|Pepperland at the Royal Court in Liverpool
Photo credit: Robbie Jack
Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland
(Royal Court, Liverpool – World Premiere, 25 May 2017. Review by Phil Johnson)
From Charles Lloyd tootling Here There and Everywhere to Brad Mehldau’s current concert renditions of Blackbird or And I Love Her, with Mike Westbrook’s Off Abbey Road suite in between, there’s a long if variable history to jazz versions of The Beatles. Yet Ethan Iverson’s music for this wonderful grand project commissioned by the city of Liverpool (along with a host of other international co-producers) for its Sgt Pepper at 50 festival, is – along with the production itself – a triumph. Taking five songs from the canonical album (six if we count the title track’s reprise), plus Penny Lane and six miniature interludes composed by himself, Iverson manages the extremely difficult feat of staying true to the spirit of the Lennon, McCartney and Harrison originals while adding something both new and surprising of his own and also fulfilling the principal task of providing Morris and his dancers with an inspiring and rhythmically supple score to animate choreography and movement.
As well as being the pianist from jazz trio The Bad Plus and author of the influential blog ‘Do The Math’, Iverson is a previous musical director of the Mark Morris Dance Group, a role taken since 2013 by Colin Fowler, who for this production plays organ and harpsichord, with Iverson on piano. The band, playing from the orchestra pit, is a killer Downtown NYC unit, with Jacob Garchik on trombone, Sam Newsome on saxophone, Rob Schwimmer on theremin and Vinnie Sperrazza, percussion, with baritone Clinton Curtis on vocals. The feel throughout is perhaps part Berlin cabaret, part woozy Nino Rota, with the sound of the theremin absolutely key, although Schwimmer’s virtuosity makes it closer to a second, female, vocal line to complement the deeper register of Clinton Curtis, echoing the classical recordings of Clara Rockmore – the instrument’s most celebrated exponent, and inventor Lev Theremin’s great protege – more than the usual cheapo science fiction-signifier. Curtis’s clear diction and clipped, emotionally-neutral delivery also impart a very effective, rather Sondheim-ish quality that, together with the horn-men’s parps and peeps, further removes the music from a jaunty singalonga-context without losing its popular appeal.
Unsurprisingly, some tunes work better than others, and how they’d work on their own is uncertain. The title song remains exactly what you expect, and I’m not sure if anything can be done with When I’m Sixty-Four, although Iverson attempts a ragtime-ish doubling of rhythm that makes the tune slip disconcertingly in and out of time. But George Harrison’s ‘Within You Without You’ provokes the most thrilling part of the whole show, and sounds like a total masterpiece, its lyric – intoned by Curtis – more than living up to a libretto’s enhanced sense of importance. And then, after a suitably celebratory Penny Lane, there’s A Day in the Life, which is every bit as satisfying as you hope it will be, Iverson witholding the vocals of the opening verse to stretch the tension of the music even further.
But music is only a part of the overall show’s spectacle, which I found enormously life-affirming and moving: a fab and fitting tribute to the spirit of the Beatles, to the city which made them, and to the era they so transformed. When Mark Morris came on stage at the end to take his bows and to deflect the applause in the direction of the seven musicians and the fifteen dancers, you felt that he was genuinely proud – made up, you could say – of what they had achieved. Pepperland is a big, ambitious yet human-sized project that doesn’t feel like some worthy commemoration. Roll on the rest of ‘Sgt Pepper at 50’.