Tails of the supernatural

Posted: August 10, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

Young Ezra Martinez joins Mom and Dad (far left) onstage at Caffé Lena. Photo by Joseph Deuel.

Fishtank Ensemble
Caffe Lena, Sunday, August 7

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – The thing to remember about the great cultural cities of the world is that they do not merely showcase local talent — generally abundant – but they attract the best international players.

So … we’re in a Paris or Berlin nightclub but we’re rapt in attention to a sort of jazz quartet – stand-up bass, violin, guitar, vocalist/percussionist, etc. — from someplace else, right?

This merely describes the setting, however, as Fishtank Ensemble instantly transformed Caffé Lena, Sunday, August 7.

The magic the quartet (Ursula Knudson, Fabrice Martinez, Douglas Smolens, Djordje Stiepovic) brought — that comes from another “someplace else” which cannot be described in terms of geography. Rather try and imagine something picked from a garden among the stars.

This is not a quartet which simply and dutifully recreates the gypsy-jazz associated with the 1920s. We’ve seen that here before. Rather, Fishtank Ensemble explores cabaret, Latin American, 1920s American swing, ragtime, Dixie, and Harlem nightclub, Central European and even Middle Eastern folk music to come up with something new and irresistible.

Ursula Knudson is so effective across such a range of vocal techniques that I find it difficult to describe: In ragtime tunes she might use this very dramatic kitty-cat jazz voice … sometimes echoing Billie Holliday a bit … but she is so quick with her delivery over so many syllables that it seems like she has actually become not another singer but another sort of being.

“After You’ve Gone,” offers this style of singing. It’s just a “you’re gonna miss me” lyric; you know the story. The singing, though, that’s a whole ‘nutha thing.

There’s one among the native Californian’s many voices that is such a wonder … well it’s like … you reach out to pick that flower and somehow you bring back the whole garden.

I won’t describe it any more than that. Better you discover it yourself and best if you do in concert. Knudson echoes this rare voicing with a certain musical instrument. Some listeners might find it difficult, without looking, to guess whether she is singing or using the instrument. This is a very interesting and playful thing.

The vocal effect is an accent and crescendo in the title cut on the most recent of the group’s recordings, Woman in Sin, a tune very much in the style of Stefan Grapelli but with a rapid-fire vocal suggesting … I hardly dare say this … sexual frustration. The persona Knudson creates has a lot to say. When she completes the line, “I’ve been waiting … I’m so sick of that game,” she steps her voice up a scale to that … special crescendo.

The bass leads the band in echoing that scale, preceding solos by violin, then guitar, finally bass before the last verse, which ends with a bit of humor: “With the passion of a crowbar I’ll set you free,” a gentler, hushed crescendo … and laughter. Witchy laughter. Not quirky but … Circe. And sort of like the way Joni Mitchell used it on “Carrie.”

As if to illustrate the similarities, Knudson uses the instrument at the beginning of the very next tune on the CD, “Espagnolette.” She ends the song with her vocal equivalent.

I’ve always been pleased to hear the modern Eddie Cooley-Otis Blackwell standard, “Fever,” whether it’s in a local alley or wherever. I haven’t heard anything like the way Knudson did it Sunday evening accompanied only by Stijepovic on bass. Oh the way she times and understates the title word in a clipped, almost comical manner … that does remind me of one well-known contemporary cabaret-style singer.

The rest is about the texture of the voice. There’s some kind of catlike creature in there. I’m sure of it.

This voice also sang the original ragtime tune, “CouCou” also. There was even a bit of purring. On the recorded version, some conscientious techniques – including the sort of distant way the violin was captured – create a 1920s feel.
When she’s singing a Spanish-style tune, there’s a different creature. She actually sounds Spanish; her whole attitude, the way she projects herself, takes on a different stance. I think she changes the way she breathes. Really.

When she’s not jazzing it up and singing what you might call “straight ahead” – sometimes in duet with Stijepovic – she’s very solid. There’s a lot of strength there, probably a lot of training, a lot of listening to old recordings, and a great deal of control.

Her performance was totally entrancing and yet, true to the tradition of the jazz quartet – she never took away from the integrity of the quartet and the singular talents of its members.

The slap bass of Stijepovic drives this music along, but not simply as an underpinning, but a featured instrument out front. This is far removed from the more pedestrian folk duo, trio, or string band with a bass guitar at the back. He plays with great speed through changes of both tempo and changes in key that marks Fishtank Ensemble music, particularly in the pieces that combine Central European folk with an American jazz sound.

There’s a great deal of visual appeal to a standup bass that you don’t get with a bass guitar – but you can see everything that’s going on so the player must be brilliant, elegant, and extremely nimble in jazz – it’s just much more demanding and intense than the early rockabilly music that many Americans would associate with the instrument.

On some occasions Stijepovic bowed the instrument … late in the show, tiny young Ezra Martinez surprised the audience by joining him to duet on the same instrument. Just another delightful moment in a very exciting show.

Douglas Smolens is an interesting and singular guitarist who manages to apply the “wah” pedal to the acoustic jumbo guitar at times, something that offers a distinctive tone. That is a little detail. The larger story is that this guitar provides the unifying texture that makes the combo sound larger than it is … and this requires quite a lot of rhythmic sense as well as the ability to both solo and harmonize with the instrument.

In this combo the guitar is the hub, central to the integrity of the overall sound. It’s not hard to imagine the combo without it … at times it would work but at others, the music would sound a little thin or “folky” at the very best or even a little strange.

Fabrice Martinez may be the best jazz violinist in the world — I am not qualified to say. He also has a special surprise technique that I will not spoil here. I should say that, in addition to mastering the “Hot Club” style of Grapelli, he has managed to master every other style as well. Most of the time he seems to be just flying along atop this wonderfully synchronous and very playful ensemble. One could imagine him tackling chamber music or seated in a symphony orchestra as well but this is really the sweetest sort of acoustic music for a summer night.

What combos like Fishtank Ensemble do is not so much about individual songs (many of which the group members write and co-write) … it’s about a whole show, an experience. So to dwell on individual tunes is misleading in a review. Suffice to add that there are some very beautiful melodies – like Pena Andaluz – in the ‘tank. Yet the quartet’s performance at Caffé Lena music never became overly … florid … or sentimental. Fishtank Ensemble is keeping the music that inspired both great classical composers and modern jazz artists fresh and alive.

Sideline: Packaging (with thumb-wheel for your interactive enjoyment) for the Woman in Sin CD designed by G. Carr (www.gcarr.net) … groovy!

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Big time concert – no charge

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – Want something to get excited about? Sirsy is doing a free Sunday concert from 8-ish to about 11 every Sunday night in August at Putnam Den, 63A Putnam Street (which is one block East of Broadway) – across from the library. You can sit under the tent or dance in the parking lot.

That means, basically, all ages can attend and most likely have a very good, close-enough view outside of the bar perimeter.

Or you can … do headstands at the foot of the stage.

Melanie Krahmer and Richard Libutti – a.k.a. Sirsy – have a song on the radio, “If She Knew What She Wants,” are working out material for a follow-up to the recent Revolution CD, and have other dates in the region.

Still they found a way to pull out all the stops August 7 as they performed their own material and covered Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac and others.

Rich appears to be way more comfortable than anyone should have the right to be on that Rickenbacker guitar.

Melanie Krahmer is … she’s a force of nature, singing with a powerful and supple voice as she simultaneously plays the drums. Her songs are very strong, very solid and yet she handles ballads like “Landslide” beautifully. I would have no problem hearing “Waiting for Rain” at least once a week from now on. Perhaps it’s because there’s this little … well I want to call it a hilltop … in the melody that makes it rather unique and bright. Even though it’s — lyrically speaking – a sad tune indeed.

There are other originals you might like even more.
If I made a personal top-40 … it would always be on the chart as it has been for some time now. Always and forever.
And they’ve got … more songs.

Now … this is a duo, not a circus, but … watching them perform is never dull. It’s riveting and sometimes surprising. More please.

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