Music review: “Off the Score” with Stewart Copeland

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)

A half-instant after the players took the stage at Bass Hall Friday night,  Stewart Copeland grabbed a brief bow, then smacked his drum kit and they were off, a dust cloud of rosin lifting in the air above.

This was the energy the unusual ensemble brought to “Off The Score,” the fusion of classical and pop music, co-headlined by concert pianist Jon Kimura Parker and Copeland, who, after a career drumming for rock band The Police now has his solos dissected in drumming magazines while he, largely, has moved on as a film composer for big name directors.

But this group is an ensemble sought, perhaps on purpose, to bring expert players beyond their comfort zones. Well, except Copeland, who seemed well in his element here, charging out of the gate with a fierce series of big bass drum volleys, spinning his drumstick in his left hand, and crashing those cymbals. It was almost a foregone conclusion to say that with Copeland anchored stage left, it was way too loud, throwing the balance out of wack. Poor bassist Marlon Martinez was playing imaginary notes, until the drums came down to a crouch. Though considering all the instruments were mic’d, maybe the rest should have been turned up.

The music is tricky to describe on paper, but let’s say things converged somewhere at the meeting point of classical and pop music scores, a touch of klezmer and a sprinkle of jazz and big, multi-textured drums.

At some point, perhaps after an effortless switch from classical arpeggios to a scintillating jazzy slide, Copeland and Kimura, who were on opposite ends of the stage, very nearly relinquished the spotlight to violinist Yoon Kwon.

Kwon, whose day job is with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra in New York, is literally and figuratively the center of attention, with a leopard print skirt and glittery black stiletto boots which carried her stalking around the stage. One gorgeous arrangement had her in a duet with Martinez’s bass undertones, bringing an introspective mood to the middle of the set.

Then there was Judd Miller’s outlandish EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument) — part trumpet mimic, part beatbox machine, organ, ocarina. Its textures, and some of Miller’s tidy solos stood out, especially when he used its keys to trigger recorded vocals. Fascinating.

The classical element here was not always on the tip of the tongue, to say the least but for those in the audience who could place the Prokofiev and the Stravinsky were rewarded for it. Parker’s new piano transcription or “Rite of Spring” sparkled through the din of that arrangement, and then the theatrics took hold, a big ferocious banging from Copeland’s kit and glissandi from Kwon’s violin, forming a natural climax.

We got to know each musician’s interests and limitations. Copeland’s own work has a rolling quality and it’s there that the world-music, klezmer vibe kicks in. Parker shines in the technically dazzling Stravinsky runs and changes. No jazz pianist, Parker’s improvised bits often took on a Scott Joplin, saloon vibe.

There was a lot of other music in there: a Police song, I gather, was the encore, and then there was a preview of Copeland’s upcoming Toronto commission. The players still seem to be coming together as a group, there isn’t that instinctual communication, but that unease seemed to fit.

Parker, with Copeland walking off stage to take a break, told the audience he was about to “inject a little classical (music) that Stewart is supposedly interested in,” a friendly dig at the concert’s premise.

And it’s true that this setup isn’t exactly breaking new ground. Pop and classical have rarely been comfortable partners. “Off The Score” has taken a different tack by inviting very high calibre and high profile musicians to explore the music that’s a little foreign to them, and with its high energy and vibe of experimentation, has turned into thing all unto itself.

 


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