Lyrics of love, loss, longing in Mark Sebastian’s new ‘A Trick of the Light’

Music · Reviews

From time to time, singer/songwriter Mark Sebastian’s well-meaning comperes have cautioned him about the lyrical content of some of his songs. Sebastian’s literate and sophisticated songs explore the romantic battleground between men and women.

He crafts exceedingly poetic evocations of love, loss and longing. The title track contains some of the best contemporary writing you’re liable to hear for some time: “A little comfort, a little pain, a little hunger, and a handful of rain. Oh, baby, can we bring it back again?”   

Sometimes Sebastian hints at love as blood sport, as though life doesn’t hold enough disappointment. In art, as in life, things can get rough. But Sebastian leaves room for cock-eyed optimism; it’s not all body-blocks and sharp elbows. The hopeful subject in “A Voice In The Forest” wants nothing more than for this time to work out with the only other person who hears that same distant voice.  

This perfect number of nine songs is Sebastian’s latest collection. “I had to get these songs out,” he discloses. “This album is the most important piece of work I’ve done.” The array of different musical styles comprise a thumbnail resume: folk, blues, East and West Coat pop, and Soul among them. The twelve-string guitar, Sebastian’s primary instrument since his teen years on the Greenwich Village folk scene, instrumentally drives them with authority. 

Choose your own favorite, but “Riverrun” is a real gem. The singer sifts through mementoes from a relationship in flux, and they underscore his longing for a time when “the world seemed simpler then,  by the riverrun.”  The log drum punctuation and vocal harmony interlude is a hat-tip to Sebastian’s erstwhile writing partner, Brian Wilson, and it adds to the poignancy of the nostalgic introspection.  

These songs are lyrically and musically layered. Listen closely and pick up on the clever cultural references as they come winging by. Whether it’s an Easter egg of an arcane reference or a chord that has you scratching your head, those Sebastianisms invite repeated scrutiny. The more you hear, they more you’ll discern. 

Perhaps Sebastian’s most emotionally-charged vocal here, “A Trick Of The Light,” reveals the timbral similarity with the singing of his celebrated older brother, John Sebastian, of The Lovin’ Spoonful. Mark was, of course, a meaningful junior partner to the band, contributing their only Number One hit, “Summer in the City,” to the Spoonful canon.

“Get Up and Move,” a dance floor jam, is no anomaly. For a time, Sebastian was a staff writer for Earth, Wind and Fire. When he opened for Doors guitarist Robby Krieger’s band, it featured Motown Funk Brother guitarist, Wah Wah Watson (1950-2018). Sebastian and Watson collaborated in the studio, where Wah Wah played all the instruments, and Mark sang lyrics he improvised. The cassette lay untouched until Sebastian recently rediscovered it, and subtly polished it.  

Taken as a whole, the repertoire on this album is the voice of a man who’s won some and lost some. Sebastian still believes in love, as we all should. Very few of us, however, do it so evocatively and musically. 

Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.

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Critic’s notes: In Pasadena, Jammin’ with Jelly Roll Morton

Dance · Theater
Janaya Mahealani Jones, Naomi C. Walley, Cyd Charisse Glover-Hill
Jelly’s Last Jam / photo by Jeff Lorch

It doesn’t get more rollicking than the scene in the photo above, a trio of triple-threat red-hot mamas bumping and grinding in their bawdy-house skivvies in Dell Howlett’s well-crafted choreography for Jelly’s Last Jam, now on at the venerable Pasadena Playhouse.

The historic bulwark of live theater in Los Angeles, the Playhouse is on the cusp of its centenary in 2025. That’s huge! Just last year, it was gifted a Tony Award as the nation’s Best Regional Theater. The production, a revival of a vastly important theatrical pageant on the life of jazz man Jelly Roll Morton, is so crammed with dancing, the transitions between stillness and movement are hard to discern.

Author/director George C. Wolfe‘s much-loved play, nearly (but not) a revue, is a cultural happening with Los Angeles roots. The show’s pre-Broadway genesis was brought about by Wolfe, then a wunderkind, determined to restore the legacy of the gone-missing jazz pioneer. Wolff’s no-holds-barred treatment of the New Orleans-born, Chicago-based master of ragtime, blues, African rhythms as an anti-hero, warts and all, blew the lid off the Mark Taper Forum under the aegis of the great multicultural theater producer, Gordon Davidson. And Morton died in Los Angeles, in 1941.

The production serves a multiracial audience in Pasadena well. Talent spilled with over the lip of the Playhouse Stage, memorably, John Clarence Stewart in the titular role in strong voice, and Jasmine Amy Rogers as his female swain, however laden she was by a hugely difficult bedroom scene, one of the show’s least compelling, and most uncomfortable moments. For Jelly‘s, surprisingly, however filled with verve, comes across as a work of seminal importance, but it feels dated. In its day, it burst upon the white theatrical world with an untrammeled display of American Blackness — what the French called “Negritude.” Indeed Kent Gash, the director of the Playhouse revival, admits as much in program notes, calling out the show’s treatment of,

Black life. The grit and the gravy. Not a reflection of Blackness sanitized to make White culture comfortable. Powerful, exhilarating and thoughtful. Black aesthetics. Jazz aesthetics. [George] Wolfe aesthetics.

So while Jelly’s Last Jam brings marvelous music and dance (on that front, Doran Butler, a string bean of a tap dancer and a protege of Debbie Allen, gave a textbook lesson on how to steal a show. He is a brilliant, live-wire of a performer with all the right instincts), it has baggage of another variety.

The show rather ruthlessly airs the internecine family squabbles of Black society, shown as vivid people writhing beneath the stifling cloak of discrimination. The dialogue is laden with the “n” word, with the c**n word; and much is made of Jelly’s Creole birthright, yes, on a class basis, but also in terms of the relative darkness or lightness of his skin tone. There is much hyper sexualization of both men and women. I found this odd to witness, and maybe that’s good. What I do sense is that, in 1992, this show was an expression of cultural liberation. But is it now? Do these petty jealousies, expressions of anger and animosity that motor an otherwise celebratory show still have relevance? Much in the show eluded me–for example, among the show’s more salient points revealed Jelly’s exploitation by music publishers … a most germane topic raised, but quickly lost. Fresh theatrical devices of thirty years ago have become worn tropes, example, the Chimney Man (Cress Williams, whose costume needs revisiting) who acts as a moral deux ex machina figure plotting Jelly’s missteps. This feels hackneyed. What does not help is that the stage is dark, the set minimal, the actors are dressed in black.

I never saw Jelly’s Last Jam on Broadway, and I admire the Playhouse for taking on this whopping, grand-scaled, challenging show. There’s great singing, some very nicely shaped choreography, and excellent dancing. And it’s always fun to have drinks, socialize and people-watch in the Playhouse’s marvelous patio.

Jelly’s Last Jam gave the world the gift of Gregory Hines and Savion Glover moving to Jelly Roll Morton’s music. My quibbles aside, I would not have missed it. I cannot close without saying how much I love the title of this show. Poetry in clear-cut English.

Debra Levine is the founder/publisher/editor of artsmeme, now in its sixteenth year of arts-blogging.

Jelly’s Last Jam | Pasadena Playhouse | through June 23

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