Live Music: “Stradivarius Fiddlefest” by members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at the Broad Stage

March 30, 2014

by Don Heckman

Santa Monica, CA. The opportunity to hear an actual Stradivarius violin in action is the sort of rare musical event that would be a delight to most classical music fans. But the opportunity to hear five of the legendary instruments, played by a group of superb violinists from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, is a memorable, one of a kind music event.

And that’s what we experienced on Friday night at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica in a LACO program titled “Stradivarius Fiddlefest.” The program was a virtual definition of violin compositions at their finest, some classic, some contemporary. The first half of the program included works by Telemann, Moszkowski, Kreisler, Brahms, Corigliano and Franck. The second half was equally compelling, featuring compositions by Saint-Saens, de Sarasate, Ravel, Kreisler, Piazzolla and Bartok.

The Serdet Stradivarius

The Serdet Stradivarius

The focus of the evening, of course, was on the instruments themselves. Dating from the early 1700s, they were crafted by Stradivari himself during his “Golden Period.” And it didn’t take a violin aficionado to fully appreciate the qualities of the instruments – from the lush, richness of their sound to the articulateness of their virtuosity.
But the program, in its fullness, was at its most compelling in the dramatic interfacing between the magnificence of the instruments and the extraordinary skills of the violinists.

Jeffreyi Kahane

Jeffrey Kahane

Accompanied by the expressive piano playing of LACO’s Music Director, Jeffrey Kahane, the violinists – Margaret Batjer (the LACO’s concertmaster), Chee-Yun, Cho-Liang Lin, Philippe Quint and Kiang Yu – approached their instruments with a stunning blend of enthusiasm, creative intimacy and musicality.

Each violinist found a way to express his or her unique artistry in a fashion that balanced the very special qualities of the Stradivari instruments with the individual demands of the compositions.

Chee-Yun

Chee-Yun

As the program unfolded, two soloists displayed especially appealing qualities. Chee-Yun captured listeners with her passionate interpretations of the Saint-Saens and de Sarasate works.

Phillipe Quint

Phillipe Quint

And Philippe Quint was equally intense in his renderings of the Corigliano piece, and joined Chee-Yun in several works calling for two-violin interaction.

In sum, it was yet another memorable evening with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. And, like so many past LACO performances, the “Fiddlefest” offered an immensely entertaining introduction to music not often heard, performed on rare period instruments.

All plaudits, then, to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for once again offering a unique and engaging program of classical music at its finest.

* * * * * * * *

Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

 


Live Music (and More): Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion at the Greek Theatre

June 11, 2013

By Mike Finkelstein

On Friday night Garrison Keillor and the cast of A Prairie Home Companion descended upon the Greek Theater ostensibly to record the latest installment of their delightfully entertaining radio show for public radio.    It was a beautiful evening as the sun started to set over Griffith Park.   You couldn’t imagine a more intimate feeling in a gathering of thousands.

As I headed to my seat, there seemed to be some commotion in front of me…and this was because Keillor had made his entrance by sauntering up in song from the stage and arriving all the way at the top of the theatre to savor the view.

A Prairie Home Companion is a unique slice of radio entertainment these days.  The show’s format is a throwback to old time radio variety shows.   It relies on the engaging voices of its host and cast to bring cleverly worded scripts to warm life.  True to the old radio tradition, listeners can’t help but let their imagination run with it to concoct their own vision of what they hear.   That’s a lost art in these times of nonstop video gratification. But the sound of it was vintage radio, even with the modern references.   How would it be with no need to imagine the proceedings?  I’m happy to say the results were thoroughly entertaining.

The Cast of A Prairie Home Companion

The rear of the stage had, naturally, a life size façade of a narrow two-story Minnesota prairie style house, as well as the logos of several of the mock sponsors of the show.    The 7-piece Shoe band, led by pianist Rich Dworsky and guitarist Pat Donohue, sat in several layers in front of the house.  Whether they were featured or setting up the atmosphere with background music, their blend of jazz, folk, and boogie was a perfect fit with the rest of the program.

To the side of the stage we had the fascinating table of gizmos and knick-knacks that Fred Farrell uses for sound effects.   His crop duster impression was perfection, as were his one-man cocktail party, flushing toilets, breaking branches (Styrofoam plate) and flapping wings.  Next to Farrell stood Tim Russell and Sue Scott.

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor

At center stage there was Garrison Keillor, moving the whole thing along so very smoothly.  The guests for the night included Martin Sheen reading scripted characters, Lily Tomlin reading scripts and making conversation, Paula Poundstone doing standup and also reading scripts and conversing.

It’s fun to watch actors and comedy artists do something formatted like reading a radio script as you can see their personalities leap forth while they read.  Ah, the lost art of simply reading aloud with panache.   Lily Tomlin got to deliver the line, conversationally, “What is reality but a collective hunch?” and Tim Russell got on a roll with his impressions of George W. Bush, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Tom Brokaw, and even Henry Kissinger.

The musical guests included semi-regular PHC members, the singing sisters Jearlynn and Jevetta Steele.   They gave the music a gospel feel when they sang, very up beat and just as joyous.  Colin Hay, formerly of Men at Work, performed solo.  He is an engaging storyteller, a man with different guitar for each song, and he has a big, rich voice.  It’s been a while since I’ve heard “Overkill,” but I remembered how good the lyrics were when I first heard them.

Between the skits, monologues, musical numbers, and mock ads, one becomes aware that there is a prodigious amount of material and coordination that goes into putting these shows together on a weekly basis.   Whoa!   In one monologue Keillor told us about the descent into LAX and filled us in on fine details of places like Whittier, Southgate, and who is buried in the Inglewood Cemetery.  Speeches like this take a fair amount of research every week.

There was so much beautiful rhyme woven into the night’s dialogue.   It was also there in the lyrics of the songs, the ads, and even in a touching poem that Keillor wrote for a neighbor’s cat (“they are God’s beauty”).   Well, the show was sponsored by P.O.E.M (the Professional Organization of English Majors).

"The Adventures of Guy Noir"

“The Adventures of Guy Noir”

No PHC show would be complete without an episode of Guy Noir, private eye.  This installment featured erudite flirtations between Keillor and Tomlin, plenty of alliteration, and an amusing dissection of the lyrics to doo wop songs like “Who Put The Bomp,” and “Who Wrote The Book Of Love.”   The actors were clearly enjoying the humor in the written words and riffing a bit with it, too.

During this two and a half hours show there were a whole lot of ideas touched upon.  Many times we noticed how little time it took to get a pretty deep observation about people over to the audience.  Near the end of the show Keilor told us about the time he was asked to give the commencement speech at his high school.  He went on to describe how he didn’t speak about the lifelong bonds that we make with people from our youth (that they are our tribe), but about instead about success.   It turned into a heartfelt reminiscence of his youth — and then the principal mentioned how hard it is to get a good graduation speaker.

But I’m guessing Garrison Keillor actually gave a great speech at Lake Wobegon High School.

* * * * * * * *

Photos courtesy of the Prairie Home Companion.

To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


Live Music: The Tenors at the Greek Theatre

June 3, 2013

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles, The Tenors – all four of them – surged onto the Greek Theatre stage Saturday night with all the panache and enthusiasm of the hot music act they have become.  There have been various installments of the quartet since they were originally formed as The Canadian Tenors.  But the current members –  Fraser Walters, Clifton Murray, Victor Micallef and Remigio Pereira – have mastered the musicality, the humor and the appealing blend of rich, ensemble singing and stylish soloing that are the essence of the Tenors’ identity.

Over the course of two sets, the music roved freely across genres, fully illuminating the Tenors’ far-reaching versatility.  Many of the tunes traced to their latest album, Lead With Your Heart.  They sang their hit version of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” and countered it with a sort of Elvis Presley imitation on “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

The Tenors: Fraser Walters, Remigio Pereira, Victor Micallef and Clifton Murray

And there was much more: a delightfully passionate reading of the Spanish classic, “Granada”; the Italian love song, “Caruso”; a song from “Les Miserables”; “Lead With Your Heart,” the title song from the Tenors’ new album, as well as their PBS special.

Add to that a three song medley in which they featured the fine players in their backup group; a Tenors’ reworking of the song “A Woman In Love,” from a male perspective; a soaring “Amazing Grace”; “Anchor Me”; and a climactic “Nessun Dorma.”  Nor were they allowed to leave the stage without performing their memorable interpretation of  Leonard Cohen’s “Hallellujah.”

The melodic leads passed from one singer to another, alternating with the lush harmonic textures of all four voices together.  And, because each of the tenors has an individual vocal texture, the solo passages were filled with emotional variation, and the ensemble segments came vividly to life via the colorful blending of sounds.

In addition to their impressive individual and collective musicality, the four tenors also emerged as appealing individuals.  Each had a solo segment in which to introduce his background and fully display his individual voicess.  They did so with wit and an engaging interaction with their audience.  And their listeners, understandably, seemed to respond with even more applause and cheers as they came to know each of the quartet members – beyond their obvious vocal mastery.

They also included a pair of guest artists to their program: singer Rita Wilson and producer/composer/pianist David Foster, both of whom made their unique contributions.

But the evening belonged to The Tenors. To their singing, to their musicality, to their entertaining collection of songs, and to their warm and irresistible amiability.


Live Jazz: Cheryl Bentyne at Vitello’s

April 8, 2013

By Don Heckman

Studio City, CA.  The stage setting for Cheryl Bentyne’s performance at Vitello’s Friday night seemed surprisingly spare.  An acoustic bass and a music stand on the left, a pair of guitars and a music stand on the right, and a stool and a vocal mic in the middle.

That was it.  “Up Close & Personal” was the title Cheryl gave her performance.  And it was right on target: Kevin Axt on bass, Wayne Johnson on guitar, and Cheryl in the center. No drums, no piano, no horns.  None of which were needed in two sets of exquisite songs performed with intimate lyrical and musical clarity.  One couldn’t have asked for more.

A multiple Grammy-winning member of the Manhattan Transfer, Cheryl has long been drawn to a far-ranging collection of material, with the Transfer, as well as her superb solo performances.  And on this magical evening, her choices combined to illuminate a gallery of what might best be described as contemporary art song.

Several familiar standards – “Love For Sale,” “I’m A Fool To Want You” and “It Might As Well Be Spring” — book-ended the evening with Cheryl’s convincing interpretations.

Her versatility surfaced with more pop oriented songs from Nelly MacKay, k.d. lang, Lennon & McCartney, Leonard Cohen, Melody Gardot and Patricia Barber.  And Cheryl displayed her jazz perspectives with Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues,” Matt Dennis’ “Angel Eyes” and Landesman/Wolf’s “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.”

As if that wasn’t a fully adequate expression of her versatility, Cheryl also included several lush film melodies by Ennio Morriconne, enhanced by her own lyrics.

Kevin Axt, Cheryl Bentyne and Wayne Johnson

Each tune was supported – often in brilliantly spontaneous fashion – by the stirring contributions of Axt and Johnson.  And, in addition to their keenly balanced backing, they offered inventive solo passages.

Ultimately, of course, even the most appealing program of songs – no matter how eclectic – calls for convincing vocal interpretations.  And Cheryl’s readings, with their rich musicality, reached into the inner heart of everything she sang.

She is, seemingly by nature as well as skill, a dramatic performing artist.  Whether she was swinging her way through “Senor Blues,” capturing the deep intimacies of the Cohen and Barber songs, as well as her Morriconne collaborations, or telling her sometimes jocular between-songs remarks, she was utterly captivating.

By the time Cheryl concluded the long embraces of her two sets of songs, the only thing missing was perhaps another word to add to the program’s title.  It might more accurately have said “Up Close, Musical & Personal.”

* * * * * * * *

Photos by Faith Frenz.


Live Music: Bobby McFerrin at Disney Concert Hall

April 4, 2013

By Don Heckman

There’s one thing that can almost always be anticipated about a Bobby McFerrin appearance: that there’s no telling what to expect. His performance at Disney Hall Wednesday night, for example, seemed to be specifically on track, with the whimsical title, “Spirityouall,” announcing a program honoring his father, Robert McFerrin, Sr., an operatic baritone and interpreter of spirituals.

And the evening did indeed overflow with spirituals, from classics such as “Wade in the Water” to McFerrin originals. But the songs – as always in a McFerrin performance – were just the starting points for startlingly creative musical expeditions.

Bobby McFerrin

Bobby McFerrin

At the center of each song was the astonishing McFerrin voice. Blessed with an extraordinary instrument, reaching over several octaves, capable of leaping giant intervals in a single bound, there were no limits to his expressive potential. Whether simply arching warmly through a familiar melody, adding his own inventive variations or showcasing his remarkable vocal gymnastics, he was utterly fascinating. And he enhanced his appeal with a wry sense of humor and compelling interaction with his musicians.

Which raises another vital aspect of this mesmerizing evening – the presence of a quintet of musical artists completely in sync with McFerrin’s every subtle improvisational twist and turn. At the keyboards (and accordion) Gil Goldstein also served as musical director and arranger; David Mansfield doubled on guitar, mandolin and violin; Armand Hirsch also played guitar and mandolin; Jeff Carney payed contrabass; and Louis Cato doubled impressively on drum set, percussion and back up vocals.

There were far too many high points to mention them all. Among the most memorable:

  • A version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” ranging from pensive to gently swinging.
  • “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho”: enhanced by McFerrin’s high flying scatting; it’s hard to name any current jazz singer who can vocally improvise with his rhythmic elan and melodic inventiveness.
  • The emotionally touching originals, “Woe” and “Jesus Makes It Good” (performed by McFerrin at the piano).
  • A stunning, bebop-driven trio medley with bassist Carney and drummer Cato.
  • And another medley, this time with a distinctly bluegrass slant, featuring violinist Mansfield and keyboardist Goldstein.
  • Add to all that McFerrin’s frequent singalong interactions with his receptive audience, as well as a living room moment in which he asked any listeners who so desired to join him at the stage to share a song. And a few did, enthusiastically doing their best with “Amen.”

McFerrin wrapped the program with an encore version of “Wade in the Water,” a final reminder of his extraordinary creative gifts, and a delightfully conclusive ending to a memorable musical adventure.


Live Music: Nellie McKay at Catalina Bar & Grill

July 12, 2011

By Tony Gieske

It’s a Churchillian task to write about Nellie McKay‘s performance Saturday at Catalina’s. There she stood  in all her Debbie Reynolds-ness, offering  a figurative “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” among other exudations, in a skit that rivalled the works of Imogene Coca, Fran Leibowitz, Dorothy Parker, Fran Landesman  or Alice  Ghostley, with a hint of Alexander Pope heard now and then. It was the stuff of history.

The McKay voice is a knife edged with honey.  Which is good, because the words she writes are razor sharp beneath a homespun mantle.

When life’s impossible
Hold tight beneath the underdog
That’s where I’m comfortable

 She often tackles a lyric in a style that is positively cubist. From “There You Are in Me”:

Uptight, upright, long nights, furious
Darwin asked “You Got The Money?”
Big cry, big guy, fish eye curious
Can this be my home?

 After draining this proto-Lotte Lenya vein, she taps into “Some Other Spring,” a melancholy standard we all know from Billie Holiday’s version, and draws a bit of  heart’s blood with it.

Some other spring
I’ll try to love
Now I still cling
To faded blossoms 

 Using her splendid little backup band — “they can play anything and they’re natural criminals, too,” she says — McKay then got into surrealism on “I Only Have Eyes for You,” with the tenor man uttering penetrating cries like an unhappy infant for no apparent reason.

And she took a ricocheting shot at feminism with one of her better-known numbers, “Mother of Pearl”:

Feminists don’t have a sense of humor
Feminists just want to be alone (boo-hoo)
Feminists spread vicious lies and rumor
They have a tumor on their funny bone 

 The evening as a whole, we were told, constituted McKay’s demented version of “I Want to Live,” the biopic for which Susan Hayward won an Oscar.  The flick was about Barbara Graham, the forgotten murderess — steady there, feminists —  who became in 1955 the third woman to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin.

So, to conclude her wacky parody, McKay seated herself in the fatal chair, put on a pale green blindfold,  and got a laugh when she said: “I don’t want to see them stare at me.”  The musicians struck up a hissing sound and she rolled her head back and forth, depicting death throes. Gotta say she’ll do anything for a laugh.

And among all her anythings, such as imitating Tom Waits or portraying a chicken being hauled to market inside a crate, she played piano rather deftly with her own prodigious little fingers, a feat that Winston Churchill never  managed.

Photos by Tony Gieske.  To read and see more of Tony’s essays and photos click HERE.


Live Music: Arlo Guthrie in a UCLA LIVE concert at Royce Hall

April 9, 2011

By Mike Finkelstein

On Friday night Arlo Guthrie and several more of his family and cohorts played to a nearly packed house in a UCLA Live event at Royce Hall. The largely gray-haired and gray-bearded crowd was treated to a quickly paced and warmly delivered show by a true hippie icon. Guthrie looked robust, in dark clothes with thick white hair and a big white mustache to match. He is in fine shape and is a huge presence on stage.

Backed by a four-piece band that included his son Abe on keys and the three Burns sisters on backing vocals, Guthrie held court, moving between electric piano, several gorgeous 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars and harmonica. Most of all, he told stories musically and conversationally.

Arlo is probably best known for his mesmerizing and rambling hippie diatribe, “Alice’s Restaurant” – a song about avoiding the draft by virtue of being a convicted litterer (a true story, legend has it). It’s the way he talks his way through that song that has made his legacy endure as it has. Though he didn’t actually play the song Friday night, the set up for nearly each tune he did gave us our fill of his storytelling style, just the same. This turned out to be a clever way of giving the people what they wanted without devoting an inordinate amount of time to it.

On Friday, Guthrie culled songs not only from his father, but from sources like his friends Hoyt Axton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.  Being the son of folk music luminary Woody Guthrie put him in the same world as many of his dad’s high profile musical friends. He recalled that as a two year old child, he actually was knee high to Leadbelly. And then he launched into a rockin’ version of “Alabama Bound.”  On a song like this one the clarity and separation of his runs in the low registers really gave a sense that he learned a lot about how to play twelve string guitar by listening to Leadbelly.

Throughout the set, the band played softly in the pocket and made sure to leave a lot of room for Arlo’s voice and his large, jangly guitar sound. Several times during the evening the band hit a gospel sounding groove between the drums, keys and backing vocals.

As Arlo pointed out, though a song like “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” is some 60 years old, it sounds as though it could have been written yesterday. Based on a set of words his father wrote about the disrespectful treatment of migrant farm workers in California, it is simply poignant. Guthrie’s biggest single hit was his definitive version of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” A vividly detailed description of a train ride through the south, the song has always been a gem. The band sounded great playing it and the Burns sisters’ harmonies particularly brought back the way it used to sound on the radio.

No show of Arlo’s would be complete without “Coming Into Los Angeles,” a familiar tale for those who remember, back in the day, the nerves involved in smuggling dope past customs officers.  Arlo’s show entertained literally from beginning to end, as he wove his huge charisma through stories, opinions, observations, children’s poetry, and music into a very satisfying blend.

Opening the show were the aforementioned Burns sisters as well as a very short but nonetheless sweet two song set from Arlo’s daughter, Sara, and her husband, Johnny Irion.  Playing their acoustic guitars capoed sympathetically at the 2nd and 4th fret and singing beautifully together they got the show off to a sweet start.  It just rolled smoothly through the evening from there.

To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


Live Jazz/Folk/Swing/Rock: Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks at McCabes

December 13, 2010

By Michael Katz

Perhaps you have been feeling just a bit Grinch-y as the holiday season reaches full steam. Maybe your skin crawled just a little when you heard the canned Christmas music in the supermarket aisles before the Thanksgiving turkey was even carved. If that’s the case, could there be any better tidings than the news that Dan Hicks has released a Christmas album, Crazy For Christmas. Hicks and the Hot Licks brought their Holidaze in Hicksville to McCabe’s Guitar Shop Saturday night, spreading Yule mirth and much more over two sets, the first sold out and the second nearly so.

Hicks has been mixing elements of jazz, folk, swing and old fashioned rock and roll for five decades, presented with a droll, self-deprecating sense of humor reflected in both his lyrics and his running onstage commentary that keep the show fresh as ever. Saturday night he opened up with a swinging gypsy guitar version of the old standard “Avalon,” which introduced the current Hot Licks as first rate soloists in their own right. (Or, as Hicks acknowledged in sly mimicry, “We’ve got a life, too.”) Fiddler Benito Cortez, guitarist David Bell and bassist Paul Smith make up the “Lickmen”, while vocalists Roberta Donnay and Daria compose the Lickettes, providing backup vocals, occasional solos and a two woman Greek chorus throughout.

Hicks included plenty of old favorites throughout both shows, some of them with updated lyrics, such as “Canned Music,” the first vocal offering in the opening set. Hicks’ voice is soft and understated, but just when you get too comfortable he will slip in something slyly subversive. “Canned Music” dates back to the sixties, but today’s canned music emanates from the internet, and the underlying countervalue of live music seems even more appealing in the current rendition.

When Hicks moved on to the Christmas music, he did so with the usual wink and a nod, announcing that he would return to “the secular portion of the program” after a few numbers from the new album. The CD is a pastiche of standards re-arranged and in some cases re-written by Hicks, such as “Santa Gotta Choo Choo” based on ”Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” and originals like “Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit.” The latter is vintage Hicks (“Some little fatso is all dressed in red/He even had the gall to swipe the pillow off me bed”), aided and abetted by the harmonizing commentary of the Lickettes.

Then it was back to personal standards, most famously “I Scare Myself,” which gave the Lickmen room to stretch out — from Benito Cortez’ sparkling fiddle solos to a tour de force on guitar by David Bell — while Hicks pantomimed hilariously as if he were doing all the work. Roberta Donnay and Daria had a duet in each set, performing I’m A Waitress In A Doughnut Shop” with sweet panache in the the opener. Even better was a classic, swinging rendition of “I’m An Old Cow Hand” in the second set. The Johnny Mercer tune has run the performance gamut from Bing Crosby to Sonny Rollins and never sounded better.

Throughout the evening of two generous sets – the group has been on the road continuously throughout the month, but seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd – Hicks and the Hot Licks mixed originals like “Milk Shakin’ Mama,” “The Buzzard Was Their Friend” and “Payday Blues” with standards like “Cherokee” and a nod to Tom Waits with “The Piano Has Been Drinking.”  A second set highlight was “Hell I’d Go,” a Hicks original about a volunteer to be abducted by spacemen, with the Lickettes reinvented as the Singing Martianettes. ( “Aloha Saturn, Aurora Borealis/ We’ll hit ‘em all,  we’ll land in Dallas..Hey you UFO guy, put me first on standby…”)

It seemed fitting that the second standing ovation of the night, bringing the band back for a second set encore, led to a gently swinging version of “Exactly Like You.”  The fact that amidst all the cacophony of the current times, there is still a place for musical virtuosity mixed with wit and a dash of whimsy is truly something to celebrate.


Live Humor: Dick Gregory and Mort Sahl at Catalina Bar & Grill

September 6, 2009

By Don Heckman

Dick Gregory and Mort Sahl at Catalina Bar & Grill? Stand up comics at a jazz club? You bet. And a perfect combination it is. Gregory and Sahl (in particular) are still-potent survivors of the new comedians of the late ’50s and ’60s, comedians who, like Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley, took their cues, not just from the free floating improvisation of jazz, but from the dry wit and ironic humor of jazz musicians.

Each was in rare form on Friday night. Gregory, 76, and Sahl, 82, may have revealed their ages in their appearance, but the lance-like accuracy of their remarks was utterly timeless. Younger — even much younger — comedians would do well to check out the pair’s final show at Catalina’s tonight; consider it a masters’ seminar in the importance of sardonic political comedy as a powerful factor in contemporary culture.

Gregory, complete with bearded visage and intense, flashing dick-gregoryeyes,roved the stage, his voice shifting in emphasis from a biblical shout to a sly whisper. His subjects ranged from Bernie Madoff and Michael Vick to the chimpanzee who attacked a woman in Connecticut. He spoke about Michael Jackson: “Where else but in America could a poor black child from Gary, Indiana grow up to be a rich white man?” And in his many references to the foibles of white people he noted that “White folks will hire a nanny to change their kids’ diapers, and then they’ll walk their dogs and pick up the shit themselves.”

But, as he always has done, throughout a career that included a write-in campaign for the presidency in 1968, Gregory refused the easy temptations of stereotypes. “White,” he said at one point, “is not a color, it’s an attitude.”

Sahl, wearing the collegiate sweater look that has been part of his on stage persona for half a century, did not, however, carry his familiar newspaper. He didn’t have to. Although Sahl’s humor is often triggered by topical events, it has a timelessness reaching far beyond the latest comments on the New York Times editorial page.

MOrt sahl“Its unbelievable,” he remarked, “everything that’s happening to us. Did American culture fall, or was it pushed?”

Essentially a story teller, Sahl often spun off remarks as riffs. Describing a plane trip to Europe with director Sidney Pollack, he was suddenly reminded of the synchronicity between the Berlin trips of President John F. Kennedy and President Barack Obama. Similar, except for the fact, noted Sahl, that President Obama said “Ich bin ein beginner.”

In a survey of what he described as the five Jewish philosophers who made the greatest contributions to Western culture, he cited Moses, for having established the law; Jesus for creating the concept of forgiveness; Karl Marx for the idea of sharing; and Sigmund Freud for understanding. Which left the final role for Albert Einstein, who created the atomic bomb.

Not exactly the stuff of what one ordinarily hears in a jazz club. Not in subject matter, that is. But in terms of spontaneity, inventiveness and illumination, the similarities were present, nonetheless. Whatever the label, it was a rare and wonderful evening. Let’s hope Catalina Popescu can bring these two vital and remarkable wise men back for a much longer run.

Dick Gregory and Mort Sahl close their three night run at Catalina Bar & Grill tonight.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 218 other followers