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Archive for March, 2017

Citizen Kitten at Three Clubs

Posted by dlockeretz on March 20, 2017

Jazz may have an uphill climb these days, but Citizen Kitten is willing to put in the legwork. The Los Angeles jazz quartet made their debut at Hollywood’s Three Clubs on Sunday, March 19th, 2017 and delivered a show that was as entertaining as it was musically accomplished.

Today’s jazz musicians face a bit of a catch-22: if you put in the time to study, practice and gig your way to excellence, it’s hard to not take yourself at least a little bit seriously for your efforts, but when audiences have more and more choices for entertainment – live or in home – they don’t want to spend money or time hearing someone blowing their own horn (excuse the pun). We’ve all seen the meme showing how the performance is the tip of the iceberg compared to the rehearsals, but most audiences don’t care about how much time musicians have put into their art anymore than most musicians care about how many thankless hours the average corporate drone has to log. In a nutshell, a successful jazz (or any other style, really) performer has to put in the work and still make it look fun.

How does Citizen Kitten tackle this dilemma? The “kitten” of the band is singer Amanda Achen, a twentysomething who moved effortlessly from jazz standards to Broadway to Beck to Zeppelin to Gnarls Barkley, commanding the stage at a rare level. She also managed to seem approachable in a way that not all jazz singers are. During a sultry rendition of “Misty” she couldn’t help but smirk as she sang the line “Helpless as a kitten up a tree.” Her “What Lola Wants” was, inevitably, seductive, but she didn’t overplay the temptress role; she strode up to an audience member in the front row and said, “I like your shirt” without missing a beat. Add this to a rocking version of the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling”, an odd-time “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and a genre-exploring rendition of “It Don’t Mean A Thing” and she put in a full night’s work.

Backing Achen was bassist Jon Lee Keenan, guitarist Matt Berger and drummer Paul Tavenner, all of whom expertly navigated the multiple changes of groove and tempo. Berger felt equally at home using dissonant chord voicings on a jazz arrangement of “Black Dog” as he did taking his microphone stand and playing slide guitar with it on a ripping solo in the same song. Keenan’s electric upright bass had the woody, full sound of an acoustic but allowed him more room to explore with both the grooves and solos than would have a traditional instrument. Tavenner provided a framework for the others from behind the kit, running the gamut from the torch songs to the rockers, giving the funkier numbers an old-school feel with brushes and pulling no punches with the cymbals when things needed to get loud.

In the midst of their innovation, some of Citizen Kitten’s standards felt a little familiar. They have shown an ability to turn songs on their head without making it seem like a gimmick; it will be interesting to see how they continue to develop tunes such as “One Note Samba”, “Cheek to Cheek” and “If I Were A Bell.” Over time, the skill and chemistry of these musicians will lead to the pace of their comic interplay between songs will tighten up while remaining organic. If it seems like I’m nit-picking a debut performance from a band that’s only been together for a few months, maybe it’s just my own envy sneaking through – I’ve been in bands that have worked for years without ever reaching this level. These guys are great and will only get better.

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Book review: “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” by Mitch Albom

Posted by dlockeretz on March 9, 2017

Mitch Albom was a musician before he was a writer. When his dreams of rock’n’roll stardom seemed destined to not come true, he switched to journalism. Even as he found success with “Tuesdays with Morrie” and a series of well-received novels, he continued to seek musical outlets by becoming a member of Rock Bottom Remainders (a part-time rock band of authors including Dave Barry, Stephen King and Amy Tan) and by writing “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto”.

The narrator of “Strings” is Music. If this idea sounds a little weighty, it’s because it is. Albom, however, manages to make Music an engaging storyteller. Also helping is that Music paces its story well by allowing other characters – some real (Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Stanley) and others fictitious but based on archetypes (female Brill Building songwriter; pop music historian; Jewish manager) to share reminiscences of Frankie Presto, a virtuoso guitarist and singer whose death and memorial service frame the novel. Thus, while Music provides the ongoing thread of the story, the reader is given different perspectives about Presto by those who knew him at different stages of his life: drifting teenager, rising idol, fading star, disillusioned journeyman, reclusive but legendary teacher.

At first glance, “Strings” follows the familiar story line of the young, hungry artist who is lured by fame and fortune and loses their way. At one point, Music says, “I have been on earth since mankind’s inception and have produced sounds…that involve awakening, love, pain and the four seasons. But in my countless creations, there has never been a sound for ‘career.’ Why do you let it affect me so?” Despite this, Albom doesn’t necessarily want us to hate the music business and what it did to Frankie Presto. He understands that people lose their way and have to find themselves: Frankie makes mistakes and unlike some, he is fortunate enough to live to learn from them. A broad brush interpretation of “Strings” might conclude that with music, as with anything, one must take the bad (the business side) with the good (the art).

Indeed, taking the bad with the good sums up the reader’s experience with “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.” Despite a few hard-to-believe plot twists that don’t add much to the story, an excess of one-sentence paragraphs and some forced music-related similes (is it really necessary for smoke from a gun to take “the shape of a music rest?” or to refer to Frankie Presto’s lifetime love affair with the free-spirited British girl Aurora as a “symphony”?) Albom’s obvious love of music of all genres keeps the pages turning. He pays tribute to classical guitarists Francisco Tarrega and Andres Segovia to Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Elvis, Lyle Lovett, Ingrid Michaelson and almost everyone in between.

A common critique of this book is that one has to be a musician to enjoy it. To that, all I can say is that the book was given to me by a non-musician friend and came highly recommended. If you have no interest in music, this book is not for you, but even those who have never plodded through hours of scales and arpeggios or broken down a P.A. system in a dive bar at two in the morning will be able to enjoy and relate to much of the story.

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