Moonraker's celestial funk-rock

Moonraker returns to Club Helsinki on Feb. 28

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 27, 2004) – On some level, Kelli Scarr’s musical career seems to consist of one derailed plan after another. After singing in a high school jazz group, the Northern California native originally intended to study ethnomusicology at the University of California at Los Angeles. But at the last minute, a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston materialized, and plan B – to be a jazz singer – went into effect.

At Berklee, Scarr trained to be a jazz vocalist and formed her own group to back her on the usual standards. But then one day she answered an ad placed by a trio of Boston University instrumentalists looking for a vocalist. The next thing she knew, she was a full-fledged member of Moonraker, a contemporary funk-rock group, albeit with a very jazzy, progressive slant, performing at Club Helsinki on Saturday night at 9 on a double-bill with The Mobius Band.

As it turns out, Scarr has been able to incorporate all her experience into Moonraker’s music. As heard on the group’s terrific, eponymous CD released last year – a new CD is due next month – Scarr’s training as a jazz vocalist is put to good use in her deft phrasing and control. As seen in previous appearances, Scarr is a charismatic performer, who can belt like a soul shouter, purr like a folk kitten, and scat with the best of them. The four musicians who now fill out the band play an intriguing style of trip-hop, blending r&b, soul and funk with nuggets of reggae, dub, jungle and other irregular meters. Listeners might hear influences ranging from Talking Heads to Ani DiFranco, or Portishead to Radiohead, or the Police to Steely Dan, or Erykah Badu to India Arie.

Scarr credits her jazz training with helping her to make the transition from featured vocalist to member of a band. “I definitely think the jazz singing has opened me for more ideas melodically, and put me in the mindset of being an instrument rather than a singer,” she said in a recent phone interview from her Brooklyn apartment, “trying to fit in there as the guitar or the bass would, or as the piano.

“Envisioning yourself as an instrumentalist takes a certain amount of awareness of music that a lot of singers don’t have -- not because they can’t, but because they haven’t been opened to that.”

Scarr writes all the group’s lyrics. She always wrote poetry, and her training in vocal improvisation helped turn her poetry into song lyrics.

Scarr hasn’t give up singing jazz entirely. She still loves singing jazz, and occasionally performs as a duo singing standards in New York nightclubs.

“In jazz, I’m looked at as more of a song sculptor,” she said. “There’s a huge emphasis on phrasing, which is fun for me to play around with. And it’s nostalgic singing those songs, tapping into something that’s really great.”

The Mobius Band

The Mobius Band, also on Saturday night’s bill, combines the giddy, new-wave melodicism of The Strokes, the electronic infatuations of Radiohead and the vocal wit of They Might Be Giants. The Pioneer Valley trio – Ben Sterling triples on guitar, sampler and keyboards while Noam Schatz and Peter Sax keep things moving on bass and drums -- has a delirious time undermining drones as soon as they become infectious, and weaves bass lines and guitar parts around each other with the acrobatic skill of Yo La Tengo.

Mercy Brothers

A week after Boston’s Tarbox Ramblers premiered its new set of roots-rockers at Club Helsinki, another Boston-based roots group, The Mercy Brothers, makes its Helsinki debut tonight at 9. Something of a Boston supergroup, the Mercy Brothers combines the talents of vocalist Barrence Whitfield, who as leader of his long-running group the Savages was Boston’s answer to James Brown, and Michael Dinallo, ex-guitarist for Radio Kings. Like Tarbox Ramblers, the Mercy Brothers play a mixture of traditional material and old blues – they cover Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine” on “Strange Adventure,” which Boston Globe rock writer Steve Morse included in his 2003 year-end Top 10 list – and originals by Dinallo that sound like they could have been written 60 or 80 years ago. While Whitfield has adopted more of the bluesman’s posture for this new venture, he gets in an “I feel so good!” and a soul scream on “Down That Road.”

Matty Charles

Also on tap this weekend at Helsinki are Matty Charles and the Valentines, a faux, old-time country group that plays all originals by bandleader Charles. The Valentines, who perform on Sunday at 8, share some personnel with Gloria Deluxe, a band that has frequently performed in the Berkshires at Mass MoCA, Jacob’s Pillow and Helsinki.

Joe Finn

There are plenty of familiar tunes on the Joe Finn Quartet’s “Destiny Blue,” but in the best tradition, even the most familiar ones, such as “Body and Soul,” which gallops along at a lively, Latin-fueled pace and features clear but lightning-fast lines by guitarist Finn, have never quite been heard in this fashion before. Finn, who leads his quartet at Castle Street Café tonight, won the Best Jazz Instrumental Performance Award from BET’s Jazz Discovery Showcase in 1998. A Hartford native and son of an amateur pianist and composer, Finn, who now calls the Saratoga region home, is a double threat on vocals, singing “My Ideal” and “An Old Piano Plays the Blues” in tones recalling Mose Allison.

Norah Jones

“Feels Like Home” (Blue Note)

The follow-up to her smash debut is at once more soulful (“What Am I to You?”), more bluesy (“In the Morning”), more rootsy (“Be Here to Love Me”), more country (“Creepin’ In”), more jazzy (“Don’t Miss You at All”), and more old-fashioned (“Carnival Town”), but it’s still all of a piece, and a much more interestingly diverse one this time around. Jones sounds like she’s woken up out of the stupor that cast a foggy haze over “Come Away with Me,” and her singing is at once more sophisticated and personal. The instrumental arrangements, including her stylized piano playing, retain their lazy, easygoing feel but have a little more snap to them this time around. A treasure of Americana. [ 2/29/04 ]

Duke Ellington

“Ellington Uptown” (Columbia/Legacy)

This remarkable re-release of a 1952 recording kicks off with a drum solo featuring the double bass drums of the phenomenal Louie Bellson that is as memorable as Gene Krupa’s work on “Sing, Sing, Sing.”. Bellson’s bright kick is matched by Ellington’s punchy orchestra on a program of favorites including “The Mooche,” “Perdido” and “Take the A Train” – this last given a witty, colorful arrangement – juxtaposed with several of Ellington’s more experimental works, including “A Tone Poem to Harlem,” “The Controversial Suite” and “The Liberian Suite.” The playing, by the likes of Harry Carney, Clark Terry, Ray Nance, Juan Tizol, Paul Gonsalves, and Johnny Hodges, is unparalleled. [ 2/29/04 ]

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 27, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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