Travis Shook Plays Kurt Weill
Review for Travis Shook Plays Kurt Weill
Cadence Magazine (March 2006)
Gil Evans, the NDR Orchestra, Lotta Lenya, June Christy, Louis Armstrong, Ella and Duke, Andre Previn and J. J. Johnson, the Doors, Bobby Darin, Jimmy Durante, Teresa Strada, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Eaton Atwood, Roland Kirk, Art Farmer, George Shearing, Anita O’Day, Ute Lemper and Gianluigi Trovesi…all such folks (and others) did interesting versions of one or more of these classic Weill songs. Is there anything left for Travis Shook to do? Well, yes. This is an ambitious disk, with the basic piano trio of Shook plus rhythm and key extra personnel. It is ambitious because these are fabulous songs and there have been so many great (and not so great) versions. And because Kurt Weill’s music is so distinctive, it is no easy job to transform them in some new way. That is just what Mr. Shook sets out to do. He is a talented pianist loosely Evans-like in his harmonic sensitivity and melodic sophistication, and Tyner-like in his driving blocks of left-hand comps. He tries hard on this disk and mostly succeeds on his own terms. “Lost in the Stars” has to be one of the bleakest songs ever written, and it is perhaps fitting in today’s current socio-political climate. The first version features a quite respectable vocal by Veronica Nunn. The arrangement includes a nicely gloomy two-cello part, effective writing for trombone and tenor sax, and a tasteful solo for piano. The reprise showcases the piano trio, and is rhapsodic and harmonically rich. “My Ship,” for trio alone, introduces a Latin sort of pendulistic motif that is a kind of cousin to the “Night in Tunisia” riff—and it works. Shook’s solo shows a good sense of phrasing, lush chordal playing and a Tyneresque aspect—all a little unexpected for the tune but he pulls it off.
With the “Alabama Song” we find the trio in medium swing. Shook’s somewhat Tyner-like dissonances turn to Red Garlandish left hand voices in the middle section of the song. Drummer Jaz Sawyer swings nicely underneath. The raw, music hall quality of the song may not be ideal for this treatment, but it is different, at least! “Lonely House” features a Veronica Nunn vocal and Ron Westray’s trombone. The vocal performance seems a little over interpreted and emoticonish to my taste, but the temptation for pathos is great given Langston Hughes’ wonderfully bleak lyric, so we should probably allow for that. The bone solo almost seems like a cross between Tommy Dorsey, Lawrence Brown and then a little Tricky Sam Nanton at first, but it does start sounding more modern as it goes along. Everybody knows the way “Mack the Knife” is expected to go. How can Mr. Shook give it a different slant? Well the rhythmic underpinning is in a kind of Afro-Latin-Elvin six—imagine “Like Sonny” but with more Elvin in it. Shook follows with Tyner-like comping and then lightens up here and there. Westray’s trombone solo is notefully busy in a clean, post-JJ fashion. The tempo changes to a fast-four swingtime and Travis solos in a quasi-boppish mode—showing his right hand dexterity, then does some hard-block Tynerish things. The time goes back to the Latin six for Kebbi Williams’ tenor solo, which has a hint of Trane to it. Finally Jaz Sawyer gets the chance for an energetic and hip drum solo, then its back to the Latin-six version of the head. Travis Shook shows he is not afraid to try different things with some highly worked material. Overall the results are quite listenable and worth a hearing if you like your middle-of-the-road improv with some tang and spice.
- Grego Applegate Edwards