You can't keep a good fiddle player down. But then Sara Watkins is no mere violinist -- she's well on her way to becoming one of the greats and she proved it with a sold-out show at Old Rock House on Saturday, January 28. 

Late last year, when Garrison Keillor announced he would be retiring from his successful radio program, "A Prairie Home Companion," it didn't take long for him find a replacement -- Watkins' talented Nickelcreek bandmate, Chris Thile. And while Thile is a dynamite showman who is still learning the ropes of wit and wondrous storytelling in the world of Lake Wobegon, you get the distinct impression that maybe Watkins could have upended Thile in pure relatability. She has a natural demeanor with her audience, who fawn over her every flick of the wrist, every note  from her effortless voice -- indeed, it's her voice that acts as a siren call that attracts longtime fans from far and wide. 

But as it stands, Sara is happy to keep touring the country in support of her latest album Young In All The Wrong Ways, her third solo record. Traveling to St. Louis with two talented multi-instrumentalists in tow, the show was an intimate affair for long time lovers of Watkins' signature sound. She opened the set with "You and Me," singing, "I remember the night / I remember the sound." It may have been the quintessential song to being her performance While the drummer easily handled rhythm and backup harmonies, as well as modest bass lines on a keyboard, he had a great time doing it. The guitar player switched from archtop to solid body to electric and gave nuance to the gravitas of Watkins' singing voice. And from a tiny songbird like Watkins, that gravitas came in waves. From songs like "Move Me" to others like "Say So." For her rendition of the Nickelcreek song "Anthony," Watkins encouraged the packed crowd to whistle along at certain intervals and they did so enthusiastically. She returned for one encore, even though the crowd in the balcony came off as though they were there for a dinner party instead of a night of quiet introspection and a reverence for a great performer. But angry fans made their frustrations heard and the  chatty crowd settled down. One thing is for certain, St. Louis takes its bluegrass seriously. 

The effect of Watkins' own multi-instrumentalism was enchanting itself, as she moved fluidly from guitar to ukulele, her lustrous voice never faltering or losing its footing. Indeed, there were times when it seemed like she was unsure of herself on stage, but that really was just her modest demeanor materializing -- she's a showman for sure, but not a showboat and she lets her talent speak for itself. And if you're not listening to Watkins' universal talent, then you're listening to the wrong radio. 

Opener Liz Longley warmed up the crowd with a dynamic solo set that featured music from her latest album, Weightless. A longtime singer-songwriter in her own right, Longley has made a fast name for herself by tirelessly working the performance circuit and connecting with fans across the country. The Berklee trained musician relies on deft fingerpicking skills and award-winning songwriting prowess to make her brief set also one to remember. 

 Click the image below to see all the photos from the evening's performances.

Sara Watkins (with Liz Longley) at the Old Rock House, January 28, 2017

 

With a lineup that hasn't budged since 2009, the Branford Marsalis Quartet is an elite musical clique that can only be infiltrated by the coolest cats on the scene, which is precisely what Kurt Elling has proven to be. The Chicago crooner brings two decades of turning heads to the already immense pool of experience in Marsalis' saxophone lead foursome, releasing Upward Spiral in 2016 and treating select crowds to the unprecedented union of these two stars. Jazz at the Bistro played host to two nights of shows, giving four opportunities to experience a set music that was far from the ordinary.

Even from a distance, it was clear that the final performance at the Ferring Jazz Bistro was met with high expectations. With the first set slow to clear out, the line to enter filled Nancy's Jazz Lounge to capacity with a small overflow of warmhearted people braving the biting wind outside. Despite the delay, the venue's staff expertly filled the Bistro to its capacity and immediately dimmed the lights to begin. Jazz St. Louis' Bob Bennett, the man charged with intrepidly booking the venue's prestigious lineup, stepped to the stage to introduce the band, but his role didn't end there. The quartet took the stage and Branford Marsalis immediately started to tease Bennett over the limited two-night engagement, punctuating each sentence with the name "Bob," spouted with a melodramatic amount of disdain, and followed with a short "theme song" riff from the band, much to the amusement everyone on and off the stage.

When the delays and jokes had subsided, the show began with the Branford Marsalis Quartet playing the first selection without vocals. Joey Calderazzo began the music with a short piano introduction before Marsalis joined in on a soprano saxophone. The two handled the melody in beautiful synchronization over Eric Revis playing a jumpy, double-time walk on the bass and Justin Faulkner guiding the rhythm with a pronounced focus on his drum set's cymbals. The leader soon relinquished the focus back to the piano for an extended solo and trio style jam before he returned to put on a demonstration of his prowess on the horn. After a flurry of riffs and phrases that traversed the scales, Marsalis signaled the band to a quick close and an immediate applause. 

The second number, "There's a Boat dat's Leavin' Soon for New York," originally from Porgy and Bess, began with Kurt Elling strutting up the ramp to the right of the stage and immediately absorbing the collective attention of the room. The vocalist took the first solo with his signature scat style, but Marsalis and his sax wouldn't be outdone and he soon reasserted his leading role with a groovy style. Calderazzo followed with a solo of his own that danced across the keys. After rejoining the melody, Elling returned to the spotlight with another solo of spoken riffs over a funky breakdown from Revis and Faulkner, toying with the microphone position and the tone of his voice to add dimension to his sound. By the end of the fading outro, a new standard had been set for the night and crowd was eager to hear each coming beat.

They highlighted many of the songs from Upward Spiral, but the clear highlight of the evening was their rendition of Sting's "Practical Arrangement." Branford Marsalis started out on the introduction, building ever more complex lead-ins to a repeated, three-note riff that simply couldn't be before relinquishing the lead to Elling on the microphone. The lyrics came in over a passive piano backing and Faulkner's drums joined near the end of the first verse. As the song continued, Marsalis returned to the mix in a harmony roll, but then stole the spotlight again at the solo. Unlike the assertive styles of the solos throughout the night, this performance was much more reserved with the mood of a breathy whisper, well in tune with the lyrical theme of the song. Faulkner and Calderazzo added their own solos, each soft and ethereal, contributing to the illusory tone of the song. The sax and lyrics returned for the final verse, closing out a performance that was nothing short of an experience.

The night closed with a piece that gave Eric Revis a well-deserved moment in the focus, serenading the crowd with his bass at the lead. Each performer took final solos and Elling added the extra treat of augmenting his voice with an empty drinking glass to mimic the sounds of a muted trumpet during his segment. At the close of the set the band walked out to the expected extended ovation.

It took over three decades before the Branford Marsalis Quartet featured a vocalist, but Kurt Elling took the honorable role and demonstrated just how great the arrangement can be. For two nights, St. Louis was afforded the opportunity to experience this collaboration of the ages. The only regret shared by anyone involved, as Marsalis put in before the set began, was that the engagement was limited to two nights...Bob. 

To view all of Gary Eckert's photos from the evening, click the image below. 

Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling at Jazz at the Bistro, January 25, 2017

 

 

For all of the putative inscrutability of his lyrics, the origami-like assembly of his rhymes, and the dense, otherworldly terrain of his beats, it's often just as easy to be hit by a kind of radical honesty in the music of Aesop Rock. If the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of language are--to borrow a famous line from George Herriman's Krazy Kat--the means by which we misunderstand each other, then Aesop's verbal excess is an expression of this very frustration. Part of his appeal, perhaps, is the way in which he breathlessly, almost unstoppably seeks to articulate a truth beyond that which we accept as real. If everyday language is insufficient to the task--debased and abused by those in power, those who claim to have "the best words"--then Aesop articulates a willful, insouciant intelligence. Swathed in alchemical metaphor and all-over-the-place allusion, his music is at once urgent and deeply personal. 

Well, like anything, it can be. Aesop's game is one of patience, of time. He now notoriously has the widest vocabulary in hip-hop, and the prodigiousness with which he deploys it can be daunting at first. But linger over Aesop's lines and they soon only seem too smart, only appear too protracted. The examples are too many to list here; the exegesis of even one too much work for one review. The more you look, though, you find that heartfelt, brutally candid sentiments are not the exception, but the rule. Aesop runs a revolutionary argot--one that requires work, rewards repetition, but above all sounds dope. 

There is something satisfying and immediate in his work, especially live. If the only real appeal of Aesop Rock was the promise of waiting around and wading through, then the audience for his show would only be would-be scholars like me--bespectacled and multi-degreed, with more than one dictionary in the bookmarks bar of their browser. Instead, the show was packed with a legion of young people whose attention never waned as Aesop plowed track-by-track through most of his newest album, The Impossible Kid, at Delmar Hall on Tuesday. Through a series of tracts, vignettes, and meditations, the Aesop of The Impossible Kid benefits from a unique topographical vantage--the summit of the hill of being over-the-hill. (Aesop noted at the beginning of his set that he turned 40 on this tour.) No one is immune from the feeling of getting old, but Aesop seems to have reached a signal moment in both his life and career. More than ever, we find him taking stock of his history to date--the benign regret of an artistic path not taken ("Rings"); a kind of "kids these days" incredulity over weird tattoos ("Lotta Years"); the acute loss of self that attends the loss of a loved one ("Get Out of the Car," which was the only Impossible track that he performed outside of the album's sequence, saving it for the end of his set). 

And yet, for someone who is openly aging (or rather, aging openly, since there can be a big difference), Aesop's flow hasn't suffered; even his trickiest verbal mousetraps were clear, almost conversational, in the live delivery. Pacing the stage with unapologetic enjoyment, Aesop smiled and sauntered for nearly thirty songs, including a few Hail Mary Mallon cuts (his collaboration with Rob Sonic, who also backed him for the entire set) and a handful of classic crowd-pleasers like "No Regrets" and "Daylight." For an encore, Aesop was joined by opener Homeboy Sandman for three songs from their recent Lice Two: Still Buggin' EP. But I was honestly a little bummed that they didn't include the Emily-Post-meets-urban-dictionary track "Katz" from the first installment of Lice, with its killer Emerson, Lake, and Palmer sample and surprisingly deft advice ("Cats had better learn to recognize the po in plain clothes / Cats had better not graduate to what they hate most / Cats had better shout 'i-ight' when Doug E. flip the 'ay-o'").  

Amid a throng of throng of fans who were often desperately trying (and failing) to rap along with one of their favorite rappers, I wasn't necessarily moved or touched in the same way that certain lines really get to me when I'm alone and least expecting it. I actually spent an unusual amount of time at the show being impressed by the otherwise immaterial name of the tour itself. This was the Kirby Tour, a shout-out to Aesop's kitten, whom we can imagine is back at home in Aesop's adopted city of Portland--chewing up earbuds, napping on the toaster, and generally causing the kind of mischief chronicled on the Impossible track "Kirby." (And also let's just take a moment here to give Aesop credit for filling the void that David Sedaris lamented in his essay "The Youth in Asia," which at one point wonders poignantly "why so few songs were written about cats.")

At the end of the show, the line for the merch table stretched to resemble that of a Russian bakery in a Cold War newsreel, and I saw a guy winding through the crowd who looked, to me, a lot like Aesop Rock. Beard, baseball cap, unkempt-ish. Turns out it actually was Aesop Rock. I think that his very everydayness--ability to blend in, his good-but-not-too-good lookingness--is the tails to his head, so to speak. It comes through especially in interviews, especially, just what a "person" he is. Private but not secretive; anxious but not inert; super-smart but not at all superior. 

 

Tortoise is a band to whom I have listened for what feels like forever, although I have done so in fits and starts. First I made enthusiastic, frequent-enough attempts to immerse myself in their catalogue, to let it wash over me for a week or so at a time, beach-like, with the hope of returning to the real world like someone back from vacation with shells braided into their hair, eager to both invite and answer questions. Then, alternately, years will go by during which I only listen to the 1998 album TNT on a biannual basis for some truly random reasons, like a New Yorker article will mention H.L. Mencken, reminding me of the song "In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men."  

Over this nearly twenty-year period of well-meaning interest followed by semi-forgetfulness, I have come to think about Tortoise in the same way that I regard the US Senate. They are an institution--one for which I'm grateful and to which I grant a deep respect, even when I can't say that I love everything they've done nor that I know a whole lot about most of the members. Even so, I have somehow failed to ever see Tortoise play live. Thus, for the purposes of this review, I have nothing against which to compare them, performance-wise, despite their quarter-century career, and I'm also going to be somewhere between shaky and flaky when it comes to song titles. 

The concert was part of the Art of Live Festival which took place throughout the weekend at the Old Rock House, the Ready Room, and Off Broadway. On Thursday night, with an ice storm waiting in the wings, the St. Louis three-piece Hope & Therapy opened the show at the Old Rock House, constructing a scaffold of tight, angular rhythms over which the voice of singer and keyboardist Hope Gaines ascended to almost Icarus-level heights. Gaines demonstrated a compelling confidence and poise, but there were an equal number of moments when the sheer sonic quality of her singing was almost too pure and ultimately at odds with the kind of mutual identification that I'm looking for in a live performance: a shared sense that we're here, together, because it fills some kind of lack, absence, or deficiency; that we come together not as masters, but as misfits. 

Tortoise, too, risked being too good, especially given the heightened sense of focus and restraint on last year's album The Catastrophist, from which they drew liberally for their set. Throughout the night, I found myself impressed with them in the same way that I am when I see a time-lapse video of a car being built in a factory. I marveled at the efficiency with which their complex tonal landscapes took shape--at musical relationships so refined and skills so in sync that no member ever seemed to look to another for a cue or a count. 

At the same time, perhaps precisely because Tortoise operates within no established genre or movement, a sense of uncertainty may always be at the core of my relationship to them. Even on those tracks into which they seem absolutely locked, the fact that their rules are solely their own allows room for anything to happen. This was the case with the synth-heavy "Gesceap," a standout from The Catastrophist and one of at least a few songs on the album that remind me of Sonic the Hedgehog in the best possible way. That Tortoise's performance was less like an off-the-rails adventure and more like a guided tour was to their credit. For artists to whom an audience would give a hall pass for going rogue without a moment's hesitation, the band's willingness to play it cool and stick to the script is a testament to the script itself. Their career-spanning set felt neither forced, flat or fan-service. Rather, the seamlessness with which the songs interlocked recalled to me again the idea of a manufacturing infrastructure or better yet a kind of supply chain--one which they've developed over time and which needs only minimal maintenance. (The Castrophist, for example, came after a nearly seven-year gap between albums.) 

I worry that so much imagery of industry and automation here implies that Tortoise came across as mechanical, or that they weren't playing music so much as plying a trade. That was not at all the case. I found myself unexpectedly swaying to the music, giving way to it. I lost track of time without ever forgetting it was there. For five almost exorbitantly skilled musicians--switching between instrument duties, frequently deploying two drum kits, engaging as many machines as you could imagine onstage--they remained deeply committed to the audience, listening as much to each other as they did to our own rapt silence. 

 

Click below to see more of Doug Tull's photos of the evening's performances.

Tortoise (with Hope & Therapy) at the Old Rock House, January 12, 2016

 

I had no idea that the bass could be such a physical instrument until I saw Stephen Crump of the Vijay Iyer Trio play the instrument at the early show at the Jazz Bistro on Wednesday night. Crump bobbed up and down and then ebbed back and forth with the jazzy rhythm. He then slumped over the giant instrument and melted into it for one of his solos.

The other two members of the trio, Vijay Iyer on piano and Marcus Gilmore on drums, though not as active as Crump, were still clearly electrified by the music as they swayed in the dim blue lights on the stage. Gilmore kept the beat with a continuous low tin beat, which never threatened to overpower the other two quieter instruments. Like Crump, Gilmore also played two solos during the set.

Vijay Iyer, the jazz pianist for whom the trio is named, undulated over the grand piano. Strong, loud, and fast at times, Iyer’s piano faded into the background at other times, sprinkling perfectly placed droplets of notes over the other two instruments.

Patrons could buy copies the New York based trio’s albums at the door. Their most recent album, Break Stuff , released in 2015, received five stars in Downbeat Magazine. Produced by Manfred Eicher, the album breaks down and recasts several of Iyer’s earlier works, bringing new life to his already eclectic work. Break Stuff was not the group’s first hit album though. The trio gained fame for their previous two albums, Accelerando, released in 2012, and Historicity, released in 2009. International critics with Downbeat and JazzTimes hailed both albums as the #1 jazz album in 2012 and 2009 respectively.

In addition to his work with the trio, pianist-composer Iyer works on solo projects and serves as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in the Department of Music at Harvard University. He also works as the director of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. Known as a dynamic and expansive pianist who takes musical risks, Iyer was voted Downbeat Magazine’s artist of the year in 2012, 2015, and 2016.

Gilmore, originally from Queens, New York, is the grandson of another famous drummer, Roy Haynes. Born in 1986, he joined the trio in 2003 at the age of 16. Downbeat Magazine named him their top Rising Star Drummer. In addition to drumming with the Vijay Iyer Trio, he leads his own music ensemble and has already toured with a wide array of musicians.

Originally from Memphis, bassist-composer Stephen Crump brings a bluesy element to the group, and plays both electric and acoustic bass. Crump has collaborated with many other diverse and dynamic artists and has been featured in several films. He began working with Iyer in 1999.

The set ended with a standing ovation and a message from Iyer. “We all need to work together to get through whatever is to come,” Iyer said. “And it starts with music.”

The Vijay Iyer Trio will perform at Jazz at the Bistro 7:30 and 9:30 through December 3.

 

For more of Gary Eckert's photos of the evening's performance, click the image below.

The Vijay Iyer Trio at Jazz at the Bistro, November 30, 2016

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