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Gabriel Kahane: Reflections, From the Mirror of His Mind

September 17, 2013

Yoshi's San Francisco

Gabriel KahaneGabriel Kahane’s compositional palate, limpid and laden with circling harmonies, needs a proper showcase, and his appearance Tuesday evening at Yoshi’s San Francisco may not have been the best fit.

To further my acquaintance with composer, pianist, guitarist, and singer Kahane, Lara Downes, who has been hosting The Artist Sessions series at Yoshi’s, gifted me after the concert with a copy of Kahane’s 2011 album Where Are the Arms (2nd Story Sound Records). Listening later to the album in the privacy of my home office, the aesthetic of Kahane’s compositions came through more strongly with the additional instrumentation and occasional electronic enhancements of the recording process.

In the live show, the 32-year-old Kahane’s plaintive vocals and postmodern lyrics — rather self-reflective and ambiguous — seemed to require more than just his accompanying himself on electric guitar or grand piano, with a little help from a laptop. It was the inverse of what I’d experienced hearing Sly Stone perform one of his band’s hits, “If You Want Me to Stay,” solo with grand piano on The Mike Douglas Show. In that case, the song’s sumptuous bass line and seductive harmonic structure were better showcased than on the recording with full ensemble. But songwriters like Stone worked in tangible and solid structures that fare better in a solo setting, whether or not they made use of it.

Occasionally Kahane’s setting fit his material better, most notably with “LA,” a tribute of sorts to the “selfish city” which has been his sometime residence. His chording and fingerpicking guitar style on this tune were quite lovely, more traditional. Twenty-five locations around Los Angeles get further attention in a new song cycle, from which Kahane presented “Ambassador Hotel” and “404 S. Figueroa.” The first was as folksy and traditionally poetic as “L.A.” had been, but in the second, harmonic relationships and the overall arc of the piece were more difficult to discern, a problem in much of Kahane’s other offerings of the evening.

Possessed of a muscular keyboard technique ... Kahane's plaintive baritone-tenor voice and his evocative storytelling lyrics are arguably more accessible when he’s on his own, as is his hip, sardonic humor. 

Possessed of a muscular keyboard technique (his father is Jeffrey Kahane, concert pianist and music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra), Kahane prefers repeated arpeggios to forward melodic movement, a tendency more obvious in solo performance than on his recorded group efforts. But his affecting baritone-tenor voice and his evocative storytelling lyrics are arguably more accessible when he’s on his own, as is his hip, sardonic humor. At Yoshi’s there were “Charming Disease,” about an addicted acquaintance; “Why Do Villains Live In Houses,” with its computer-generated hip-hop beat and pop references to Pulp Fiction and Die Hard; and “Neurotic and Lonely,” a selection from Kahane’s 2006 song cycle Craigslistlieder. The latter song was one of two encores served up to an audibly appreciative audience.

There were two standard compositions heard in the course of the evening, “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein and played and sung by Kahane, and Billie Holiday’s signature “God Bless the Child,” with which pianist and host Lara Downes started things out. Both songs are common readings from the standard jazz songbook, but in both cases at Yoshi’s, the performers avoided clear statements of the familiar melodies and were sparing with the sort of chord substitutions favored by jazz players, instead indulging in idiosyncratic impressions perhaps more appealing to classical than to jazz tastes.

Eleni Mandell took a rather awkward if appealingly honest approach to her role as the evening’s opening act, admitting to the audience, “My mind’s a little blown right now, I’m gonna sound absolutely amateurish”. In fact, she sounded rather fetching and anachronistic, singing her romantic original repertoire in a hazy, sweet soprano voice, accompanying herself with a small collection of chords on a small  acoustic guitar.

Mandell is another Angeleno — her second offering, “It Wasn’t the Time, It Was the Colors,” was an ode to a first kiss at a San Fernando Valley pizza place — but she evoked for me a troubadour waif from the Hippie Era Haight-Ashbury. Her folksy arrangements, singing style, and simple lyrics were of a piece, charming and engaging, with occasional touches of yodel and falsetto and catchy lines like, “The houses on the hill are getting undressed” (from “Moonglow, Lamp Low”).

Lara Downes’ concept for The Artist Sessions includes her leading an “on-stage conversation” with the featured artists, which on Tuesday occurred between Mandell’s and Kahane’s sets. Neither performer provided much in the way of illumination or insight. Some others scheduled for the 2013-2014 season may prove more forthcoming. They’ll include pianist Awadigan Pratt (Oct. 15), Amy X Neuburg, Mohammed Fairouz, Matt Haimovitz, and Downes herself, who’ll pair with Dan Tepfer on the Goldberg Variations on Dec. 12, and with Zuill Bailey for a CD release event on March 11.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.