by Dave Chamberlain
Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire takes flight
A few minutes with Andrew Bird conveys one truth about the man: He knows the century in music better than most people know the past year. The spoon that feeds the Bowl of Fire, Andrew Bird is a heady frontman whose languorous draws on the violin and dignified demeanor lend him a subtle charisma and Sinatra cool.
With more than two decades of playing the violin and a degree in musical performance from Northwestern, plus an internal database of musical history, Bird cuts to the heart of hot jazz, an offshoot of jazz and swing that peaked in popularity in the 1930s with performers like Heady Wilson and the early recordings of Duke Ellington. But Bird isn't about doing covers. He uses them sparingly, preferring songs of his own composition and only occasionally playing an obscure song from the past.
On stage, regardless of the musical style, the power of Bird's bow and string is nothing less than amazing, able to evoke an emotional rollercoaster. In a field where sheer talent so often gets overlooked, Bird has already beaten the odds. He begins a busy five months on Saturday with a show at Schubas with the Black Family, has a tentative gig with the North Mississippi Allstars in February and will play in mid-March at the South by Southwest festival in Austin. He's also releasing his second record, "Thrills," on Rykodisc in March. Most impressively, in May, he begins an open-ended residency at the Mercury Theatre, playing every Monday and Tuesday night.
"I was looking forward to being on the road," Bird says. "But [the run at the Mercury] is really exactly what we wanted. I hope to have a number of sets, and the consistency gives us a chance to play with the theatricality of our act."
How does someone trained his entire life to play classical music wind up playing hot jazz and swing? "When I finished college, I suddenly became interested in anything and everything that wasn't classical. I started with world music, and for a while I made a living playing Irish songs and folk songs. But when I really discovered swing, I felt I was playing something that was more needed. A lot of the violin concertos I had been playing prepared me well to do swing and hot jazz."
But easing into popularity by playing a form of music that's been out of people's consciousness for fifty years has Bird running the risk of being lumped into the current swing fad, alongside bands like the Royal Crown Revue and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a swing/ragtime group with whom he maintains a close friendship.
"I see the Zippers quite often," he notes, "considering the different schedules we keep." Bird had opened for the Zippers recently, and two Zipper members appear on "Thrills."
"The Zippers taught me a lot about making the music work and being an entertainer," Bird says. "They're very entertaining. I don't fear being grouped with the Zippers, but it is a double-edged sword since they're so popular. We'd rather be treated as an individual band. I do fear being grouped with any of the niche-filling swing bands."
He combats that possibility by not just aping the musical form, but by creating new music from within and beyond its framework. "All I really want to do is write good songs."
And write he does. As a full-time musician, with no grinding day job to be a diversion, Bird writes three or four songs a week. "I'd been writing songs so fast," he notes, "and all of the sudden, I have someone to write for." His record deal with Rykodisc calls for "several" records, and Bird claims he's already written the material a hundred times over.
And to Bird, the lyrics separate him from the growing pack. "When I first started writing songs," Bird says, "I started by putting translations of obscure, 19th-century German poetry to music. German poetry is consistently absurd, which goes back to using style as an emotional tool. It's part of the theatrical aspects of the music, and, to me, it's what puts the tongue visibly in the cheek."
Copyright 1998 New City Communications, Inc.