This past evening at the Poisson Rouge, pianist Misha Piatigorsky led his twelve-piece Sketchy Orkestra through a long, heavily front-loaded set that was as eclectic as it was entertaining. Piatigorsky is a rugged individualist who’s invented his own style of music: part art-rock, part chamber jazz, part neoromanticism and part soul music. It can be part other things too, but we’ll get to that. His lushly dynamic Sketchy Orkestra is sort of a NYChillharmonic Junior, although Piatigorsky’s group is smaller and also plays imaginatively rearranged covers in addition to originals. With his gruff, sardonic lounge lizard persona and irrepressibly ebullient sense of humor, he impressed the most with the earliest material in the set.
He opened the best song of the night, an original, solo on piano, with a creepy, modal, suspenseful intro straight out of Rachmaninoff. Then a fiery violin cadenza kicked off a blissfully edgy, dancing Sephardic melody over which soul belter Emily Braden eventually sang. They brought it full circle at the end.
Another high point was a hushed, pointillistically tiptoeing, vintage 60s noir soul ballad held aloft by the nine-piece string section. Piatigorsky can be subtle, but onstage, he’s a showman, dueling with his bandmates, shifting meters and tempos on a dime in tandem with ace drummer Anwar Marshall (who also knows a thing or two about propelling large ensembles). Piatigorsky traded riffs with bassist Noah Jackson and then later the violin section during a closing crescendo: nobody missed a beat.
A couple of times during a lustrously reinvented art-rock instrumental version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, he switched up the tempo and took a couple of jagged, two-fisted solos that careened into Euro-jazz territory. Piatigorsky’s playing sometimes brings to mind Dave Brubeck, at other times Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker – especially in the night’s most gospel-tinged moments – and another 60s guy, Reginald Dwight, who almost took Brooker’s place in that band. But ultimately, Piatigorsky is his own animal.
A tongue-in-cheek, funky cover of Strawberry Fields Forever took similar detours into jazz territory without losing sight of the song’s surrealistic charm. “I’m glad I wrote that one,” Piatigorsky deadpanned afterward. “They named a park after it.”
“This next one is by a fellow Jew, a member of the tribe. He loved his women. He loved his drugs.” Piatigorsky paused. “I’m not talking about myself. I’m talking about the great Leonard Cohen.” And followed with the most epic version of Hallelujah that anyone ever could have attempted. The strings opened it, a wounded pavane of sorts; from there, the pianist made a mashup of gospel, art-rock and finally vintage Ashford and Simpson soul out of it. Yeah, the song should be retired and was pretty much ruined for good when Jeff Buckley did that florid cover. If only Piatigorsky could have beaten him to it.
There was other material on the bill. Oy, was there ever. Looking back, at least the rapper in the Wu-Tang shirt was good. To anyone who ever plays any of the Bleecker Street bars (and yeah, the Poisson Rouge is one of them, if a more pretentious and expensive one): these rubes from Jersey can’t tell Beethoven from Beyonce. They don’t even listen to music: they watch tv. The internet? What’s that? They’re only here because their parents came here back in the 60s and they think that being in “The City” suddenly makes them cool. They’ll applaud anything you give them. There’s no need to dumb down your set because these people can’t tell whether they’re being patronized, or actually being exposed to something worth hearing. Either way, they’ll be bragging to their friends back in Fort Lee about it.
Oh yeah – if you’re wondering who the hell Reginald Dwight is, he could have been in one of the alltime great art-rock bands, but instead he went solo and started calling himself Elton John. Whatever you think of his schlocky tunesmithing, he’s a kick-ass pianist.