Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Suzanne Vega, Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, One Night

Monday was a great night for music. The evening started at Club Cafe where Suzanne Vega was playing two shows. I attended the first show, at 6:30, where I felt like one of the younger people in the audience, something I haven't felt in a long time.

Some people might be surprised to hear this but I really like Suzanne Vega's music. In fact, I should say that I love it. She has a beautiful voice, very calming and spellbinding at the same time. She is a great storyteller, which I'm reminded of every time I hear some mediocre "singer-songwriter" type banging on an acoustic guitar and trying to make a statement. And now it's clear that she has an impeccable stage presence, telling stories between songs that are charming and amusing, and playing songs that close to 30 years old like they're brand new.

All of this was on display in the opening minutes of the show when she and guitarist Gerry Leonard got onstage. Vega casually donned a top hat, which she flipped into shape before she introduced "Marlene on the Wall." That song alone is filled with all her attributes: great lyrics, great story and a key change in the chorus that grabs your ear without letting you think about it as it amps up the beauty of the whole thing.

Her song selection incorporated all of her albums, and then some. She has recently released a series of albums called Close-Up in which she's re-recorded her back catalog acoustically, grouping the songs by theme over the four volumes. The reasoning wasn't explained, but knowing the state of record labels (most of her albums were on A&M) it could have something to do with getting the songs back out there. Since she's still writing songs, anything else might be a bit dubious.

Mid-set she played a few new songs in a row. Tentatively titled "Fool's Complaint," this first one had a verse that sounded exactly like "When Heroes Go Down," and had what seemed like a clunky opening line for someone like Suzanne ("I really hate the Queen of Cups."). "I Never Wear White" also seemed a little basic with a second line like "I wear black." At the same time, she has a unique way of giving a line like that some gravity, whereas anyone who came after her might sound like a hack. Leonard gave the song a heavy rock riff, with his arsenal of effects pedals that added bass tones throughout the set and looped chords so he could play some leads. This made "Blood Makes Noise" as creepy as the studio version, especially when Vega's voice added some reverb and delay.

As hoped, the show was over in enough time to get down to the Thunderbird Cafe to see the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Leader Kahil El'Zabar has been here several times over the past few years with a few different groups, including one with baritone saxophonist Hamiett Blueitt. This trio is possibly the most remarkable, especially since it consists only of him, trumpeter Corey Wilkes and saxophonist Ernest Dawkins.

El'Zabar might do a similar thing each time he comes - one tune on kalimba, one on trap kit, one on conga - but hearing him is like listening to an album you really like. It's always enjoyable. And even if his vocalizing might be similar to Keith Jarrett's noises during his solo, everything else makes this music infectious. "Black is Back" opened with a hypnotic finger piano groove which the horns built upon. Dawkins, on alto, sounded especially sharp, quoting "Wade in the Water" toward the end of a bristling solo. It's no surprise he was laughing with excitement as the tune wound up, with all three of them whispering the title.

If Clifford Brown was still around and he took inspiration from Lester Bowie, he might sound like Corey Wilkes. The second, untitled piece of the first set (with El'Zabar on drums, playing tempo and  a melodic undercurrent) featured Wilkes showing off his bright tone and wild intervallic leaps, occasionally putting the bell of his horn right on the microphone for emphasis.

Bands like the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, like the Art Ensemble of Chicago before them (a few of whom played with El'Zabar), will tip their hat to the past without ever forgetting that they're a band of modern times. As an example, they played Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop" with El'Zabar on hand drums (not sure if you'd actually call it a conga drum), which gave the song more of a pedal point base instead of flurry of chords normally heard in it. It changed the shape of the tune and gave it a new life. Acknowledging it's origin, perhaps, Dawkins quoted the bridge of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" - twice.

The second set kept the energy up, even during the more meditative "Can You Find a Place," with its vocal and kalimba groove. Dawkins pulled out tenor and alto to blow behind Wilkes during the boppish opener. And the all-percussive final tune took us out on a very high note.


Jennie said...

I was wondering whether any of yinz were going to make it to that show. Monday nights - pshaw! Ironically I'd just revisted Vega the week I heard about her visit to the Burgh and her visit to WYEP. Glad you got to catch it.

Great blog. How did I miss this?!

JennieD said...

Woops...JennieD, that is!