Travis Shook Plays Kurt Weill is a tribute to the famous German composer. Leading his working trio (which also includes Jennifer Vincent on upright bass and Jaz Sawyer on drums) and joined by skillful guests like trombonist Ron Westray and tenor saxophonist Kebbi Williams, Shook puts his stamp on six timeless Weill standards. From “Alabama Song” to “Mack the Knife,” Travis Shook Plays Kurt Weill reflects not only the New York City resident’s appreciation of Weill’s work, but also, his individuality.
“As a jazz artist,” the 38-year-old Shook explains, “you are always looking for songs that are going to be appropriate vehicles for you—songs you can improvise with. Even a great song may not be an appropriate vehicle; you might be saying, ‘This is a great song, although there isn’t anything that I can do with it as an improviser.’ But there is so much that can be done with Kurt Weill’s songs. I picked tunes that I knew would work for me as a jazz improviser and tunes that I knew I could make a personal statement with. My goal was to stay true to the boundaries of Kurt Weill’s music but always apply my own feelings.”
While “My Ship,” “Alabama Song,” “Mack the Knife” and “September Song” are performed as instrumentals, Shook features his wife, veteran jazz vocalist Veronica Nunn, on the melancholy “Lonely House” and “Lost in the Stars.” The latter also employs cellists Maxine Neuman and Melanie A. Yarger, who perform a cello arrangement that Shook wrote at Nunn’s recommendation. “’Lost in the Stars’ is my favorite thing on the album because of the cello arrangement,” Shook notes. “[Pianist] Ahmad Jamal heard that arrangement and thought it was really great.”
“Alabama Song” is a haunting gem that rock enthusiasts associate with Jim Morrison and the Doors (who recorded the song on their first album in 1967), although it was written 40 years earlier in 1927. Shook’s arrangement, with its post-bop aesthetic, is a departure from both rock and theatrical versions of the famous standard. “I knew ‘Alabama Song’ from The Doors, and I was also familiar with the Broadway version—which is much more off-kilter than even the Doors’ version,” Shook says. “But I went for a kind of McCoy Tyner-ish arrangement. I put a kind of a modal tinge to it.”
Equally intriguing is Shook’s arrangement of Weill’s 1928 favorite “Mack the Knife,” also known as “Die Moritat vom Mackie Moritat” or “Threepenny Opera.” Originally heard in German, the song became known as “Mack the Knife” when Marc Blitzstein wrote the famous English-language lyrics that were recorded by Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald and countless others. But Shook’s version is strictly instrumental, and he takes the song in a much moodier direction. In JazzTimes, Thomas Conrad praised Shook for providing “one of the hippest, driest, most elliptical versions of ‘Mack the Knife’ on record.”
Shook explains: “Before I recorded ‘Mack the Knife,’ I read the English lyrics and said to myself, ‘He’s talking about stabbing a guy. The guy was a thief, murderer, rapist and arsonist. This is Mafioso stuff.’ Those lyrics (the original lyrics were cleaned up considerably) were tongue-in-cheek, [but] I wanted to give the song a darker, edgier kind of vibe. I left the melody intact, but I changed the chords. My version is definitely not like any other version I’ve heard.”
Shook’s desire to bring something personal to Weill’s music has not gone unnoticed. Reviewing Travis Shook Plays Kurt Weill in Cadence, Grego Applegate Edwards asserts: “This is an ambitious disk…. Travis Shook shows he is not afraid to try different things with some highly worked material.”
The front cover of Travis Shook Plays Kurt Weill perfectly captures the spirit of Weill’s music. On the cover, Shook is sitting in front of a piano, surrounded by six figurines of German musicians—figurines that actually go back to the 1930s. It’s a cover that immediately brings to mind Germany’s Weimar Republic, the government that existed in Germany from 1919 to 1933 (before Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party took control of that country). Weill (who was born in 1900 and died in 1950) was among Germany’s most respected composers during the Weimar era, but sadly, Weill (who was Jewish) was forced to flee Germany in 1933 because of the Nazis. Looking at the cover of Travis Shook Plays Kurt Weill, one immediately thinks of German cabaret and theatrical music during the Weimar Republic.
Thomas Conrad, JazzTimes Magazine
“…one of the hippest, driest, most elliptical versions of “Mack the Knife” on record.”
Grego Applegate Edwards, Cadence Magazine
“This is an ambitious disk…. Travis Shook shows he is not afraid to try different things with some highly worked material.”