Blogs The Green Room Jerrod Seifert

Jerrod Seifert is co-founder and director of www.twintowntapes.org, a website dedicated to preserving performances in-and-around the Twin Cities and providing them to everybody free of charge. He has degrees in Art History and Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from the University of Minnesota and is a self-ascribed audiophile.  You can find him at any number of NE MPLS establishments or venues around town.

Jenny Scheinman’s Mischievous World

Jenny Scheinman is tall. Not a very nuanced observation, but it’s important to note. In a stage light on clutter and gear, her commanding longitudinal presence was the audience’s first impression of her and her band, Mischief & Mayhem. Her stark, wildly curling hair bounced with each tuning stroke of her violin while guitarist (and latter-day […]

Jenny Scheinman

Jenny Scheinman is tall. Not a very nuanced observation, but it’s important to note. In a stage light on clutter and gear, her commanding longitudinal presence was the audience’s first impression of her and her band, Mischief & Mayhem. Her stark, wildly curling hair bounced with each tuning stroke of her violin while guitarist (and latter-day Wilco axeman) Nels Cline fired up a feedback-laced warm-up chord. Like a magician setting up a fine trick, the ensemble, filled out by bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Jim Black, turned this ambient, droning start into a parabolic musical odyssey. In an evening filled with furious musicianship, jaw dropping solos and gee whiz percussive gimmickry, the primordial evolution of the opening piece was a fitting analogy of the band’s succeeding songs.

I doubt the experiment would have been as successful without Cline, whose alt-country roots and sonic adventurousness seemed to be shot through the Large Hadron Collider, smashing into each other and forming wholly new elements. I can honestly say that I’d never heard anything quite like it. His ambient scrawl was reminiscent of Experimental Audio Research. It reminded me of Doctor Who background music. I half expected the Tardis to appear onstage. When coupled with Scheinman’s finite tremolo work, though, the dynamic changed from abstract to immediate. She brought a sense of urgency and direction to the affair, reigning over the collective with a stage director’s precise timing and focus. Her quick signature and timing changes held a hold over the audience, while Cline’s exacting, rolling solos lit their seats on fire.

The set list provided a number of breathers. The third track, an homage to PJ Harvey, abandoned the titular namesake’s acid-edged approach in favor of fleet-footed atmosphere. It was Scheinman’s track through and through, with Cline adding aural sonics that sounded like submarine ‘pings’ going off in zero gravity. The group followed this with a twisted, rhythmic percussive piece that was, dare I say, a bit depraved. It was a sinister rockabilly piece that felt as if someone had dropped acid in the band’s moonshine and things were taking a turn.

Nels Cline

While the focus was, for the most part, on Scheinman and Cline’s immaculate playing, drummer Jim Black was a wunderkind. Have you ever seen a circus performer keep pulling curios and prop gags out of his coat? This was exactly what he looked like. He held a stick in his left hand while his right kept reaching down and grabbing something new. I half expected him to start juggling while keeping pace.

The set’s cohesiveness revolved around minor chord turns and genre-bending trials. Morose funeral dirges gave way to experiment within experiment tracks, most notably on the sixth tune, a number that conjured flashbacks of Captain Beefheart. Cline yet again established his presence, responding to Scheinman’s pristinely fluid string shudders with pounding chord work.

Overall, the ensemble work was expectional. Scheinman’s guiding hand over the affair allowed Cline’s virtuosic playing to shine through without losing focus of the other players. The incorporations of continually deconstructing ambient pedal loops only made the songs that much more powerful. What struck me about the show was the auditory ambience that swept through the McGuire. I could never quite place the feeling, but felt I’d been there before. It was as if I was reminiscing about something I’d never experienced, which is what I would call a huge success.

Brad Mehldau’s World Premiere of ‘Highway Rider’

Brad Mehldau performed the world premiere of Highway Rider at the Walker last night before a very sold out and attentive crowd. Known primarily for his work in small jazz ensembles, Mehldau transcribed and performed his latest piece with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, a 35+ piece company conducted by Scott Yoo. Taking what was […]

Brad Mehldau performed the world premiere of Highway Rider at the Walker last night before a very sold out and attentive crowd. Known primarily for his work in small jazz ensembles, Mehldau transcribed and performed his latest piece with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, a 35+ piece company conducted by Scott Yoo. Taking what was initially an hour and a half exercise in jazz moderation and turning it into an intense achievement of orchestral integration, Mehldau and the SPCO fascinated the audience with a two-hour musical journey

As the title of the show (and the album of the same name) would imply, Highway Rider is a concept loosely based around journeying the open road. Not quite Kerouac in its focus, Mehldau left much of his composition open-ended, with only the titles and a single recurring musical theme to suggest some sense of cohesion between the pieces. Mehldau’s approach to the affair was refreshing and, in a few cases, rollicking. The piece seemed to play cat and mouse between breezy, laid back, open-top jazz and heavier, more daring crescendos. Joshua Redman, a revelation on the alto and tenor saxophones, cut the balance between the two themes perfectly. At times quiet, subdued and playful, at other times full and robust, his solos were easily the high points of any track they appeared in. Mehldau started the evening with a soothing introduction from his piano and hand percussion work from Jeff Ballard and Matt Chamberlain keeping opening track ‘John Boy’ feeling light and airy. Redman cut a somewhat cleaner line through the air, with ambling notes backed by a quartet of French horns and an inviting oboe from the orchestra. This would not last, though, as the central quintet took over playing duties while the orchestra was rendered mute. Mehldau and Redman took turns carrying the melody while the rhythm section carried it along with innovative arrangements. Only on ‘Now You Must Climb Alone’ and ‘Walking the Peak’, the final two songs of act one, does the story come into focus. Beginning with overtly melancholy tones and leading the audience into despairing territory, the piece moved slowly before building into a frenetic release of unexpected grandeur.

If the first act of the night was defined by pleasant melodies with expected dynamic shifts and straightforward storytelling, the second revolved around the unexpected. Shifts in dynamic were common, as overpowering and rich, sweeping movements would quickly become delicate piano outros. The most impressive track was ‘Into the City’, an 8-minute exercise in rhythmic virtuosity. Composed of only Mehldau on keys, Larry Grenadier on upright bass and Jeff Ballard on drums, the song depended on exhaustive playing from Ballard. Keeping a torrid percussive swing over the work, Ballard’s staccato restraint was maddening. Not to be outdone, Grenadier poured over his bass, swinging his body from the top of his instrument all the way to the ground. Mehldau, as expected, had a firm grip over the material. His steady and rolling piano provided the melody to what had to be an exhausting workout.

Turning what was an exciting and visually stunning tour de force, the orchestra quickly moved in with the mournfully slow, descending progressions of ‘Come With Me’. Building from this elegiac, Warren Ellis-type arrangement to a cathartic crest of pitched violas, churning strings and demagogical chimes, the work was a stunning example of how the incorporation of the orchestra turned Mehldau’s original five-piece composition into a transcendent slice of sublime. It was truly a moment to savor.

Interestingly, for a work of art that relied so heavily on a closely knit jazz quintet and controlled catharsis ended with that same ensemble looking on at the orchestra for the last five or so minutes. I was expecting Mehldau and Redman to lead out, but instead the climax was a single, sustained chord from the orchestra. It was a beautiful moment, and succinctly ended the evening with a wash of enveloping warmth.

The evening was filled with every harbinger of great, cutting edge jazz: Epic run time, virtuosic and thrilling solos, conceptual themes, despair and enlightenment, creativity and innovation. While Mehldau’s use of the SPCO was essential to the performance’s success, it wasn’t defined by it. Mr. Yoo’s elegent conduction was vital and I found myself yearning for more from his troupe, but the focus had to remain on the featured quintet.  Most jazz ensembles have a single, frustratingly binding flaw: Convention in unconvention. They attempt to separate themselves by being daring and innovative, even at the expense of their music and audience. Brad Mehldau and the 35 musicians assembled at the Maguire Theatre last night flew against that ideal, and in so doing created a magical work of majestic grace that pleased every ear it fell upon without sacrificing any artistic integrity.

Spark of Being: Retelling a Literary Masterpiece

Could it be possible, that after 192 years, dozens of movies, television shows, critical theses and innumerably terrible Boris Karloff latex masks, that anything new could be said about the Frankenstein story? Dave Douglas and Bill Morrison certainly think so. Utilizing bleak found footage of early 20th century avant-garde films and combining it with experimental […]

Cover art from "Spark of Being"

Could it be possible, that after 192 years, dozens of movies, television shows, critical theses and innumerably terrible Boris Karloff latex masks, that anything new could be said about the Frankenstein story? Dave Douglas and Bill Morrison certainly think so.

Utilizing bleak found footage of early 20th century avant-garde films and combining it with experimental jazz and ambient sonics to retell Mary Shelly’s Prometheus, Spark of Being is a wondrous, sensory overload. It is a magnificent double entendre that at once demands attention from its audience and yet does not rely on it for its success. Douglas’ Keystone group wholly compliments Morrison’s black-and-white montages, while a story, which is ingrained in our public consciousness is given fresh, yet intentionally directionless, legs.

The film itself is ice; cold washes of found footage told in chapters to break up both the narrative construct of the film and Douglas’ compositions. The opening sequence, “The Captain’s Story,” follows a clipper ship cutting its way through frozen, arctic waters, while icebergs dance in the background under the indifferent gaze of the ship’s captain. The sense of isolation is fully realized by Douglas’ muted trumpet work spitting over the imagery. The scene plays like an early Soviet propaganda film, complete with sailors attempting to revive a drowned comrade. The use of ice as a metaphor is omnipresent, appearing in nearly every episode.

The story itself moves along at a brisk pace. Though the chapters are given overtly obvious titles, the scenes within are much less structured. “A Promising Start” begins with synths reminiscent of Kraftwerk’s “Mitternacht” (courtesy of Geoff Countryman) while images of blood cultures in Petri dishes are splashed across the screen.

It is on “The Doctor’s Creation” that the visceral experience truly begins to take hold. What starts out as a lonely oarsman traversing a lifeless, burned out landscape is given a propulsive bass synth line by Adam Benjamin. Electric tendrils splash across the screen as Douglas and saxophonist Marcus Strickland start to truly belt it out. Douglas’ muted trumpet progressions land like napalm as the electricity onscreen gives way to static fuzz; it is Pollack at light speed. The scene belongs, though, to Gene Lake, whose drum work keeps such amazingly tight control over the chaos.

The following vignettes focus more on austere visuals rather than on a consistent musical form. Color displays of the Creature’s world coming into focus on “The Creature’s Education” show a pantone dream of butterflies and the monotony of human life. A Tim Hecker-type ambient smear follows two naked lovers running through a field in “Observations of Romantic Love.” It is a stunning moment of mournful joy, wholly capturing the concept of love through the eyes of something that has never experienced it.

The film inevitably takes a turn and, with “The Doctor’s Wedding,” returns to its oppressive grayscale palate. The scene is nearly nihilistic as a joyless wedding procession gives way to monotone Bavarian dancing. “The Creature Confronts His Creator” is essentially a long introduction for the penultimate act, “The Doctor Flees.” It is a chase scene emphasized by staccato cymbal and drum work. The imagery returns to the ship on icy waters, but this time Douglas has put his mute aside.  This is the only moment where Keystone truly opens up. Before the playing was withheld, controlled. Muted tones play over quick rhythms. Here, though, the sound is full: Strong chords, loud and shaking vibrato, sustained whole notes, and keys flooding the theater. It is powerful and huge. “The Creature’s Pursuit” follows, and Douglas puts back in his mute. It is a weary song, with a man running sled dogs. The final scene is the same as the first, with the ship’s crew unsuccessfully reviving the drown sailor. Keystone fades out, and ‘The End” flashes on-screen.

Douglas and Morrison strive to attain the near impossible: retell a universally known and exhausted story in a way that has not yet been imagined. The creativity and cleverness of Morrison’s editing and the chaotic restrain of Douglas’ ensemble let the audience fill in the gaps of a loose outline, rather than using straight-forward and rote storytelling to force-feed them something they have already eaten. It is really the only way that Frankenstein could be retold. At this point, the story is so obvious, it has its own Halloween industry.

What has been lost over the years is its actual meaning. Frankenstein is a discourse on humanity, not a simplistic mad scientist/monster scenario. The Creature is a wholly formed being but has the disadvantage of being devoid of prejudicial feelings and cultural boundaries. He is seen as a monster because he has no side to choose and no understanding of why he needs to choose one. In the hands of Douglas and Morrison, this story seems amazingly fresh, vital, topical, and necessary. It’s exhilarating, weary, and thought provoking. When was the last time anybody could say that about a Frankenstein retelling?