Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Jazz isn’t for everybody. It’s been criticized as too weird, elitist, and unfathomable, with intricate notes that go on forever, never allowing for much interplay (dancing) between player and listener. Sit down and try to get through one Chick Corea CD without losing your mind. All of the notes are there and — to a trained ear — when played with intensity and that intelligence jazzers are often attacked for as elitist, they’re brilliant interplays of harmony, a strain of melody, resonance and dissonance. But jazz isn’t something easily accessible to the average person off the street, who’d probably be more at home with dance, pop, even alt-rock-emo music, something to readily identify with and groove to.
Enter, Seattle artist Marit Peters, who impossibly manages to combine her respect for jazz with a world of other musical influences, while laying out 10 tracks that reflect a painfully sensitive, kind, deeply feeling but breathtakingly offbeat individual. In her sophomore album, Dead Reckoning, released in December 1999, Peters somehow manages to use essential jazz aspects (the amazing, soaring solos, space for vocal improvisations, diversities in tones and styles, moving interpretations of the human experience) to tell her true, often harrowing and poignant stories, with an admirably cynical, self-possessed and knowing, yet naïve, open, and empathic point of view.
I fell hard for track #5, “Theater,” when I first saw the singer/songwriter/pianist (she wrote all but one of the tracks in this CD) perform it one night at Port Townsend’s Public House Grill several winters ago. From the second she goes into the song with, “July has done with me, what winter does to cherry trees, you picked a few … before they were, ready, you could not wait…,” I felt the pain of unrequited love, of feeling neglected, taken advantaged of, of not being seen for who I really was as opposed to what I could do for the selfish, self-centered object of my desire. And when Peters reaches the halfway point, following a gospel-inspired choral, with “wish I could be, jagged in your apathy, I cannot shut myself in. Fold up cold girl, wish I could hang a sign, says too jaded do not disturb. But the windows are open and goddamned this front door, I cannot keep it closed, you could walk right in, ruin my theater, and walk right out again,” the hairs on my arms are standing up and I’m tempted to fist pump into the air. This is an anthem for all of us who’ve been on the outside looking in. Peters pulls this off way better and with less pretentious theatricality than Jewel in her self-pitying melodramatic “Foolish Games.”
The best showcase for jazz in this CD is “Watering Eden,” her 8th track. It begins with drums (Dave Jette) and piano (Ed Weber), loping intentionally, dangerously, sensually forward before she joins in, voice low, singing innocently about a neighbor taking out the recycling (the empties), watering his “hidden garden” (code for tending to one’s secret alcoholism), without coming right out and saying it, and with analogous prose fitting T.S. Eliot and Theodore Roethke. Everything in this loaded song is a perfect little short story and modern fable all in one, from the garden analogy and the helpless understanding that many of us are imprisoned by invisible demons of addiction, and quietly crying for salvation, to the way the musical instrumentation amplifies what isn’t spoken out loud. The horns, every now and then, repeat an ominous refrain throughout, reminding us of the pull of the addiction. The lyrics, such as, “We are gardeners aren’t we? We can’t stand to pull weed” and “We shake our fists at the drug that stole the green,” show off Peters’ innate sense of wordplay, intense control of overpowering emotional excess, and an addictive, intoxicating ability to make you want such troubles. The sexy piano solo by Weber builds slowly, with enough sharp edges and punctuations to add to the dangerous, erotic allure of mind-numbing oblivion.
There are so many hidden gems in Dead Reckoning. A challenge to “Beautiful Girls” to prove their inner beauty may have gone through several musical incarnations to reach the country-blues vibes in the CD, but it’s infinitely danceable, relatable (who doesn’t have a beautiful sister or friend to be envious of?), and light compared to the rest of this material.
“Mother’s Mantle” — a personal favorite of jazz musicians for its rich, full-bodied, melodic depths — implies a façade of a rich, happy, loving family. What makes it even better is, it’s not just for musicians in love with the instrumental (this song could stand alone as such), but for song purists who respond to the pleasant sounds and most importantly, the layered meanings in the words of the lyrics, of which Peters is a master.
Beneath the “sheets and forts and treasure chests,” “third-wheel training wheels and six or seven candles,” and the framed photographs, “here we are, shoulders and hands, it’s right here, colored proof of happiness,” is the dark truth of abuse only hinted at here and there, in between the fond, Kodachromed images. “Maybe it wasn’t really like that, maybe that wasn’t what you saw, maybe those weren’t her hands behind her back, maybe you were never there at all… maybe I was only mad,” Peters tells herself, questioning whether the abuse ever happened as she gazes around her house of secrets.
For anyone who’s ever suffered the break-up of a friendship, listen to “Marie” with a glass of wine. It’s from the point of view of an ex-friend who blames herself and wishes things were different. She presumes so much fault, for the nasty events leading up to the falling out, to the point where she toys with punitive allegory, “the weak link, the loose thread, the drunk on your porch after 2 a.m., knocking on wood [brilliant!], I’m breaking eggshells, tipping on my toes, wearing 10 hats and your clothes… so put me down, Marie, don’t just leave me here bleeding over myself…” That Peters sings this as if she’s chewing out her words with enormous regret and self-loathing draws attention to another winning quality in this Seattle artist’s multi-faceted presentation — a facility for disappearing into character, like a Thespis of Icaria.
Not every song on the CD is to my liking, however. The droning, unremarkable “Dinosaur” does nothing for me. And I’d rather Peters included her outrageously catchy, feminist-punchy “Super Woman” from her early period than someone else’s mediocre “Let the Happiness In.”