Karen Kohler Jam and Spice: The Songs of Kurt Weill
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Feb. 4, 2000
Jam and Spice: The Songs of Kurt WeillThe German son of a cantor, a left-wing intellectual dramatist and composer who in 1935 fled Nazi Germany for the United States where he wrote sophisticated Broadway musicals until his death in 1950, Kurt Weill is to American popular music what his song "Mack the Knife" is to murder ballads: singular. Listening to the Doors' command of Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Alabama Song" or sublime Sarah Vaughan's deep autumnal melancholy on "September Song," one almost forgets how difficult it can be to interpret Weill and his many poet/playwright collaborators. "Does Weill require a singer who acts or an actress who sings?" queries Austinite Karen Kohler in her well-written liner notes to Jam and Spice: The Songs of Kurt Weill. If you take Kohler's version of "Speak Low," featuring a clean, well-lit Starbucks sheen, or the operatic delivery of "Je Ne T'Aime Pas" and the way it clashes with the song's native tongue, the answer would seem to be "actress." Then Kohler, accompanied by piano, sails "My Ship," a Weill/ Gershwin collaboration pure as strawberry preserves. It's the exception on Jam and Spice only in that Kohler's German fare defines the album; the opening oom-pah chutzpah of "Berlin Im Licht-Song" (Berlin Lit Up-Song), the swaying, romantic "Bilbao Song," the dramatic "Surabaya-Johnny," and the romping indictment of oil cartels, "Die Muschel von Margate" (The Seashell of Margate). Kohler's reading of "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" (aka "Mack the Knife") is suitable, as is her attempt of "September Song,"which succeeds in the face of the song's daunting musical history. The album-ending "River Chanty" from Huckleberry Finn, a musical Weill was writing at the time of his death, Kohler aces. Recorded mostly live in Austin's First Unitarian Universalist Church, Jam and Spice lights up distinctly Broadway and grows ever brighter as the album progresses and with repeated listens. Perhaps not as sexy as Hal Wilner's September Songs for Sony Classical in '97, starring Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Charlie Haden, Betty Carter, and Lou Reed, and on which Weill's singer/actress wife Lotte Lenya proved it should be an actress who sings rather than a singer who acts doing the performing, but Jam and Spice is a life project into which Kohler has breathed life.