Enjoy Jazz, 13th Edition: Heidelberg/Mannheim/Ludwigshafen, Germany, October 27-November 1, 2011
Catching the interest of Swiss pianist Nik Bartscha rising star in the last half decade, for his three revolutionary and evolutionary ECM releasesStoa (2006), Holon (2008) and, most recently, Llyrìa (2010)sure didn't hurt Estonian-born/Swiss-resident singer/pianist/songwriter Ingrid Lukas' credibility, when she released We Need to Repeat in 2009 on Bärtsch's own Ronin Records label. But as much as her association undoubtedly helped give her career a bit of a kick-start, she really needed to obtain broader international distribution to push her career to the next level.
The good news is, that's exactly what's happened. We Need to Repeat caught the ear of EmArcy/Universal, and two years later, Lukas' Silver Secrets is hitting the streets, demonstrating palpable growth in her writing and overall conception, as well as an attendant increase in confidence. While comparisons are not always a good thing, it's certainly serendipitous that Lukas was hooked up with Valgeir Sigurðssonan Icelandic composer best known, on an international scale, for producing Björk's Selmasongs (Atlantic, 2000) and Medúlla (Atlantic, 2001). Lukas clearly has her own thing going on, but it's difficult for any singer her age to avoid the experimental Icelandic pop star's influence.
If there were to be any direct comparisons to Björk, it was more about an intrepid nature and an avoidance of standard pop conventions. Though the group on Silver Secrets is larger than the quartet she brought to Alte Feuerwache in Mannheim, both the recording and touring group retain a steadfast avoidance of the typical. Playing piano, harmonium and mbira (thumb piano), and joined by cellist Céline-Giulia Voser (doubling on piano), violinist/bassist Michel Gsell (also singing backup vocals and taking the spotlight for one mid-set song) and drummer Patrik Zosso (who also brought some drum programming and a wood block), Lukas' music was unequivocally pop, but with an unconventional approach.
A capable pianist, it was Lukas' voicea combination of delicate fragility, unassuming honesty and, at times, unexpected powerthat separates her from so many young singer/songwriters her age (not to mention a refreshing avoidance of the melismatic melodrama so endemic to the American Idol generation). It was impossible to deny the influence of her early years in Estonia, a country with a rich and deep vocal culture that informed her choice of traditional folk songs like "Laula," an early indication of Lukas' vulnerability that, built upon simple quarter-note chords, gradually picked up steam as Zosso's military-style kit work lent the song greater forward motion, even as it came in stark contrast to the lovely combination of Voser's cello and Gsell's violin, which brought the song to a close.
From left: Céline-Giulia Voser, Michel Gsell, Patrik Zosso
Lyrically, Lukas has been collaborating with Dave Mullan this time aroundan Irish mandolinist and songwriter who has been a quiet but invaluable aid to Norwegian artists like Bugge Wesseltoft (who provided assistance to Lukas in the development of Silver Secrets' music, despite Sigurðsson getting the producer gig), his jack-of-all-trades/master-of-many skills ranging from writing content for the keyboardist's Jazzland Records site and Gube Music (a tremendous internet shop front for high quality digital music) to website design and more. His assistance in helping Lukas hone her lyrics ranges from help with "Greener Lands," one of her set's strongest songsparadoxical given its melancholy flavor and the repetitive sentiment of being "so tired"to more overt, yet unintended contributions to "Do Whatever You Do," which Lukas pieced together from a series of email exchanges, though its reliance on a great many voices rendered it a song that couldn't make it into the live set list.
Combining music from both recordings, Lukas' ability to feel somehow grounded in the music even as her deliveryand that of her fine bandgave it an ethereal, otherworldly quality, made for a compelling and appealing set that felt somehow like being transported to an alternate reality for 80 minutes or so. Comfortable onstage, her between-song patter is relaxed and engaging, even for those who didn't speak the language. Universal is clearly hoping that Lukas has what it takes to achieve more widespread success. Based on her Enjoy Jazz performance, there's little doubt that she's ready to take the leap.
After spending a chunk of 2011 on the road in duo with bassist Larry Grenadier, the fall season finds veteran guitarist Pat Metheny on a European tour with the reunited Trio 99>00, responsible for the fine Trio 99>00 and the even better Trio Live (both released by Warner Bros. in 2000). While Metheny subsequently hit the road in 2007 with a different trioreleasing Day Trip and the live EP, Tokyo Day Trip on Nonesuch in 2008his group with Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart remains one of the best-loved of his non-Metheny Group projects.
But a lot has happened in the past decade. If Trio 99>00 was, for the most part, a smaller, more portable unit , the renamed Trio 10>11 meets Metheny Group halfway, based on its set at Theatre im Pfalzbau in Ludwigshafen, the third of the three cities in which Enjoy Jazz programs its shows. After all, how many trios tour with a bevy of guitars, including guitar synth, and a number of acoustic and electric guitars, including the hybrid monstrosity of Metheny's 42-string Pikasso guitar? How many jazz guitar trios tour with a complex amplification system, racks of effects and processors, and a guitar tech? How many tour with an actual theatrical set that includes a variety of palm trees scattered around the stage and extensive lighting?
Even in the more intimate context of a trio, Methenywith his long hair, jeans and standard horizontal-striped shirtbrings a kind rock and roll production aesthetic, though there's no question about its jazz cred, as the guitarist delivered a set heavy on his own originals, spanning his nearly 40-year career, as well as astute choices from past collaborations with pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Ornette Coleman.
Metheny stuck with a single guitara hollow body electric with two outputs, allowing him to blend its natural electric sound with, amongst others, the sound of an acoustic guitarfor the first half of the set. Coming onstage with Grenadier, the duo's opening look at Mehldau's fugue-like "Unrequited" quickly established a deeply shared connection, and demonstrated just how far the bassist has come in recent years. Always a rock-steady accompanist, Grenadier's strength as a soloist seems to have made a significant leap forward, notably at his 2009 Enjoy Jazz performance with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava's New York Days (ECM, 2009) group. Here, the easygoing and intimate rapport allowed Grenadier to be anchor, contrapuntal partner and impressive soloist.
Few guitarists possess Metheny's technical facility while, at the same time, remaining tightly aligned to the importance of melody. His ability to unfold solos with unfailing inevitability has rarely sounded this good, as one of his early Metheny Group tunes, "James"first heard on Offramp (ECM, 1982), but also documented by Trio 99>00 on Livebrightened the pace. At this point in his career, Metheny's playing no longer grows in massive leaps and bounds, but it continues to grow just the same. He executed lines that were unmistakably him while, at the same time, stretching his own rather far-reaching boundaries just that extra bit further. Metheny may not have anything to prove to his audience or his band mates, regardless of context, but his steady evolution certainly suggests he still has something to prove to himself.
As much as "James" was impressive for its greater burn, it was the duo's look at another original, this time from Question and Answer (Nonesuch, 1990), that was the high point of this mini-duo set. "Change of Heart" was unrepentantly Metheny; possessing that Midwestern lyricism so constantly attributed to the guitaristthough, later in the show, when he was introducing the songs, he quipped that he didn't think of "Missouri," when he thought of the title track to his debut as a leader, 1975's Bright Size Life (ECM), he actually thought "Stuttgart"it also demonstrated his rarely matched ability to write and perform music that may sound easy and accessible, but is often far more complex under the covers.
Stewart, who first came to international attention for his work with another modern guitar icon, John Scofield, remains an in-demand player whose melodic approach is well-matched with Metheny; he rarely soloed during the trio's set, but when he did, it demonstrated a similar penchant for freedom within structure, the form over which he was soloing always clearly present. Starting with the ambling "Soul Cowboy," a blues from Trio 99>00, the trio swung with effortless aplomb, ratcheting the energy up even further with a buoyant version of "Bright Size Life," but returning to softer territory with a reductionist treatment of "Always and Forever," first heard on Metheny's ambitious Secret Story (Nonesuch, 1992).
A mid-set highlight, Metheny turned to one of his most often-covered compositions, the swinging, waltz-time title track to Question and Answer. A lengthy exploration from the guitarist led to a powerful, set-defining solo from Stewart that was staggering in its ambidextrous independence and interdependence of arms and legs, and a lengthy coda vamp over which Metheny, switching to his Roland guitar synth, layered increasingly intensifying horn lines that built to a fever pitch, only to gradually fade to silence as the stage faded to black. Always a show-stopper, the capacity crowd went wild.
More than just an early climax, "Question and Answer" acted as a mid-set shift in approach, as Metheny used the second half of the show to bring a wider variety of guitars into the picture. Metheny Mehdlau's "Find Me In Your Dreams" and the always-poignant "Farmer's Trust," from an early Metheny Group milestone, Travels (ECM, 1983), brought the dynamics way down as the guitarist switched to a nylon-string acoustic guitar. With Grenadier and Stewart leaving the stage, Metheny's longtime guitar tech, Carolyn Chrzan, brought out his Pikasso guitar for an impressive solo piece where he demonstrated effortless mastery of this unwieldy combination of two necks, sympathetic strings that he also picked, harp-like, and a tuning that few but he could understand, let alone conceive.
If managing a 42-string guitar seems something beyond the capacity of the average guitarist, then Metheny's Orchestrion (Nonesuch, 2010) was even more difficult to fathom. When the guitarist toured with this robotic collection of instruments in 2010played, in real time, by Metheny through pneumatics and solenoids triggered by his guitar and a massive foot pedalmost folks expected it to be a one-time thing, but he has always been known for introducing a new concept and continuing to use it, in some smaller capacity, as part of an ever-growing palette of instruments and sound sources. So it was good to see that the Orchestrion is to be an ongoing part of his work, as Chrzan took away two curtains at the back of the stage, to reveal a miniature version of this innovative and 21st Century expansion on the player piano concept.
Trio 10>11, from left: Bill Stewart, Pat Metheny, Larry Grenadier
Beginning solo, Metheny's partly improvised/partly structured piece ran into some trouble when, a few minutes into the piece, as he was triggering reeds, cymbals and glass bottleseach specific instrument lighting up when it was triggered by Metheny's combination of foot pedals and modified electric guitarthere was suddenly a puff of smoke and most things stopped. As complex an instrument as the Orchestrion is, Metheny's ability to take it on the road and keep it up and running still doesn't guarantee that something won't occasionally go wrong, but it was to his credit that he quickly resolved the problem and kicked the piece back into gear, with a smile and a laugh from the audience. Combining the Orchestrion with looped guitar lines, a consistent groove gradually emerged and, as Grenadier and Stewart returned, Metheny laid waste to accusations of the Orchestrion's lack of humanity, the piece loosening up even further and assuming even more defined form as the guitarist changed the key of his loops through his pedal board.
Surprisinglyand, in some ways anti-climacticallyMetheny ended the show with the Orchestrion piece, but returned for the first of three encores with the trio, delivering a short but exuberant version of Ornette Coleman's "The Good Life." Returning a second time, this time on his own, Metheny covered The Beatles' "And I Love Her," a nylon-string guitar feature from his latest solo release, What's It All About (Nonesuch, 2011), and closing the evening, on baritone guitar, with Henry Mancini's "Slow Hot Wind."
As ever, Metheny knew how to structure a set, though the sold-out crowd would happily have taken more. Packing plenty into a performance that ran a little over two hourssolo, duo, trio, and Orchestrion, and using a bevy of guitarsif Trio 99>00 was one of his best groups to date, then Trio 10>11 managed to actually surpass itself. Hopefully, if a studio album isn't in the plans, then a live CD or DVD is.