I went to the Blue Note last night to hear Gary Burton, who was playing a one-nighter to mark the release of his marvelous new album, Generations. After I booked a table for two, I learned that Madeleine Peyroux would be opening for him. Normally I flinch at the prospect of an opening act–I’ve heard some pretty grisly ones, especially at the Blue Note–but this time I perked right up.
Peyroux first caught my ear several years ago when Jonathan Schwartz played her version of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” on his radio show. It’s a lazy, loping performance, a half-notch slower than Cline’s original recording, with an exotic bayou flavor and a discreetly percolating organ in the background, half country and half soul. What really grabbed my attention, though, was the singing. Peyroux sounded just like Billie Holiday in the mid-Forties–the same salty rasp, the same squeezed-out upward spurts and languorous swoops. She didn’t sound like an imitator, though, partly because the song (and arrangement) were radically different from anything Holiday would ever have dreamed of singing, save in some peculiar parallel universe.
Upon further investigation I discovered that “Walkin’ After Midnight” came from Dreamland, Peyroux’s 1996 debut album, which is uneven but full of interesting things. What really surprised me, though, was that it was her only record. Not only had she released nothing after Dreamland, but she appeared to have dropped off the scope altogether. Needless to say, these things happen, and a quick search of the Web hinted at some possible reasons: Peyroux was just 23 years old when she released Dreamland, and her weight had fluctuated drastically since then, suggesting that she’d been weathering some sort of personal crisis. So I filed her name away in my head and heard no more of her until four months ago, when I read that she’d signed with Rounder Records, the Massachusetts-based country-bluegrass-jazz label whose best-known artist is Alison Krauss. Then, earlier this week, Concord Jazz’s publicist sent me an e-mail telling me that Peyroux would be opening for Gary Burton, and I thought, Good–now I can find out what’s happened to her.
The answer is that she’s lost a lot of weight, and now looks rather like Patricia Barber. She still sounds like Billie Holiday, and when you hear her talk you realize that it’s not an imitation, simply the voice that comes out of her throat. In addition, Peyroux plays acoustic guitar in a down-home finger-picking style reminiscent of Leon Redbone, and her choice of material is no less Redbone-ish, running to a pleasingly off-center combination of standards, contemporary ballads, and obscure old-timey tunes. She seems quite shy (though apparently not incapacitatingly so), but that doesn’t stop her from singing in a restrained yet emotionally direct way that I found powerfully appealing. Peyroux appeared with an instrumental trio that didn’t sound as if it had done a whole lot of rehearsing, but the results were more than agreeable, and when she announced from the bandstand that her “sophomore” album, Careless Love, was coming out in September, I leaned over to my companion for the evening and whispered, “I want to write about her.” I’d bet the rent that she has a story to tell–assuming she feels like telling it–but my main interest is in spreading the word about a fine artist who seems at last to be coming into her own.
Peyroux sang for a bit less than an hour, after which Gary Burton’s Generations, as his new quintet is billed, took the stand. As he launched into “First Impression,” the Steely Dan-like opening track from Generations, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard any of his working groups in person for at least a quarter-century (though I’ve heard him live in various other settings). That surprised me, because Burton has been one of my favorite jazz musicians for much longer than that. After Red Norvo, he is the great vibraharpist, among the most innovative players in the history of jazz, not just technically but stylistically as well. For reasons I find inexplicable, he rarely gets credit for having been one of the very first fusion players, a well-known fact that nonetheless goes unmentioned in the jazz article in the revised New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that his influential early albums for RCA went out of print in the Seventies and remained unavailable until fairly recently, when they finally began to turn up on CD. In any case, I’ve been listening to him closely and attentively ever since I first saw the Burton Quartet on TV back in my high-school days, and rarely does a week go by without my tasting his cool, bright, unfailingly joyous blend of jazz, rock, and a pinch of classical music.
Generations also features a sixteen-year-old guitarist named Julian Lage who is touring with Burton this summer (I assume he’ll be going back to school in the fall). Burton, of course, is also one of jazz’s great pedagogues–he’s retiring from the Berklee College of Music this year after a three-decade stint–and jazz fans with long memories will recall that one of the other guitar prodigies to pass through his band was a kid by the name of Pat Metheny. So even though Lage’s highly competent playing on Generations lacked real individuality, I took it for granted that he’d be worth watching anyway, and I was right. The solo he played last night on “Test of Time,” a slowish blues by longtime Burton pianist Makoto Ozone, was memorable–hot, focused, remarkably well-shaped–and as he tossed it off, Burton stood in the bend of the piano, grinning like a proud father whose son had just graduated at the head of the class.
Burton’s own playing was, as always, perfect, which I suspect is why he doesn’t often get the kind of critical attention he deserves. He’s one of the most consistent musicians in jazz, a virtuoso of Tatumesque command, and the shimmering, near-glossy surface of his solos has a way of deflecting careful scrutiny. You’re forever tempted to relax and delight in the sensuous appeal of their glittering tintinnabulation, whereas you have to listen closely to break through to the subtle workings of the musical mind that shapes those cascades of notes.
On Generations, Burton and Lage collaborated with Ozone, James Genus, and Clarence Penn, but the band Burton brought into the Blue Note is a brand-new working group (this was, in fact, its first gig), with Vadim Neselovsky on piano, Luques Curtis on bass, and James Williams on drums. I’d say it still has some shaking down left to do–the ensembles occasionally sounded cluttered, especially on the up-tempo numbers, and Williams’ drumming struck me as rather too busy. Even so, I’m sure that a couple of months on the road will work wonders, and in any case you couldn’t help but be excited by the energy with which the players tore into the tunes, all of which were from Generations. Burton himself was plainly inspired by the new setting, and perhaps also by the knowledge that his teaching days are over. Whatever the reason, he played like a crateful of firecrackers going off.
I was sitting next to the bandstand, entranced as usual by the balletic spectacle of Burton manipulating his four mallets with two hands, and as I watched in happy amazement, I was reminded yet again of why I live in New York. Not only was I seeing Gary Burton’s new group from a distance of five feet, but I also had the unexpected pleasure of hearing a greatly gifted singer in the process of rediscovering herself–in the same club, on the same night. It struck me that what makes New York so special is the endless opportunities it provides for just such juxtapositions. I saw and heard any number of marvelous things (including Gary Burton) back when I lived in Kansas City, but they were almost always dished up separately, and there was no feeling of abundance about the city’s artistic fare, much less surprise. You knew at the beginning of the season who’d be coming to town that year–Count Basie in October, Twyla Tharp in November, a Monet retrospective in January–and you made your plans accordingly. New York, by contrast, is utterly resistant to such careful advance planning: I know in a general sort of way what I’ll be seeing in November or March, but I also know my plans must remain subject to radical revision at the last possible minute. As a result, I’m never, ever bored, least of all last night at the Blue Note.
Perhaps the day will come when I’ll feel the need to retreat to a smaller, quieter city, and if that happens I’m sure I’ll be content to scale back my kid-in-a-candy-store schedule accordingly. Such economy has its own advantages: as I’ve written elsewhere, the residents of medium-sized cities become vested in their artistic activities in a way that rarely happens here. Each individual event means more when you don’t have an unceasing superabundance of great events to choose from. But until that day comes, I plan to keep on hurling myself into the whirlpool, night after night and week after week, reveling in the chaos and surprise of life in New York.
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Madeleine Peyroux will be playing at the Blue Note through Sunday. For information, go here.