Review: Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox at The Birchmere

My regular readers know that I had to take a break from blogging for a few weeks, both due to changing jobs and the holidays. So it seems fitting that I return to regular writing with a piece about a band that embodies one of the key virtues of Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog: that somewhat hard-to-define Italian quality known as “sprezzatura”, which Castiglione writes of so glowingly in his “Book of the Courtier”. For as I discovered last evening at The Birchmere, musician and arranger Scott Bradlee has that quality in spades, as indeed do his friends who make up the members of Postmodern Jukebox.

For those unfamiliar with Bradlee and his band, PMJ takes modern pop songs and arranges them into different musical styles – whether Prohibition-Era or ’50’s Jazz, Classic Country or Motown. The right performer is selected for the right arrangement of the song, and a video of the result is then released on YouTube for us to enjoy. It is smart, it is sometimes infinitely better than the original, e.g. the entire auto-tuned Miley Cyrus catalogue, and it is FUN.

Last evening’s performance at The Birchmere in Alexandria was fun from the start. The show included elements like silly jokes combining contemporary life and nostalgia, such as Facebook Messenger in the style of a 1940’s radio show ad, and when Bradlee himself came out on stage for the first time, he sat down at the piano and began playing the theme music to Super Mario Brothers. It was also a pleasure to see not only the performers themselves dressed stylishly for an evening performance – no torn jeans or tats in sight – but to see many members of the audience dressed up themselves, in suits and ties, evening dresses, and even a few tuxedos here and there in the crowd.

The energy in the room did not lag one moment during the entire evening, something very rare indeed at any concert, particularly for one that was almost three hours long and standing room only. We were informed that the sold-out show that evening was the largest PMJ has played so far on their current tour. One could easily believe that the audiences will grow even larger, and the sold-out shows more frequent, the more this band becomes known.

Returning to where we started, “sprezzatura” can be understood as the art of making things look effortless. Castiglione advocated that the gentlemen and ladies who read his book study hard, and learn as much as possible, but then make their work seem easy. Given the extraordinary range of talent on display last evening, there were no doubt countless hours of lessons, practice sessions, rehearsals, and so forth which lead each of the performers to the point where they could entertain a large audience for several hours. Yet what struck me was the quiet, effortless confidence of those on stage. They know they are good at what they do, but are never pretentious about it: they are having a great time, and they want you to have a great time as well.

In particular, Scott Bradlee himself was something of a revelation. I already admired Bradlee’s inventiveness as well as his skills as a pianist. There are some piano phrases in the PMJ recordings of “Call Me Maybe” and “All About That Bass” that I would go back and watch repeatedly to try to get a sense of what he was doing with his fingering and phrasing. As a classically trained pianist who gave up on the instrument at 18 after my last recital, I could appreciate the technical skill on display, even if I could not reproduce it myself.

What surprised me a great deal last evening was that Bradlee was not the bandleader insisting on hogging the limelight fr himself. In fact not only did he not emcee, as I had expected he would, but he did not say one word until about 2/3 of the way through the concert. He was there to play, and to make his fellow musicians look good, but he was clearly not interested in having the spotlight for himself for any longer than was necessary, no matter how much he clearly deserved it given his genius. And that characterization is backed up by moments such as when, probably to no notice at all from most, Bradlee unexpectedly slipped in a quote of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as a background bridge in the middle of a song, or took suggestions from the audience and on the spot created a jazz mash-up of songs from Queen, Frank Sinatra, Beyonce, and George Michael, combining them into a song of his own invention.

PMJ are beginning the European tour shortly, and those of my readers on the other side of the pond would do well to avail themselves of the opportunity to see these incredible musicians. You will come away not only impressed, but you will also have a great deal of fun. And you will have an excuse, should you choose to take advantage of it, to dress up and go out to a concert for an evening, maybe do a little dancing with the one you love – like adults used to do, before the culture decided that being an adult was something bad. It’s terrific to see musicians and indeed an audience with a greater appreciation for the music, style, and fun that our grandparents’ generation had, while not abandoning the music of today.

Frankly, I can’t WAIT to see PMJ again in concert, next time they return to DC.

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Postmodern Jukebox last evening at The Birchmere

 

A Cool Catholic Nerd: Goodbye, Dave Brubeck

One of the great regrets of my life to date – along with not learning to speak French, which I may still hope to do –  is that I never got the chance to see jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, who died yesterday, perform live in concert.  I came close, once: a couple of years ago my good friend over at Ten Thousand Places alerted me that Mr. Brubeck would be performing at The Kennedy Center, and I learnt that nearly around the same time he would be performing at the Blues Alley jazz club here in Georgetown. We talked about possibly getting a small group of friends together to go see him, but were rather dismayed when all of the tickets sold out within minutes, and were then being scalped online for some astronomically high prices.  For a very old man whose heyday was many decades ago, this is quite a testament to the longevity of his career and his enduring popularity.

Dave Brubeck and his eponymous Quartet became a part of my life largely through the influence of my father.  Dad would tell me about listening to Brubeck, Desmond, et al in high school and college during the late 1950’s/early 1960’s, and how he connected with it and with that era.  I distinctly remember being a young boy and staring intently at the cover of his copy of “Red, Hot, and Cool” from 1955, which I believe my youngest brother has now expropriated for his own collection.

This particular record was released well before the now-legendary “Take Five”, “Blue Rondo a la Turk”, “Three To Get Ready”, and so on from their 1959 “Time Out” album, when Brubeck et al were still growing in popularity.  On the cover we see a group of well-dressed, but admittedly rather nerdy-looking guys, playing music in a smoky jazz club somewhere in New York, laughing it up with a beautiful model in a red dress.  “That’s what I want,” I would think to myself, as a chubby young piano student with thick glasses and little in the way of social skills.  “If they can do it, so can I.”

I never did learn to play jazz piano, sticking instead to the classical and the sacred, but neither did I lose my appreciation for Brubeck’s combination of the popular and the cerebral in his performances and compositions; and in fact, the more I came to understand it the more I found it everywhere, in people and things that I admired.  For example, when my favorite Uncle would come to visit us from Madrid, he would sit down at the piano in the living room and play jazz entirely by ear, in a sort of broad, confident style that came from Brubeck’s era.  And as I began to appreciate old movies, I began to hear this sort of playing as it popped up in some of my favorite films, like “All About Eve” (1950) and “Rear Window” (1954) – even though the piano players in those films were not trying to be Dave Brubeck, of course.

Although I own a number of Brubeck albums containing both his original compositions and covers/variations, I must admit that my favorite is “Dave Digs Disney” (1957).  In this recording, the Quartet explores songs from Disney movies, including “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “Pinocchio”, “Alice in Wonderland”, and “Cinderella”, among others.  Through the course of the album they take the Disney musical themes and run with them in some creative and innovative ways, a mixture of childlike simplicity with musical complexity and virtuosity, that is truly extraordinary to listen to.

When I was little “Cinderella” was my favorite Disney cartoon, as I dearly loved the two mice Jacques and Gus, and the Quartet’s version of “So This Is Love”, from that film is a real treat for me every time I listen.  There is again a confident but tempered swing in this recording, particularly in Brubeck’s playing, that is paradoxically both smart and popular at the same time.  After Paul Desmond’s portion about midway through the piece, Brubeck gets to have three chances to present his own variations.  Each one builds upon the last, until the third and final variation is just a full-out expression of joy in playing beautiful music on a beautiful instrument.  If you have never heard this composition before, go find it and wait for this moment nearing the end of the piece, and you will see what I mean – and ironically, it did not make the cut on the original release!

As a final note, Brubeck converted to Catholicism a number of years ago, when he was approached to compose the musical settings for the mass.  At the time he was of no particular religious faith, but was so inspired by the experience of composing the “Our Father”, as he described in an interview, that he crossed the Tiber.  Among the many awards he received in his lifetime was the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame at the 2006 Commencement, in recognition for his contributions to the Church and to society.  His brief speech accepting the award, which he kept short so that he could play for the audience, is as follows:

Thank you so much. When I first came into the stadium, I heard a wonderful sound. It was the Concert Band. And I said to myself, ‘”Why didn’t I bring the music I wrote for the Pope that was really for 21 brass?” These guys could really cut that. The reason I wrote it for 21 brass is we were honoring Pope John Paul II in the baseball stadium called Candlestick Park – 72,000 people. And I knew if I had violins and woodwinds, they wouldn’t be heard, but brass…… man, you can hear the brass.

We were supposed to do my Mass with the Pope, but just before that was to start, they informed me that they wanted nine minutes of special music while the Pope came into the stadium in the popemobile. I said, ‘”Well, where is the text?” And they said, “‘Upon this rock, I will build my church and the jaws of Hell cannot prevail against it.” And I said, “‘You want nine minutes on one sentence?” So I turned them down and went to bed and woke up and said, ‘”I know how to do it. I’ll do it like Bach would have done it.” You can use the same sentence over and over if you do a chorale and fugue, and that’s what I did.

Now one of the most nervous days, outside of today, was that day. And all of a sudden, there was kind of a silence when 72,000 people weren’t buzzing and talking. And I looked up and the Pope was looking right at us in the orchestra, the brass. My conductor came over and sat by me on the piano bench and I said, ‘”Did he bless us, or what?” He said, “‘I think he was learning to conduct in 4/4.” Well, it all went very well, but someday Id like to hear it here. It belongs here.

Now I had some kind of serious classical pieces to choose from to play the piano and I’m not going to play any of them. Because you people are going out into the world and you need a piece called “‘Travelin’ Blues.”

Forgive me for saying so, but how cool is THAT?

It is now our turn to wish Mr. Brubeck well, as he travels on his own way to meet his Heavenly Father.  We may feel a bit blue in having lost him, of course.  Yet his smart, cheerful, beautiful music will remain with us, even as we wait to get in and listen to him playing in that magnificent celestial jam session.

Dave

R.I.P. Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)