Los Angeles Music Review: TURTLE ISLAND QUARTET WITH NELLIE MCKAY (Valley Performing Arts Center)

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by Tony Frankel on November 10, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

WHOA, NELLIE

Quirky vocalist, songwriter and multi-talented instrumentalist Nellie McKay merged with the cutting-edge jazz string ensemble Turtle Island Quartet for a program of colorful tunes at the stunning Valley Performing Arts Center this week. As part of their A Flower is a Lovesome Thing tour, these unique performers dusted off some standards, introduced us to some rarely heard classic ditties, and tossed in a few originals.

Turtle_Island_QuartetTurtle Island Quartet is made up of original members Mark Summer (cello) and David Balakrishnan (baritone violin) with Mateusz Smoczyński (violin) and Benjamin von Gutzeit (viola). The ensemble, successfully blurring classical, new age and down home fiddlin’, showed off their prowess on a Bob Mintzer and the Yellowjackets tune: the wonderful jazziness came courtesy of violin plucking and bowing, and cello slapping. The Django Reinhardt-inspired swing of John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” interpreted the elements of combo jazz with one violin executing piano-type chords, and another tapping on his strings. Jimi Hendrix’ guitar riffs were wonderfully intertwined in Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” and they achieved an Indian-flavored, avant garde, swingin’ kick in an original composition by Balakrishnan.

Turtle_Island_Quartet_w_Nellie_McKay_-_photographer_Bill_Reitzel_As a chanteuse, McKay is reminiscent of Blossom Dearie, especially when she accompanies herself on piano. Even without Dearie’s whimsical voice, McKay’s gimmick-free, uncensored style, combined with a distinctive fluttery alto, is charming and engaging, and her original compositions are equally unique. She performed songs from her breakout 2-CD Get Away from Me: “Toto Dies” is equal parts cabaret, Cole Porter beguine and anti-war message, while “I Wanna Get Married” sounds like a cool standard from the 1950s. Her lyrics are occasionally abstruse, such as in “Absolute Elsewhere” from her latest CD Home Sweet Mobile Home. Lyrics such as “Caught in the rapture / Lost in the silence / Absolute elsewhere / Where’s the asylum?” are positively lost when heard for the first time (and her diction can be muddy), but they go down smoothly as she plays marimba, accompanied by Turtle Island’s lush arrangement.

Along with the quartet, McKay paid tribute to nightclub artists of the 1920s through 1940s by offering pleasing renditions of previously covered material: There was a no-frills but delightful take on Billie Holliday’s “I Cover the Waterfront,” a jazz standard composed by Johnny Green with lyrics by Edward Heyman; a comically deadpan version of “Black Market,” Frederick Hollander’s lighthearted 1948 song Nellie McKayabout the devastating aftereffects of war (and which sounds like a Weimar era ditty as sung by both Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair and McKay herself); and a dreamy but spice-free account of Billy Strayhorn’s A Flower is a Lovesome Thing (an oft-covered ballad which was actually heard for the first time without fanfare in Culver City, CA, in 1941).

My issue with the concert is twofold: First, all of the aforementioned song information was supplied by me, not the artists. Not only did they rarely acknowledge who wrote their material in this 20-song set, but neglected far too often to mention the title of the song. There was no patter in between songs and no background on the material; McKay lacked showmanship and didn’t even attempt to connect with the audience even though she introduced her songs with hysterical one-liners—“This is dedicated to my future ex-husband Ralph Nadar”; “This song is about a bad dream I had; it’s dedicated to my arch nemesis, Harry Connick, Jr.”

Second, this is an act that belongs in a cabaret setting, not the grand Valley Performing Arts Center. It may be that the artists could not espy the crowd, but McKay, an actress who can be uproariously droll in other settings, offered no asides, and Mr. Summer was unfocused when speaking. The auditorium, which is best-suited for a headliner, was conspicuously lacking in patrons, but there were more Turtle Island Quartet and Nellie McKay Photo courtesy of Bill Reitzelthan enough folks to overcrowd Yoshi’s in San Francisco, where the Quartet is based. As such, this felt more like a recording session than a concert.

It also seemed that McKay took time to warm up, but once she got to Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song” (composed to a poem by Bertolt Brecht for the 1927 “Songspiel” Mahagonny), we could really appreciate her inimitable style. Far and away, my favorite moment came when she soloed, playing a ukulele and breaking hearts with an achingly beautiful version of “Driftin’” that was absolute perfection. Sadly, I have no idea who wrote the song or where it is from.

Turtle Island Quartet with Nellie McKay
Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge
played November 7, 2013
for future VPAC shows, call (818) 677-3000
or visit http://www.valleyperformingartscenter.org

tour continues through March 31, 2014
for dates and cities, visit http://turtleislandquartet.com/

{ 1 comment }

Mike Jacobson November 21, 2013 at 10:12 am

Nellie wrote “Driftin”

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