Live Music: Robert Davi at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

October 24, 2014

By Don Heckman

Bel Air. Robert Davi was back at Herb Alpert’s elegant Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. at the top of Beverly Glen last night. And, as always happens in his performances, he spent most of his program demonstrating his belief in the Great American Songbook as “America’s Shakespeare.”

Robert Davi

Robert Davi

Davi, whose acting career began in a film starring Frank Sinatra, has been one of the most convincing Sinatra-influenced vocal stylists for most of his career. But, unlike the growing cadre of Sinatra wannabees, he’s never been an imitator. Inspired by Ol’ Blue Eyes, he has instead invested the lyrical expressiveness and rhythmic swing of the style with his own considerable interpretive skills.

As he did Thursday night at Vibrato. Backed by a solid, six piece band led by his music director, pianist Andy Waldman, Davi offered a program mixing Sinatra classics with an intriguing range of tunes from a variety of other sources.

For many responsive listeners, the Sinatra songbook items – “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Just One of Those Things,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “That Old Black Magic,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “The Best Is Yet To Come” and “That’s Life” among them – were the high points. And there’s no disputing the fact that they were brought vividly to life within a Sinatra framing shaped by the Davi imagination.

Roberto Davi and his band.

Roberto Davi and his band.

Other songs were equally persuasive: a warmly intimate reading of “Moonlight In Vermont”; a stunning medley of “Old Man River” and “River Stay Away From My Door,” thoroughly displaying the rich timbres of Davi’s mellow baritone voice; a Broadway stage-worthy version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”; and a rendering of “New York, New York” deeply touching the heart of every former New Yorker (including this one) in the room.

Robert Davi walking the room

Robert Davi walking the room

Davi enhanced lengthy segments of many songs with tours through Vibrato’s forest of tables, using a wireless microphone to create an informal, living room setting. And he was typically humorous, as well, often jokingly arguing with some of his show biz friends in the crowd about the correct identities of various songwriters. In one especially amusing segment, he recalled meeting “Russia’s Frank Sinatra” during a concert program in Russia. Imitating what he heard, Davi sang “The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else” with what can best be described as a hilarious Russian accent.

Robert Davi

Robert Davi

As he has done in past performances, Davi also sang “The House I Live In,” from a mid-’40s short film, featuring Sinatra. The film, rare for the time, offered powerful opposition to Anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. And Davi, always a strong supporter of the best characteristics in American culture, underscored the song’s contemporary value at a time when those characteristics are most needed.

In sum, Davi’s performance was a virtual seminar in how to bring imagination, creativity, musicality and the sheer pleasures of entertainment to a beautifully expressed evening of song. And it was done so well that it aroused – for this listener – a feeling I’ve occasionally had at past Davi performances: the desire to hear his extraordinary skills at the service of a even wider repertoire of songs.

Among the possibilities: more works by the incomparable Alan and Marilyn Bergman; more songs by Leonard Bernstein; and Davi is more than versatile enough, as well, to find some offbeat musical riches in the singer/songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s.

That said, Davi’s performance was another musical night to remember. And when he returns to the Vibrato stage, we’ll be there once again, packing the house, along with his legions of enthusiastic fans.

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Photos by Faith Frenz


Live Music: Herb Alpert and Lani Hall at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

October 9, 2014

By Don Heckman

Bel Air, CA.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. became a very special place when Herb Alpert took it over a few years ago, transforming a small venue in a mini-mall at the top of Beverly Glen into a fine food connoisseur’s delight and a world class showcase for jazz.

Herb Alpert and Lani Hall

And it becomes even more special when Alpert, his wife, vocalist Lani Hall, and their all star band put in an appearance. As they did Tuesday night.

The fact is that there’s nothing quite like hearing Alpert perform in his own club. There’ve been musician club owners over the years – Shelly Manne, Ronnie Scott, Igor Butman, to name a few – all of whom played in their own venues from time to time.

Herb Alpert

But when Herb Alpert plays in Vibrato, he’s not just on stage at his own elegant Bel Air bistro. He’s performing in a virtual art gallery, surrounded by walls displaying his large, colorful abstract expressionist paintings and his sculptures of musicians in the act of playing. Add to that the remarkable collection of repertoire that he brings to his performances – selecting material reaching from his latest albums to hit songs from his Tijuana Brass successes of the ’60s.

At the center of his music, Alpert – at 79 – reminded us that he is still a remarkable trumpeter and a gifted improviser. Not often given sufficient credit for the quality of his instrumental skills, he once again displayed his Miles Davis-inspired ability to bring a song vividly to life.

And let’s not overlook Alpert’s unspoken, but significant subtitle of “philanthropist” in recognition of the large generous funding he has bestowed upon University music programs and gifted young artists in many genres.

All those elements and more were present Tuesday night when Alpert and Hall – backed by pianist Bill Cantos, bassist Hussain Jiffry and drummer Michael Shapiro – celebrated the release of their new album, In the Mood.

The Herb Alpert Band

When Alpert noted that the performance was the start of a tour introducing the album, he also added, whimsically, that they did not include the classic Glenn Miller hit “In The Mood” on the CD, or in their set of the night. But no problem there. After romping through “Chatanooga Choo Choo” the band also dug into “Blue Moon,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Let it Be Me” and more from an album displaying all the signs of presenting Alpert with his next Grammy Award.

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

Other highlights included entertaining looks at both Alpert’s and Hall’s stellar pasts. The Tijuana Brass medley called up stirring memories of the Alpert band that topped Bob Dylan and the Beatles on the Billboard charts in the mid-’60s. And an Antonio Carlos Jobim medley showcased Hall’s mastery of bossa nova songs (and Portuguese), reaching back to her stint with Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66 as she applied her warm, intimate contralto to songs such as “The Waters of March,” “Corcovado” and “”Samba de Uma Nota Só.”

As always, Alpert and Hall were superbly backed by Cantos, Jiffry and Shapiro who consistently found the perfect balance between energizing the rhythm while supporting the headliners’ many interpretive subtleties. And Cantos, a versatile singer/instrumentalist in his own right, has recently added colorful synth textures to his fine piano work, as well as his own back up vocals on a few tunes.

In sum, call it one of the most notable musical experiences of the year. All of the Vibrato appearances of Alpert and Hall have been memorable. As was this one. And I (along with, I suspect, the many members of the packed house) look forward to many more.

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Photos by Faith Frenz

 


Live Music: The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall

September 23, 2014

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles CA. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra can always be counted on to deliver an evening of rich musicality. And Sunday night’s performance at Royce Hall in Westwood was no exception.

The headline event in a rich program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. But, typically, LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane also scheduled a pair of intriguing works – Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 5, with soloist Juho Pohjonen and Lines of the Southern Cross, the latter the premiere of a work newly commissioned by the LACO from Australian composer Cameron Patrick.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

The evening opened with the new Patrick composition. Introducing the work, Kahane noted that the music “acknowledged the traditional owners of Australia and custodians of the land, the Australian Aboriginal people.” Patrick did all that and more, in a work that also captured the broad, far ranging landscape of Australia, from its mountain peaks to its ocean depths via some especially expressive writing for the strings. And the LACO interpretation of Southern Cross convincingly introduced it as a significant new work that deserves wide hearing – in live performance and on recordings.

The Saint-Saens Piano Concerto, sometimes called The Egyptian, was described by the composer as the representation of a sea voyage. And there are passages in the piece that do so, in characteristically French impressionist style. The work is also a virtuosic showcase for the piano soloist, and Pohjonen was effective on all counts, from the lyric passages to the most technically demanding passages.

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Ludwig Van Beethoven

The climax of the evening, understandably, was the Beethoven Symphony No. 5, one of the most frequently performed pieces in the entire catalog of classical music. And any well-interpreted performance of the work resonates with its long history. Written in the first decade of the 19th century, it was created at a time of considerable unrest for the Western world and for its composer. Europe was in the midst of the Napoleonic wars. And Beethoven, in his mid-thirties, was becoming aware of the fact that the deafness he had begun to experience was progressive, and would continue to worsen.

Since then, No. 5 has also been heard, and viewed, from a variety of symbolic interpretive perspectives, starting with the V for Victory aspects of its four note, opening motif.

Jeffrey Kahane

Jeffrey Kahane

But ultimately it is the gripping quality of the music itself that makes No. 5 a work to be heard in every possible opportunity. In the capable direction of Kahane and the equally capable playing of the LACO’s masterful musicians, the music came to life in especially persuasive fashion. Perhaps best of all, the musically symbiotic togetherness of the LACO’s players, combined with Kahane’s seeming desire to open the way for the music to find its way produced a stunning performance, overflowing with passionate intensity.

Altogether, it was another significant entry in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s long lexicon of memorable performances.


Live Music: The Fab Faux at the Valley Performing Arts Center

September 21, 2014

By Don Heckman

Northridge, CA. Memories galore resonated through the architecturally grand, acoustically captivating Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of CalState Northridge Saturday night. Memories, that is, of an era dominated by the Beatles.

The performance, by the Fab Faux, was yet another display of the Center’s growing presence as the creative center for the arts that has long been missing from the San Fernando Valley. And the overflowing packed house, full of 1700 enthusiastic listeners, underscored Executive Director Thor Steingraber’s quest to prove VPAC’s “commitment to arts and entertainment experiences of every variety.”

Which is exactly what listeners experienced in the Fab Faux. There are numerous Beatles tribute bands and cover bands in various parts of the world. But the Fab Faux are unique. Neither dressing in period Beatles costumes nor wearing Beatles hair-dos (or wigs), they focused instead upon the rich creative density of the Beatles’ extraordinary catalog of music.

The Fab Faux

The Fab Faux

The Fab Faux consist of bassist Will Lee, guitarist Jimmy Vivino, drummer Rich Pagano, guitarist Frank Agnello and keyboardist/guitarist Jack Petruzzelli, backed by the Creme Tangerine Strings and the Hogshead Horns.  All of the principal members also sang, doing so without resorting to attempts at imitating either the sounds or the accents of the original Beatles.

The first set was devoted to a broad selection of songs, mostly by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, reaching from “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Paperback Writer” to “Nowhere Man,” with dozens of stops in between.

On the second set, climaxing a long, musically stunning evening, the Fab Faux and their accomplices performed the classic Beatles album Abbey Road in its entirety.

As noted above, this was not a collection of imitations, in any sense of the word. While the musical spirits of the Beatles were ever present in virtually every note, there was another aspect of the Fab Faux performance that was even more closely related to Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr. And that was the persistent effort by the Fab Faux to find the creative potential that resides in the heart of the songs.

Guitarist Vivino may have described it best when he said, “This is the greatest pop music ever written, and we’re such freaks for it.”

In that sense, the Fab Faux and the Valley Performing Arts made the perfect pairing on this memorable night: classic pop music, played with the sort of creativity that inspired the original versions, in a setting perfectly framed for imaginative performances.


Live Music: Charles Aznavour at the Greek Theatre

September 15, 2014

By Don Heckman

What is there to say about a 90 year old French singer/songwriter with the ability to mesmerize a packed house at the Greek Theatre? Not much that Charles Aznavour didn’t himself say at the Greek on Saturday night. Not just in his words, although there were plenty, in both French and English. What Aznavour had to say was based on musicality, lyricism, emotion and warmly intimate communication.

There may come a time when the vision of a nonagenarian singing a nearly two hour long program, strolling, sometimes dancing, across the stage, interacting humorously with his listeners and his musicians and winding up seeming as energetic as when he began, won’t be a rarity. But until that enlightened time, anyone who’s been fortunate enough to see and hear Aznavour in action – Saturday night at the Greek and elsewhere – will surely remember the experience as the rare and remarkable event that it was.

Sometimes described as France’s Sinatra, Aznavour performed with the kind of dynamism associated with Ol’ Blue Eye’s live performances. But Aznavour, who is also a brilliant songwriter, with a thousand or more songs to his credit, in four different languages had a more far ranging set of creative skills to offer.

Add to that his extraordinary ease on stage. At one point he paused in singing to address the age old question directed at songwriters – What came first, the words or the music? And on one song, he was joined in a delightful duet by one of his daughters.

The program of Aznavour originals ran the gamut of his grand catalog of works. Among them, such Aznavour classics as “Mon Ami, Mon Judas,” “La Boheme,” “She,” “Je Voyage,” his remarkably touching “Ave Maria,” one of his most-covered songs, “Yesterday, When I Was Young” and “What Makes A Man,” the song that triggered some of the most enthusiastic audience response of the evening.

But the central, most mesmerizing aspect of this memorable performance was the still potent quality of Aznavour’s captivating vocals. Soaring across octaves, from a rich baritone to penetrating head tones, he brought each phrase vividly to life, applying his stunning musicality to the story-telling enhancement of every song.

Rumors of Aznavour’s retirement were heard over the past year in Europe and the U.S. But he has repeatedly denied them. One can only hope that he will in fact return again to Los Angeles, and the many other cities on his usual itinerary before he actually does write finis to his incomparable performance career. Charles Aznavour is, has been and will always be one of a kind.

Photos by Bonnie Perkinson


Live Music: “Get On Up: A James Brown Celebration” at the Hollywood Bowl

August 15, 2014

By Don Heckman

Hollywood CA. The Hollywood Bowl‘s diverse set of Wednesday night programs – from jazz and pop to blues and soul – hit a peak this week with an entertaining tribute to the incomparable James Brown, timed, no doubt, to the recent release of the Brown biopic, Get On Up.

Given the “Godfather of Soul”’s vast catalog of hits, combined with the far-ranging stylistic genres present in that catalog, there was a lot from which to choose in the planning of the program. And the results were well worth the effort.

FH

Christian McBride

Christian McBride

It didn’t take long for the evening to get up to speed, perfectly managed by bassist and Brown fan Christian McBride. Starting with a slide show illustrating Brown highlights, the music, ornamented by a pair of busy dancers, switched quickly into “live” mode with a set by a 14 piece House Band featuring such members of the original Brown band as saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, trombonist Fred Wesley and drummer Clyde Stubblefield. And it was no surprise that the music was a characteristically hard-driving blend of funk and blues with a seasoning of jazz.

The balance of the evening was handled by four singers, performing with the sort of spirit and enthusiasm that could only be characterized by dedicated Brown disciples. Performances dedicated to artists who have passed away sometimes emerge as imitations without authenticity. But not with this group of singers, all talented in their own right, all thoroughly tapped into the Brown artistry.

Bettye LaVette

Bettye LaVette

Bettye LaVette has never quite received the accolades her soul-driven singing style deserves. But, at 68, she can still bring a song to life, as she did in her set, which peaked with a stunning interpretation of “It’s A Man’s World.” Captured by the intensity of her version, clearly inspired by Brown, one couldn’t help but hope to see LaVette again soon in a performance dedicated to her own dynamic interpretations.

Up next, singer Aloe Blacc charged on stage with Brown-like dynamism. And, at 35, with skills as an instrumentalist (trumpet) and complete ease in genres reaching from r&b to jazz and funk to hip hop, he brought his unique diversity and high spirits to a Brown program that began with “The Payback” and ended with “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.”

Angelique Kidjo

Angelique Kidjo

Benin’s Angelique Kidjo added another intriguing aspect to a richly colorful program. Describing the impact Brown’s music had upon her as a child growing up in Africa, she applied her irresistibly charismatic powers to “Say It Loud” and “I Feel Good.” Stalking the stage, she demanded more interaction with the crowd, dancing across the curved walkway in the garden section, bringing her listeners into her ecstatic calls for musical action. Kidjo has always been an incredibly kinetic performer, and – captivated by the Brown aura — she was even more exciting in her remarkable set.

D Angelo

D Angelo

The evening climaxed with yet another high voltage performance, this one by singer/keyboardist producer D’Angelo. Adding yet another musical slant to an evening overflowing with uniquely engaging efforts to honor James Brown, D’Angelo was joined onstage by actor Chad Boseman, who portrays Brown in the Get On Up biopic. Together they urged the crowd to join them in a spirited singalong version of “Soul Power” – an appropriate ending for a musical evening to remember.

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Full stage, McBride, LaVette and Kidjo photos by Faith Frenz.  D’Angelo photo courtesy of D’Angelo.

 

 


Live Jazz: Chick Corea and The Vigil at Catalina Bar & Grill

August 14, 2014

By Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA. There seems to be more and more good news for jazz lately at Catalina Bar & Grill. A couple of weeks ago it was a stunning performance by the Ron Carter Trio.

And this week offers another memorable set of performances with the arrival Tuesday night of Chick Corea and his superb new band, The Vigil. Add to that the good news that Chick and The Vigil will be performing at Catalina’s through Sunday.

Why is that important?

Chick Corea

Because every day this week at Catalina’s will provide a great evening of jazz.

Because Chick – who seems to put together one extraordinary musical partnership after another – has come up with yet another winner in The Vigil. The band, which includes saxophonist/woodwind player Tim Garland, bassist Carlitos Del Puerto. drummer Marcus Gilmore (who is Roy Haynes grandson), guitarist Charles Altura and percussionist Luisito Quintero played with an irresistible blend of musical synchronicity and improvisational fireworks.

Tuesday’s program included a pair of Chick’s pieces from The Vigil’s eponymously titled first CD: “Planet Chia” and “Royalty” (a dedication to drummer Roy Haynes). Underscoring the band’s versatility, Chick also included “Fingerprints,” which he said had been inspired by Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” the Van Heusen/Burke songbook classic, “It Could Happen To You.” and plenty of space for some dynamic drumming from Gilmore and Quintero.

The Vigil’s Tim Garland, Charles Altura, Carlitos Del Puerto and Luisito Quintero

Tim Garland

Tim Garland

I could easily spend the rest of this review describing the extraordinary soloing, and ensemble work, from each of the assemblage of gifted young artists. As always, Chick was a generous leader, allocating far-reaching solo opportunities to each of the players.

Suffice to say that they all took creative advantage of the space they were offered. And a few distinct events come to mind:

The versatile Garland shifted easily from tenor to soprano saxophone, flute and hand percussion. In addition, his bouyant, enthusiastic stage presence had a positive effect upon the musically familial attitude that was present throughout the set.

Charles Altura

Charles Altura

Guitarist Altura, playing many of the fast-moving, rhythmically complex lines that were at the heart of Chick’s pieces, did so with stunning accuracy as well as a body-moving sense of swing.

Bassist Del Puerto, seeming deeply invested in the music, also played the quick runs and resonant dark tones called for by Chick’s music with precision, adding richly inventive soloing, pizzicato and arco.

Marcus Gilmore

Marcus Gilmore

And, as I noted above, the percussion team of Gilmore and Quintero provided the powerful rhythmic overdrive and surging swing that kept the music vibrant and alive.

Best of all, there was the constant feeling, flowing from the stage, that this was a band that was enjoying every minute, and eager to pull their listeners into their creative enthusiasm. That doesn’t happen as often as it should at a lot of jazz events. But it did here, and Southland jazz fans are fortunate to have four more nights (Tonight through Sunday) to experience the remarkable music of Chick Corea and the Vigil at Catalina Bar & Grill.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.


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