The first time I heard Gabriel Kahane make music, he was a college junior noodling tunefully and effortlessly at the piano as guests took their seats for a performance of Straight Man, a musical he wrote with his Brown University roomie Thomas Beatty.
The musical wasn't too shabby either. It won the 2002 Kennedy Center ACTF award for Best New Musical.
A few months later, I sang along with Gabe as he led an impromptu musicale at the Beattys, which included tunes by the master composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein -- who wrote operas, concert pieces and, on occasion, popular music -- and Rufus Wainwright, the pop songwriting genius who occasionally also writes operas and concert pieces.
In the dozen years since, I've watched Kahane, the son of world-class conductor/pianist Jeffrey Kahane, produce an inspired body of work ranging from three-chord pop confections to multilayered art pieces to the densest non-linear concert music.
Along the way, he's garnered commissions from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Kronos Quartet and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. His Craigslistlieder combined a time-honored classical form with the texts of personal ads from a certain website. He's worked with a who's who of other pop and classical talent, including composer John Adams, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, bluegrass/Bach-playing mandolinist Chris Thile, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, and Rufus Wainwright. And this just in: Kahane performs "Mutilation Rag" as the closing number on Beck's forthcoming Song Reader album, the penultimate track of which is performed by Loudon Wainwright III, who happens to be Rufus's dad.
If Leonard Bernstein were around, chances are he'd have found a way to bring Gabe, Rufus et al together for a grand pop/classical synthesis.
Kahane's triumphant new album The Ambassador (Sony Masterworks) is a song cycle that casts a loving eye on Los Angeles architecture by naming each of the 12 tracks after a specific LA location, such as classic Hollywood eatery/drinkery Musso and Frank's; 304 Broadway, where parts of Blade Runner were filmed; and Union Station.
The record's centerpiece, "Empire Liquor Mart (9172 S. Figueroa St.)," is a nine-minute tour de force about the heartbreaking case of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African-American girl who was shot in the back of the head and killed by a store owner in 1991 while trying to purchase a bottle of orange juice.
The title track is a tale told by the night watchman of the Ambassador Hotel, LA's longstanding locus for national political figures (seven presidents) and Hollywood elites (six Academy Awards ceremonies) until its closing in 1989. The day before that closing, the mournful watchman links his and the city's loss -- "No I won't be back tomorrow/and it grieves me to tell you why/The Ambassador's been bleeding out/and now they've let her die" -- with the national trauma of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in the hotel's kitchen just hours after he won the California Democratic presidential primary on June 5, 1968. After that, "Twenty-one summers on a steep descending slope/Since that midnight in the pantry when the country lost its hope."
"The Ambassador" evokes Paul Simon's "American Tune," a song written just five years after RFK's death about the loss of the American dream. "American Tune" also resonates with pop/classical overtones: its principal melody line comes from a 17th Century J.S. Bach Chorale, a tune Bach himself plucked from a hundred-year-old love song by Hans Leo Hassler. Call it serendipity or call it synchronicity, but Simon's iconic "Mrs. Robinson," the theme from the landmark Hollywood film The Graduate, was America's No. 1 single on June 5, 1968. That the Ambassador is the site of a key scene in The Graduate is almost too much connection to handle.
Taken as a whole, The Ambassador reclaims Los Angeles from Tinseltown stereotypes and celebrates the city's authentic culture while still paying homage to its Hollywood myths.
Other projects in the works for Kahane include a stage production of The Ambassador directed by John Tiffany (Once, The Glass Menagerie) and designed by Christine Jones (Spring Awakening, American Idiot); a theatrical collaboration for Sundance with Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker; a Public Theater piece about Alcoholics Anonymous which, Kahane says, "is intended to be a real departure -- 80 or so chairs in a circle in a very spare room, 8-12 actor/singers, no instruments"; and more touring behind The Ambassador. In his spare time, he's composing his first opera.
If you love music that's both simple and complicated, go against the stream and buy The Ambassador. You'll feel good not only because of the cool bonus stuff -- including an essay by LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne -- but also because it's the right thing to do in a world where a million streams of a song might net less than the price of a T-shirt.