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Heute Nacht Oder Nie

02.21.09
Max Raabe & Palast Orchester
All About Jazz

In November 2007 German singer Max Raabe performed at Carnegie Hall with the Palast Orchester, presenting a half-English, half-German program of songs from the golden years of Weimar Germany. The resulting recording-Heute Nacht Oder Nie (Tonight Or Never)-has spurred a flurry of activity both in the States and abroad, and Raabe has been on the road ever since its release in 2008.

Raabe and the Palast Orchester, 12 musicians of stunning precision (multiple horns, violin, viola, guitar, banjo, piano, bass and percussion), have been performing together for the last two decades, but Heute Nacht Oder Nie represents the group's first major launch in the US. And what a launch it is: two discs and almost two hours of resurrected tunes from the '20s and '30s by composers such as Irving Berlin, Walter Jurmann and Kurt Weill, delivered in Raabe's faultless baritone.

To appreciate Raabe's innovation any preconceived notions must first be tossed aside. Perhaps it's Raabe's ironic take on each number that pulls them into the 21st century, but never once do the well-seasoned tunes ("Bei mir bist Du schoen" and "Just One Of Those Things," for example) sound cliched. And the German tunes that never really made it across the ocean ("Mein kleiner gruner Kaktus" and "Ich kusse Ihre Hand, Madame," among others) come as a surprising discovery to modern American ears. There's more jazz-era music to be discovered? What good news!

Raabe was in New York in January, 2009 to promote the CD, and performed solo at the Neue Galerie January 9-10 as part of that effort. Raabe is an utterly captivating performer, even without the orchestra, even without understanding German, even if his tux and clearly enunciated vowels seem a bit formal for today's more casual music scene. True, his presentation is all very stylized, but this serves as a clever backdrop for his deadpan humor, a humor that seduces as much as does the music. Of course, it's a lot easier to get the songs' jokes if you speak German, but even in English, Raabe is a pretty funny guy.

Raabe drew much of his repertoire for the Neue Galerie from that of Weimar singers like Max Hansen and the Comedian Harmonists, whose popularity in Germany ended for the most part once the Nazis came to power in the '30s. Some of these songs are satires from that time-like "War'n Sie schon mal in mich verliebt," a spoof of Hitler that Raabe performed as one of his encores-and some are evergreen, melancholic airs, like "Liebesleid," about the quixotic nature of love. But Raabe never lingers on the serious points that might be made, whether topical or timeless, and thus leaves the deeper meanings in his work in question, with the hopes that he would explain.

That evening Christoph Israel accompanied Raabe on piano and at times joined Raabe in whistling duets-this kind of virtuosity is not something heard everyday and, quite frankly, it's rather a brilliant touch. After some 12 tunes the two closed the evening with three encores, the last being "Gib mir den letzten Abschiedskuss," which, roughly translated, means, "Give me a farewell kiss." A precipitous request, perhaps: Raabe will most likely be back.