CEDAR RAPIDS — Frankly, I hadn’t had the best day last Thursday. So, I entered Noelridge Park for KCCK’s Jazz Under the Stars in something of a lousy mood. But once Elsie Parker and the Poor People of Paris whisked me off to an imagined French cabaret, things didn’t seem so bad.
Despite its name, the band doesn’t hail from the City of Lights. Parker — a graduate of the University of Iowa where she studied with the late (and legendary) Himie Voxman — and her mates reside in St. Louis. Nevertheless, there is something decidedly authentic-sounding about her French-language vocals. She doesn’t sound like an American singing in French. She captures that central nasal-ness of the language whether singing in her rich lower register or in her thinner, but still pleasant, upper range. She knows just when to sing full out and when to talk-sing a phrase so that the listener hears her shaping a story even if the language isn’t understood.
The band’s 18-song performance was well-constructed, taking the audience through various styles of music and surrounding more challenging numbers — most notably a clamorous and chaotic piece called “Mozambique” by Michel Portal — with songs more easily grasped. “Mozambique,” for example, was book ended by Duke Pearson’s popular “Jeannine” reset with French lyrics and the bluesy “She Dances Alone.”
In addition to her vocals, Parker performed on saxophone, alto flute, bass clarinet, and clarinet at different points throughout the evening. On each instrument, she has a dry tone and her saxophone playing has a reedy texture. Late in the show, her clarinet playing sounded a bit flat to me, perhaps as a result of the cooling temperatures.
- Jazz Under the Stars
- 7 p.m. Thursday and Aug. 30
- Where: Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids.
- Details: Food available for purchase or bring picnics and seating
- Admission: Free
- Featuring: Thursday, Equilateral; Aug. 30, Orquesta Alto Maiz
She was ably supported by Ken Kehner on keyboard, Wayne Coniglio on bass, and Alan Schilling on drums and percussion. At times, I thought the music would have been better served by an acoustic piano, but Kehner certainly delivered several lovely and melancholy solos.
Though the entire evening was peppered with Edith Piaf songs, the post-intermission set shifted toward a more soft rock/smooth jazz feel, including an instrumental by Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri entitled “Straight into the Sunrise.” The concert also featured a fair amount of film music, including several compositions by Michel Legrand.
As the set wound down, Parker announced that it was “disco time.” The band demonstrated that disco knows no language barriers. For the encore, the band delivered another sad Edith Piaf song that Parker described, accurately, as “as French as it gets.” It was a song of regret and despair, but I left the park feeling much better for having spent time with the Poor People of Paris.
- Rob Cline