert “Panoptica” Mendoza and Pepe “Fussible” Mogt (and video accompanist Sergio Brown) did their best to turn the few hundred gathered on to yet another aspect of Mexico’s modernist uprising: mixing cut & paste timbale lines, horn fanfares and wistful desert melodies to evoke the 21st-century life of a borderland near to Angeleno hearts. It’s a rare kind of techno the Nortecans generate: rambling, skanky grooves as indebted to norteño as to any contemporary genre, a rhythmic pile geographically specific yet sonically global. (Something the musicians share with the more penetrating visual artists of “Made in Mexico.”) Toward the end of the set, the traditional touchstones finally allowed Panoptica and Fussible to connect. Despite reining in the music’s inherent hysteria because of the tight-

collar venue, the duo generated more rhythmic stimuli than most first dates tend to achieve, and more than museums see in a lifetime. (Piotr Orlov)

at the Troubadour, July 24

Wearing militia uniforms in shades of patriotism — baseball caps with American-flag patches, flag handkerchiefs tied around

necks — Sufjan Stevens and five fellow Michiganites file onstage to a sold-out house and man their instruments the way Eagle Scouts do a campsite. A map of their home state hangs in the background; Stevens frequently refers to it when, in a timid, pin-drop voice, he branches out into narrative interludes (he’s not just a singer-songwriter, but a fiction writer) concerning places he’s lived in and people he’s known.

Cascading across the at-times-jazzy, at-times-folky Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State, a musical picture book invoking Michael Moore–ish themes of candidness,

compassion and camaraderie, Stevens displays virtuoso skill on a range of instruments.

On “For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti,” he tenderly plucks a banjo while lamenting in pitch-perfect harmony with rhythm guitarist Shara Worden and glockenspiel player Katrina Kerns, who resemble J. Crew models in long denim skirts and

flip-flops. On “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid),” a solemn ballad about a displaced auto worker afraid of dying alone, his Wurlitzer is sparsely embellished by a one-man horn section.

Stevens riffs about traveling through Michigan in a trailer home with his siblings and a Noah’s ark of animals, and how his dad woke him up in the middle of the night to proclaim, “Hallelujah! Holy is the sound!” (Impromptu ministering surely shaped Seven Swans, an album that conveys religious fervor more genuinely than the Polyphonic Spree’s Jesus Christ Superstar act while still appealing to the mainstream.) Stevens closes with “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a tribute to Lance Armstrong for winning his sixth consecutive Tour de France. Armstrong-like stamina and determination will be required if Stevens is to make good on his promise of recording an album for each of the 50 states. Only 49 left. (Michael Hoinski)

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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