Nights out

Björkestra, Jarrett, Kelly, and the Cohens
By JON GARELICK  |  November 10, 2008

081107_anat_main
“POSITIVE AND BUBBLY” Anat Cohen is as ebullient and charming as Keith Jarrett is prickly.

WFNX Jazz Brunch Top Five
1. New York Electric Piano, King Mystery [Buffalo Puppy]
2. Jimmy Herring, Lifeboat [Abstract Logix]
3. Buena Vista Social Club, At Carnegie Hall [World Circuit]
4. Sol y Canto, Cada Día un Regalo [Musicamador]
5. Lake Street Dive, Promises, Promises [FYO]

Five shows in eight days (not counting an early-music side trip with Jordi Savall’s Hespèrion XXI at Sanders Theatre), so let’s get cracking.

Regular readers of these pages know my apprehensions about Travis Sullivan’s Björkestra. To wit, would the most idiosyncratic pop vocalist of our time be turned into conventional big-band music? In times of yore, jazz made corny tunes hip (“Bye Bye Blackbird,” “My Favorite Things”). Is jazz now in the business of turning the hip corny?

Fears allayed. At the Regattabar on October 23, following this year’s release of Enjoy! (Koch), Sullivan and a reduced “advance stealth unit” of the Björkestra (12 pieces instead of 18), roiled and rolled. Sullivan didn’t use Björk as a means of reinventing jazz, or vice versa. What he did do was create some progressive, “hip” jazz for 12 pieces (including laptop) that was satisfying as jazz at the same time that it reminded you what a wonderful songwriter Björk is. “Hyperballad” built on the original’s pattering drum ’n’ bass groove, “Hunter” shifted in and out of a bolero, “Army of Me” was as relentless as the original, and everyone took turns building succinct, dramatic solos. And there were pointed arranging touches: dynamic shifts, chorales for brass. Sullivan switched pianist Art Hirahara and bassist Yoshi Waki in and out of acoustic and electric roles as the songs demanded, and in Becca Stevens, he has a vocalist with the technique and the smarts to play Björk straight. No, you’re not going to hear any of those growls, pinched-off notes, and other colorings of Ms. Gudmundsdóttir, but this was an emotionally committed performance — and, again, Stevens makes you realize how good a songwriter Björk is because she lets you hear every word, even over a full complement of brass and rhythm.

No jazz fan will begrudge Keith Jarrett and his “Standards Trio” nearly filling Symphony Hall a week ago Sunday. What other serious instrumental jazz artist can do that these days? Herbie Hancock? Pat Metheny? Sonny Rollins? Anyone else? Still, is Jarrett all that?

Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Jack DeJohnette — now on a 25th-anniversary tour — play a familiar, accessible book of material (originals included) at a very high level, and Jarrett in particular has artistic capital to spare. Along with Hancock and Bill Evans, he’s influenced generations of pianists, and with his early groundbreaking solo albums, he made an emotional connection with a broad audience that hasn’t abated. When he sat down and played his first, ruminative chords, you could hear the unmistakable touch of a master — plush and fully voiced. He improvised for a few minutes until “Green Dolphin Street” came into view and his two bandmates joined him, Peacock improvising countermelodies against the piano theme, DeJohnette restricting himself to cymbals. You could hear the Jarrett trademarks — that touch, the unpredictable extended lines slicing through the form, the harmonic tension in his chord voicings. There was also his familiar body English as he rose to a near-standing crouch to play some passages, and his glottal exhalations of “aaaah.”

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