Tuesday, February 10, 2015

American Songbook at NJPAC: Nellie McKay

Probably the last political song to stake a claim to a place in the Great American Songbook was “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” because an awful lot of people were able to relate to it. To become a standard, a song should speak to universal experiences and it doesn’t hurt to have a catchy melody. Unfortunately, the latest installment of American Songbook at NJPAC featuring Nellie McKay is a bit of ringer that features mainly originals that will appeal to a deliberately narrow audience when it premieres this Wednesday on NJTV.

As it happens, McKay’s set starts quite promising, showcasing her boppish chops on the piano. Her forays into the Great American Songbook are largely novelty-esque numbers, such as a nicely arranged “Knock on Wood” and “The Gentleman is a Dope,” but they seem to suit her impish stage persona.

Of her originals, the up-tempo Latin-flavored love song “Bodega” is by far the best, most in terms of musical interest and performance energy. However, the politically motivated songs are more about the message than getting toes tapping. Frankly, the supposedly ironic critique of feminism ostensibly performed in Michelle Bachmann’s voice already sounds dated, since she is no longer a member of congress. Likewise, “One’s on the Way,” dedicated to Planned Parenthood, is more of an arrogant satire caricaturing twangy music and barefoot-and-pregnant white trash.

McKay is backed by some talented musicians and she seems to have a nice rapport with them, so it is frustrating they are never credited. Unlike the Pizzarelli and Osnes & Fontana episodes, we never hear McKay introduce the band. Most likely this was an editing decision beyond her control, but it is still aesthetically unappetizing for regular jazz and songbook listeners.

Arguably, McKay must be an acquired taste for those who are already on her side of the mountain. As a thespian, she never really made an impression in David Grubin’s Downtown Express and her best moments in the NJPAC concert are at the keyboard or harmonizing with her band. More standards also would have helped. They will be coming next week, when American Songbook at NJPAC gets back on track with Maureen McGovern. For McKay fans, her concert premieres tomorrow (2/11) on NJTV, with a later airdate scheduled for April 4th on WNET 13.

(Photos: Daniel Cardenas/NJTV)