COUNTING OUR BLESSINGS: PETRA VAN NUIS and DENNIS LUXION, “BECAUSE WE’RE NIGHT PEOPLE”

Photograph by Bill Klewitz

Hearing the fine singer Petra van Nuis make music is always a pleasure: her delicate, incisive way inside the songs reveals new shadings and gleams.  For those of us who don’t get to Chicago, here’s good news — a new CD by Petra and the splendidly subtle pianist Dennis Luxion, BECAUSE WE’RE NIGHT PEOPLE.

I had the good fortune to write notes for the CD, which you can read below.  But first . . . as they say . . . here is a video of six songs from the session, so you have the evidence generously offered to you:

BECAUSE WE’RE NIGHT PEOPLE Petra van Nuis and Dennis Luxion
The first thing you’ll notice about this CD, even before you start the music, is that its title is a sideways assertion, responding to a question that we weren’t able to hear but must assume was asked. That’s so appropriate, because the music Petra and Dennis create subtly answers some questions but raises others. Their lovely interplay will stay with you long after the disc is over. They are two very different artists, but their individualities never clash.

I was surprised by the title, because I’ve seen Petra functioning nicely in daylight. Another reason to admire her. She says, “By nature and work requirements Dennis and I are bona fide night people — thus, this collection. We love the slower tempos. The dreamy, moody material inspires us. We chose these songs to portray the varied emotions that occur in that magical suspended time after midnight and before the early bird’s chirp asks why you’re still awake. The bird can’t know if you’re up because you want to be or because you can’t sleep. Night can be a lonely time of reflection, rumination, and worry. But seductive night breezes bring creative insights, romance, and freedom!”

And Dennis takes his own solo, “Some night people are attracted to the activity, social scene, and music of bars and nightclubs. But others are attracted to the relative quiet, solitude, and intimacy that can be found at night, a time of introspection. As a musician, I often find myself amid the first type of night people, whereas personally of the second type. Hopefully both are represented on this recording.”

Incidentally, these words should not lead you to think that this CD is musical Ambien, over the counter. Yes, the tempos are often dreamy, but this CD is full of quiet surprises that will keep your ears awake: consider the perky MOONLIGHT SAVING TIME. On every track, Petra dances over the rhythm, playing with the line, directing her own small-scale but intense dramas. Her singing is ever so sweetly based on speech patterns – her phrasing isn’t constrained by the beats on the printed page. Rather, the arcs of melody and emotion shape her idea of the lyric line.

And Dennis is gracious and musically wise: his accompaniment is the Master’s Art, his introductions and solos beautiful translucent fabric hangings (hear him on YOU AND THE NIGHT).

When I started the CD for the very first listening, I didn’t think of Sinatra’s gloomy “It’s quarter to three”; rather, the analogue was the sessions Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins made. Like them, Dennis and Petra are two singular souls allied by a deep purpose, to make us feel, to make us remember our nocturnal lives in their songs. Notice the references to “conversation” in the notes below: they generously support each other but don’t interrupt each other’s utterances. You can hear them grinning at particularly felicitous turns of phrase. Petra points out, “Dennis is a perfect duo partner because of his desire to listen and his ability to focus. Playing with him is akin to having a meaningful conversation where the other person not only hears you, but gets you. A sensitive instrumentalist who cares about lyrics, Dennis is a co-storyteller complimenting the mood of each song in his expressive, thoughtful way.” And he’s subversively hilarious: he begins NO MOON AT ALL with a wink at IN WALKED BUD.

Dennis isn’t about to be outdone in courtesy, “I love working with Petra. She always has a clear idea of what she wants to do with a song, but is flexible and adapts to what is happening around her so the music can be organic and breathe. She finds songs that are way off the beaten path but well worth hearing.”

Speaking of song choices, for those radicals who don’t start at the first track and follow obediently to the end, I’d urge you to begin with WHILE MY LOVER SLEEPS, a wonderful song that Petra first heard on a Chet Baker recording. In the early Eighties, Dennis spent several years in Europe performing with Chet Baker, although Chet had stopped doing the song by then. When I heard it for the first time, I wanted only to hear it again, right away.

Very few of the songs on this disc are predictable (read: “overdone”) choices, but they all become memorable quickly. Three are particularly remarkable, and Petra notes, “The song that folks have most likely never heard is ‘The Piano Player (A Thousand and One Saloons).’ The music was written by the exquisite singer/pianist Meredith Ambrosio after she was given the lyric by a fan, Bob Dowd. The song captures the desperate loneliness and monotony of playing nightly in venues where the situation can quickly devolve as the drinks flow and the air thickens with smoke (thankfully not since the smoking ban!). The lyric also mentions the ‘little glow’ that comes from fulfilling musical experiences and sympathetic listeners who make it all worthwhile. Another tune that may be unfamiliar is ‘Night People’ from the short lived Broadway musical about the Beat Generation, ‘The Nervous Set.’ I adore Dennis’ treatment: he gets a real Bill Evans feel on his solo. I think the lyrics inspire him, and he can certainly relate when he co-leads the weekly jam session at Chicago’s famed Green Mill every Friday night/Saturday morning, from 1-3:40 am! One final obscurity is Mancini’s ‘Shadows of Paris’ which plays during the opening credits of the Pink Panther flick ‘A Shot In The Dark.’ The waltz time, minor key, and mysterious lyrics drew me in.”

How did this CD come to be? Petra says, “Dennis asked if I’d be interested in recording together! He didn’t care which tunes I chose; his only stipulation was that it would be duo. Dennis adds, “Since Petra and I mostly perform as a duo, it seemed natural and logical to use that format and to work out our take on the repertoire gradually on the bandstand. Petra chose all the songs and, while a few of them were new to her, most of them were already part of her repertoire. I didn’t want to play them in the way she already knew them, but rather to put them through the filter of my own sensibilities. All the songs, therefore, underwent some amount of transformation in adapting them for this project, some more than others, and these versions developed little by little, organically.”

Repertoire and arrangements took shape on countless gigs, but concrete recording plans didn’t coalesce for over a year until, as Petra explains, “we were discussing an upcoming ‘night- themed’ performance at PianoForte, a conducive space with a fantastic piano, and Dennis suggested we record that concert live. I agreed, but as a safety net, I insisted we record two nights to guarantee more options for ‘takes.’ Wouldn’t you know it, every song ultimately chosen came from night two!”

You’ll notice that this is a “live” recording – although the sound is so beautiful that I was at first startled by the applause. (“Where did those people come from?” I thought.) Dennis adds, “In the recording studio, one is tempted to play it safe and strive for a controlled perfection that lacks the spontaneity of a live performance: a scripted dialogue, not an intimate conversation. I prefer the latter.”

Petra insisted on BLESSINGS as the closing song. What a gift this performance is. It sends the listener off – whether to bed or just into another phase of nocturnal experience – wrapped in gratitude. That’s how I feel, not only about that Berlin song, but about this whole disc, which captures the best efforts of two inventive explorers who do their best work after the sun goes down. 

I believe the CD will be available in September, which is only a few days away.  You can pre-order copies here — as well as Petra’s other recordings, several with the luminous guitarist Andy Brown . . . and see her gig schedule.  And more.

May your happiness increase!

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