SFJAZZ really did think of everything in designing its swanky new headquarters — even managed to include a time machine.
At least that’s the way it seemed at the SFJAZZ Center on Friday night, as singer/bandleader Max Raabe and his 12-piece Palast Orchester dished up a perfectly-formed slice of Roaring Twenties giddiness.
Working with a mix of standards and period German tunes, the Berlin-based combo harkened back to an era when jazz had an entirely different meaning than today. Songs were meticulously arranged and tight as a drum, with hardly anything stretching past the 4-minute mark. Instrumental solos were even tighter — I guarantee you’ll never hear a more concise drum solo at SFJAZZ Center than the miniature star turn Vincent Riewe took.
Raabe’s vocal style was all smooth theatricality, a mix of Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby. To modern ears, it was positively disorienting at first to encounter vocalizing that makes absolutely no reference to Sinatra or Billie Holiday.
Most of all, though, self-expression was treated more as a side-effect than the main business of the music. The priority, instead, was squarely on having fun.
And that we did, as Raabe and company delivered polished versions of “I Won’t Dance,” “Night and Day” and “Mack the Knife” (auf Deutsch, naturaliche). Raabe was every bit the bon vivant with his masterfully controlled, semi-operatic singing and dry wisecracks between songs. And when else are you going to hear a tuba playing the bass line on a rumba or enjoy a precisely timed underwater horn solo (on “Singing in the Bathtub,” naturally.)
The aim of the whole shtick was to briefly resurrect the decadent glory of Weimar Era German culture. But if that was too mentally tricky for you — I kept flashing back to films where these songs serve as ironic soundtracks to scenes of Brown Shirt thuggery. And Raabe just happens to look like half the SS officers to ever grace the screen — it was easy enough to slot it all into a generic sense of 1920s whoop-de-do.
If anyone wasn’t totally convinced by the end, Raabe had ’em eating out of his hand with the encore, a spirited romp through “San Francisco (Open Your Golden Gate).” (Part of a tribute to composer Walter Jurmann, whose widow, Yvonne, was the guest of honor.)
All in all, it was an absolutely delightful lark. Raabe and the Orchester perform again tonight, and then it’s back to the usual death, drama and tortured genius for SFJAZZ.
Send tips, comments and good vibes to the author. And check out Liner Notes, his new music/meoire thingy.