Pyeng Threadgill radiates the girl-du-jour cool good looks that effortlessly commandeer attention. And the parental (jazz giant Henry Threadgill: stepmother Cassandra Wilson)) and lofty music school pedigree to, on paper, back up her craft as a musician. Singing for her ought to be second nature. After last night's gig in the Commons Room, filled to virtually overflowing, I'm not so sure that is the case.
Her accompanists were underwhelming. A bobblehead keyboardist whose head movements provided more entertaining than his musicianship, offered up eccentric chord comping, fills and bass lines. A cadaverous guitarist riffled notes and clunky chords on an electronically processed 12-string acoustic. And a chunky drummer kept time as if his whose sole purpose was to indicate a pulse.
Threadgill opened with an unexceptional, strangely colourless, oddly unbluesy workout of a Robert Johnson blues. Which rewarded her with polite but still enthusiastic applause. What followed sapped that enthusiasm. Threadgill presented several self-penned unmelodic, unmemorable compositions lyrically hobbled by endless declarations of poppet, entry level cliches. The band supported, if that's the word, her bland phrasing with weird messy 70s prog rock-like progressions. Random chord changes piled atop atonal single note meanderings that postured as solos. It scarcely mattered that Threadgill's "songs" bore titles. My Left Foot, An Orbit of Skirts, Porthole to Love and Mining For Sapphires were summarily condemned to ignominity by dint of her narrowly limited vocal range. This meant their musical structuring had to be cookie-cutter identical. OK. These days much of what passes for musicality lacks gifted melodists. We accept that. Some of us. Standards have lowered. But where she really confounded me lay in her sketchy slip-sliding intonation. "Kinda pitchy for me, doll", as Murican I-dull judge Randy Jackson would agree. In other words, she hit clams (bum sour notes) - more than enough to whomp up ample chowder for everyone present. And plenty for seconds too. I couldn't discern whether these duff notes were intentional or that simply that she just didn't hear them. She'd hit them with stolid confidence, eyes closed, her mouth upturned in a pleasure grin. And hold them out at length, as if to admire them. As the old joke goes, you wouldn't buy a song with a pitch like that.
There was once a very wealthy American dowager so enamoured with opera that she hired only the best vocal coaches to fulfill her dream of becoming a concert soprano. Her name was Florence Foster Jenkins. She booked Carnegie Hall for her recitals. People flocked in droves to her soirees. Not because she possessed a glorious voice. She didn't. She sang sharp. Flat. Missed notes out of her range. Her sense of rhythm was non-existent. Either nobody had the gumption to tell her that she couldn't sing or, that she simply wouldn't hear of it from naysayers, is anyone's guess. I suspect the latter. In reflecting on last night's performance, I'd have to say that Ms. Threadgill is the Florence Foster Jenkins of contemporary "jazz" singing.
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