Brecht's The Threepenny Opera swings to New Orleans at the National Theatre, London

Show tune is a vague term. First and foremost, it denotes a song pulled from musical theatre, but that is also unspecified semantic soil when one considers the marked differences between the tallest tress to have sprung from it. West Side Story; Pal Joey; My Fair Lady; Girl Crazy: Carousel: Guys And Dolls. All of the above, with their tales of delinquent street gangs, Cockney girls made good, the cheerful pursuit of the fair sex, and hard mobsters and molls, depict aspects of the grand fresco of human experience in vivid terms. There is a light show tune and there is also a heavy one.

Given the talent of the composers of these works – Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, Loesser, to name but some – it is no wonder that jazz musicians splashed their own creative colours on the melodic and harmonic canvases they crafted, and the plethora of productions that dots the 1940s and 1950s heralds the immediate post-war period as a defining era for the show tune as a largely American phenomenon.

However, the recent arrival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre is a timely reminder that that these two genies of German drama also made a not insignificant contribution to the lexicon. First staged in 1928, it is a show not so much with tunes that are light and heavy as a show with a tone that is deliciously dark and sumptuously cynical. Threepenny’s wry comment on immorality, lust, greed and the irrepressible human instinct for survival, by any fiends necessary, makes it a relevant meditation for and on the 21st century. Good as Simon Stephens’ new adaptation is, the centerpiece, certainly from a jazz lover’s perspective, remains the unforgettable theme of ‘Mack The Knife’, which is superbly performed by ‘the balladeer’ George Ikediashi, and reprised in snippets throughout the punchy scenes.

The tale of ‘Macky Messer’, the supreme cutthroat anti-hero of Brecht and Weill’s gloomy 1920s Berlin, with its desperately shredded economy, is transposed to a grimy cyber-Victoriana East End, where Mack aka Macheath’s long blade is liberally wielded to cut short the life of whoever gets in the way of his dodgy dealing in the underworld. But, as the references to blood spilling fly past, it is difficult to wipe away the swagger of Sonny Rollins’ saxophone on his 1956 version – ‘Moritat’ from the immortal Saxophone Colossus – as an additional soundtrack in the sub-conscious.

Jaunty, perky, buoyant, the horn is like a sunbeam skipping on a fresh summer lawn, and all of the brightness and joie de vivre it conveys expertly captures the mood of the original theme, which bounces along as if it is written for a world in which there is no reason to despair. The key words in the lyric – ‘pearly white’, the reference to Mack’s dazzling set of teeth – do indeed call for a sound that is upbeat, but the real genius of Weill and Brecht’s creation is that he delivers us to rather than from evil on a carriage of seductive appearances and irresistible charm, a reminder that a lady killer kills ladies, literally as well as figuratively. So Rollins, like Wayne Shorter, like Louis Armstrong, like Ella Fitzgrald, and many others who have covered the song, embraces the double-edged sword, or rather submits to one of the most heinous but universal of truths, namely our capacity to deceive and lie and cheat, a theme which is entirely apt in an age of tax avoidance that runs from visible individuals to faceless corporations.

As prized a jazz standard as ‘Mack The Knife’ is, the depth of its cultural resonance can also be discerned in other related forms of music, for the figure of Mack is more than comparable to that of R&B’s badass Negro ‘Stagolee’ and also to the picaresque character of ‘Pedro Navaja’, the louche Latino flick-knife hood memorably evoked by salsa giant Ruben Blades. Having said that, the current production so convincingly hammers home the importance of bucks, booty and ostentatious bling that it is entirely possible that the avarice of the characters as well as their understanding of the enslavement induced by money will have hip hop fans hearing the eerie beats and rhymes of Wu Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M’ as the search for cold, hard currency cranks up the climactic heat. Yes, Cash Rules Everything Around Macheath. Note the uncanny linguistic twist: what is a ghetto pimp-prince if he is not… a mack?

Fittingly, Rufus Norris’ fluid direction, ballasted by assured performances from Rory Kinnear (Macheath), Nick Holder (Peachum) and Haydn Gwynne (Mrs Peachum), captures the rushing surf and clinging scum of Mack’s life by way of a revolving stage, leaning towers and descending crescent moons that all serve to underline the feverish and fragile nature of a world of depravity, set to tumble down as easily as a poor chump is dispatched by a sly man with a weapon in both jacket and trousers.  

One of the sharpest visual touches in this respect is the representation of long spurts of blood by a red ribbon, twirling around a neck, trailing from a bosom, or in the case of the hapless Officer Smith, fluttering from a slashed buttock with all the foppish idiocy of the latest fashion victim. This arty butchery is exactly what is required to convey how toxic is the delicatessen of sex, violence and betrayal that pickles away in the story, one of the ultimate urban fables for its zipwire rhythm.

To a certain extent the sprightly sophistry of ‘Mack The Knife’ consolidates the status of jazz as a town rather than country music, a sound for the city in a state of perilous flux. Rollins used the original title ‘Moritat’ (‘Die Moritat Von Mackie Messer’), and the choice could not have been more pertinent. It places the composition in a specific genus: the murder ballad; the dying chorus; the death tune; the show tune with the wrung neck of a funny valentine. It is a reminder that jazz does irony. Mack escapes.

Furthermore, the players at the National trudging dolefully with their brass, banjo and drums have a mild flavour of a New Orleans marching band. That city’s famous son Louis Armstrong started life as a dirt-poor ‘colored waif’. In Brecht’s broken Berlin the cheapest theatre seat cost two eggs and the most expensive a tablespoon of butter.

       Kevin Le Gendre

The Threepenny Opera runs at the National Theatre until 1 October.

Randy Weston and Christian Scott get Morocco’s Gnawa Festival grooving

Randy Weston (above) was there, folding his lanky 90-year-old frame onto a stool at a baby grand and smiling as his longtime sidemen, double bassist Alex Blake and saxophonist/flautist T.K Burke took commanding, often ecstatic solos. It was a characteristically Africanised set that flowed and caressed, with twin horn and flute lines and Weston’s chiming, Monk-influenced chords flying over this progressive corner of the Maghreb. Even so, there was a sense of opportunities missed; Weston, after all, was one of the first western jazzers to showcase the pentatonic music of Morocco’s Gnawa. A reprising of ‘Ganawa’ [sic], a track from his legendary 1972 album Blue Moses, featuring a collaboration with one of the festival’s plethora of esteemed Gnawa maalems (masters), might have brought the medina walls down.

Precocious New York trumpeter Christian Scott (below) – or as he now prefers, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – was there as well, dripping gold bling as befits a jazz prince, wielding a custom instrument and bending genres with spacious instrumentals that veered from hip hop to spiritual jazz to funky swamp jams. So too was the Jeff Ballard Trio, delivering a set that saw Beninois guitarist Lionel Loueke, Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón and the eponymous American jazz drummer start sparsely yet melodically, their respective colours gathering intensity and momentum; the arrival of Maalem Mohamed Kouyou, one of Morocco’s most beloved Gnawa maestros, for a so-called ‘fusion’ was variously greeted with roars, hair flailing and triple-time handclaps from a rapturous, tens-of-thousands-strong home crowd.

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Strutting about the stage in a hot pink blazer, his thumb slapping the funkiest bass outside of the guembri, the iconic bass-lute of the Gnawa maalems, Philadelphia’s Jamaaladen Tacuma distracted from the rumour that he doesn’t shake hands with women via an introductory set that featured a spoken word improvisation by American actor and festival regular Robert Ray Wisdom (The Wire, Nashville, Prison Break) and a jam session that paired him with Maalem Hassan Boussou – a Casablanca-born innovator whose own group, Gnawa Fusion, has long had one dancing foot in tradition and the other in modernity.

As indeed, has New York-based Maalem Hassan Hakmoun (below), a Gnawa godfather rated by the likes of Don Cherry, Miles Davis and Peter Gabriel. With a set laden with everything from the skittering rhythms of krakeb castanets to searing rock guitar, thundering Senegalese sabar drumming and those earth-shuddering guimbri basslines – and with dancers including Hakmoun’s tap-dancing wife Chikako Iwahori and a frenetic Senegalese sabar dancer – Hakmoun gave an adoring Essaouira a gig to remember.

Then, of course, was the one who wasn’t there. Or at least, not physically. The spirit of the great Maalem Mahmoud Guinea, who died of cancer last August, is woven into the fabric of the festival and indeed, of Morocco itself. Think of Gnawa music, and Guinea – the Zeus of maalems, the Gnawa equivalent of Muddy Waters, say, or Ali Farke Touré, and a giant who’d released classic recordings and worked with everyone from Pharoah Sanders to Santana – was the maalem who sprang to mind.

More than any maalem, it was Guinea who encapsulated the Souira-style of Essaouria, who reiterated time and time again that Gnawa music, with its West and North African origins and Afro-Islamic chants and songs, is at the root of jazz, rock and soul. Last year’s stand-out concert featured the frail Guinea handing his guimbri (and his mantle) over to his son, Houssam, before a tearful crowd who were already mourning his passing.

This year, surrounded by guest percussionists from an ensemble led by master Senegalese drummer Doudou N’diaye Rose ensemble, and following a short film homage to his late great father, the younger Guinea strode the stage with all the confidence and savoir faire of a man on a mission. The ear-splitting reaction was unequivocal: Le roi est mort, vive le roi! Or if you like, mata almalik, asha almalik! The king is dead. Long live the king!

– Jane Cornwell
– Photos by Karim Tibari

Krupa and Waglewski hit the Bluesroads to Krakow fest

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So widespread is the phenomenon of the jazz festival throughout Europe that it is easy to forget that older forms of black music also command the faithful from Sicily to Scandinavia. Bluesroads in Krakow, one of Poland’s most charmingly picturesque cities, is thus a reminder that the deep heritage of slave songs is still able to attract new generations of local listeners and practitioners who defy the received wisdom that their nationality predisposes them to the likes of Komeda, Stańko and Mozder at the expense of Patton, Wolf and Waters. Indeed, the sight of the septuagenarian Antek Krupa, voice and guitar deployed in whispery tantalisation, leading a collective of singers and players with a consummate feeling for a ‘dark night, cold ground’ folklore is a revelation, above all for the compatibility of the sibilant-heavy Polish language with a slow freight two-chord groove. Appearing in one of the cafes allocated for a series of concerts and jam sessions on the penultimate night of the four-day event, Krupa exudes a raw, rugged, spartan charisma that bespeaks long years of hard gigging.

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However, several of the younger artists in the programme also have an energy and commitment to a guitar-harmonica aesthetic that shows the strength of the foundation Krupa and the likes of Wojciech Waglewski, another Polish blues institution, have laid. Groups taking part at the packed jam sessions, such as Raspberry Hill, are notable while Hot Tamales are a trio whose spare acoustic sound embellishes the strength of Eliza Sicinska’s voice. In fact, women feature prominently on the closing weekend of the festival, with a gospel choir led by Natalia Kwiatkowska running through spirited versions of anything from ‘My Sweet Lord’ to ‘Roll Jordan Roll’, while Levi, fronted by the dynamic Ewa Novel, also makes an impression with its blend of folk blues and soul that strikes a very good balance between sass and grit.

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 As does the exuberant Slovakian ensemble ZVA12-28 Band whose artfully croaking vocalist Norbert Cervenak makes for a mesmeric Eastern European Tom Waits, his rasping, road-weary drawl going down a treat with a highly responsive crowd. Most promisingly Bluesroads appears to have the ear of ‘millennial’ listeners as well as artists, and a town like Krakow, with its large student population, is a very appropriate setting. In any case, the standard of playing among young musicians at the annual Band Competition is consistently high, and the winner, a well-drilled combo called The Jammos, triumphs on the strength of one song that shows how a Delta blues template can be used as a jumping off point for a melody that is anything but second hand. Only in its sixth edition Bluesorads is celebrating a genre of music from the past that can still inform the future, and the sly straddling of the language barrier that occurs throughout several of the gigs, as epitomised by Levi’s ‘Babski Blues’, underlines the place of the specific within the universal. It simply means that a Polish woman will tell her own story as it has been lived in Krakow, not Clarksdale.

– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photos by Jacek Smoter         

Kenny Clayton’s swinging 80th birthday gig at Ronnie Scott’s

There are certain people who have fallen under the radar as far as popular recognition is concerned, but ask any Soho-ite or working musician and they will confirm their admiration and respect for pianist Kenny Clayton. Kenny has been around for some time, working as accompanist for numerous singers, musical director in West End shows, composer of film, stage, TV and incidental music, but he’s also known as a gifted and inventive jazz pianist. Ronnie Scott’s was the apt location for this 80th birthday tribute to him. His long standing associate, singer Paul Ryan, went through a selection from the Great American Songbook, the rhythm section in the capable hands of bassist John Rees Jones, drummer Mike Osborne and, depping for Kenny, who is recovering from a broken wrist, Barry Booth on piano.

The trio began with Ellington’s ‘Do Nothing ’Til You Hear From Me’ then were joined by Ryan, going through numbers that he regularly performs with Kenny – ‘Have You Met Miss Jones’, ‘September in the Rain’, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, ‘Blame It On My Youth’, and others by the great composers – Rodgers and Hart, Arlen, Warren and Gershwin. The way Ryan handled Ervin Drake’s poignant ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ sounded as if it could have been written for him. At times Booth showed a Bill Evans-like economy of expression, especially on ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’ and ‘It Never Entered My Mind’, and although the rapport wasn’t quite as sharp as when Kenny accompanies, it didn’t disappoint. Neither did Jones’ highly-proficient bass feature on ‘Softly As In a Morning Sunrise’. Osborne’s drums were highlighted on a percussive vehicle reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal’s drummer, Vernel Fournier, but they could have been effectively developed further.

Numbers weren’t confined to past standards – Californian Dave Tull’s ‘The Minutes Go Like Hours When You Sing’ added to the humour, as did a specially written tongue-in-cheek tribute to Kenny and a version of ‘South of the Border’ dedicated to Donald Trump.

It wasn’t long before Kenny made it to the piano himself, pushing through the pain barrier with ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If I Ain’t Got That Sling” and showing his jazz and improvisational credentials by going into a 12-bar blues (which he dedicated to old friend Dudley Moore), followed by a satire on working with an unnamed but famous diva of obvious identity, then a rendition of ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner’ in the style of Brubeck’s ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’. A medley of his favourite styles included Shearing (‘I Remember April’, ‘Lullaby of Birdland’), Stevie Wonder (‘Isn’t She Lovely’), Ray Charles (‘What’d I Say’) and Tatum (‘Body & Soul’), before he was joined in ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ by Catalan pianist Alain Guiu, one of several musicians in the audience – a pity that Guy Barker and Zoot Money didn’t have the time to sit in, but the response from the crowd showed its appreciation of a thoroughly enjoyable session.

– Matthew Wright (review and photo)

Johnathan Kreisberg Quartet on a roll at The Spin

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The synergy between ex-prog rock guitarist Johnathan Kreisberg’s quartet and The Spin audience in Oxford was palpable during what was only one of three UK stops on his European tour. No surprise, perhaps, Kreisberg declared, ‘We love The Spin’, before recommending the local ale. But this wasn’t just hyperbole – there’s a track called ‘The Spin’ on Kreisberg’s 2014 release, Wave Upon Wave.

Throughout a captivating performance Kriesberg’s rich tone and stunning virtuosity combined with his sharp imagination – chords inserted at the most unlikely of moments, with judicious use of effects pedals. The bandleader’s body language betrayed his passion for the music. He clearly feels it and wants us to feel it too, whether it’s the fierce groove of ‘Wild Animals We’ve Seen’, or when the ensemble takes a more reflective turn, as on their respectful deconstruction of ‘Stella by Starlight,’ or while lyrically dancing their way through Kreisberg’s new composition ‘Vagabond’.

The guitarist’s virtuosity was matched by the outstanding David Kikoski on keyboards, the pair exchanging extended solos which never sagged. On the footloose, jazz-rock influenced ‘Stir The Stars’, Kikoski’s smoking runs were followed by a cascade of brilliant guitar. The Spin’s cosmos was indeed stirred.

Wherever the main soloists went, the backline was there and right on it. But Rick Rosato and Colin Stranahan created more than just a platform for the guys up-front. The former’s nuanced double bass was a pure sonic pleasure, while Stranahan’s powerful African pulse at the start of ‘Until you Know’ was as unexpected as it was thrilling. An extremely beautiful version of the standard ‘We’ll Be Together Again’, served as fitting love letter between artist and audience.

– Colin May 

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