Live Jazz: Sara Gazarek at Vitello’s

August 19, 2012

By Don Heckman

Sara Gazarek’s performance at Vitello’s Saturday night called up recollections of the first time I heard her in action.  That was six years ago at The Vic in Santa Monica.  In my Los Angeles Times review I wrote that “she may well turn out to be the next important jazz singer.”

That quote has been reprinted many times since 2006, almost always in  misleading fashion as “the next important jazz singer” — without my qualifying phrase “she may well turn out to be…”  Which is probably just as well, since Gazarek still hasn’t reached that exalted level of accomplishment.

Sara Gazarek

Some of her show at Vitello’s repeated material from Gazarek’s appearance at The Vic – most notably a deeply swinging “You Are My Sunshine,” and a medley of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” with the ‘20s standard ‘Bye Bye Blackbird.”  Once again, both songs benefited from the side by side musical positioning.

Gazarek has said that she is more intrigued by the interpretation of lyrics than she is by melodic paraphrase.  And that overview was ever present in a two set performance reaching from such familiar standards as “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “So Lucky To Be Me” and “Everything I’ve Got Belongs To You” – to Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” and originals by Gazarek and pianist Josh Nelson.

Every number – slow, fast, medium – was delivered by Gazarek with dynamic enthusiasm.  Rarely standing still, her lithe movements were sometimes directly responsive to the words she was singing, sometimes grooving with instrumental solos, and always an expression of her close relationship to a song.

Among the standout numbers: an intense rendering of the Gershwins’ “My Man’s Gone Now”; a quirky, unexpected but entertaining tribute to the legendary Sophie Tucker in “Some of These Days”; “O Pato,”  the obligatory boss nova (sung in Portuguese); and a pair of songs – including “And So It Goes” – sung with the sole accompaniment of Nelson’s empathetic piano.

Like several other musically adventurous singers – including Tierney Sutton and Gretchen Parlato – Gazarek’s arrangements often position her vocals in an intimate, almost instrumental-like relationship with the musicians in her ensemble.  And with players such as Nelson, bassist Hamilton Price, drummer Zach Harmon and special guest Larry Goldings on organ, the creative interplay that resulted had much to offer.

Her performance, including tunes from Gazarek’s new CD, Blossom and Bee, suggested that the potential I saw in her 2006 performance continues to grow.  But moving up to the next level will call for her to pay attention to a need for a richer palette of vocal tone and timbre.  When her adventurous lyrical and musical interpretations are enhanced by a more fully expressive sound, the sky may well be the limit for Gazarek’s future possibilities.


Live Music: Billy Childs Jazz-Chamber Ensemble at Vitello’s

April 2, 2012

By Don Heckman

Once upon a time there was something called Third Stream.  No one agreed on exactly what it was, but almost everyone had an opinion about it.  The most common consensus was that Third Stream was a new kind of music, one that combined elements of jazz and classical music.  Two streams blending in a Third Stream.  Get it?’

But most of the time the blending seemed to go awry.  A big, thick-textured classical segment would slowly be superseded by a walking jazz bass.  Improvisation would break out for a while, and then more classical textures returned. Two Streams flowing along, sometimes intermingling, more often not.  Maybe that’s why Third Stream faded into the distant horizon, one of the obscure byways in the obscure histories of both the other Streams.

Why all this looking back?  Because of the performance by pianist/composer Bill Childs’ Jazz-Chamber Ensemble at Vitello’s Saturday night.  The very name of the ensemble suggests a possible connection with Third Stream.  But only in name alone.  Because Childs’ works represented one of the rare examples of what Third Stream might have been, maybe should have been.  And even that association doesn’t accurately describe the extraordinary qualities of music that accepts no fixed definitions, no limitations of genre — music that was expressive only of the far reaching imaginations of the composer and the players.

Billy Childs

In addition to the impressive program of Childs’ works, that task was accomplished superbly by the Jazz-Chamber Ensemble players – guitarist Larry Koonse, saxophonist/flutist Bob Sheppard, harpist Carol Robbins, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Steve Hass, with the additional aid of the Calder String Quartet.

Most of the music traced to a pair of recent Childs albums, Jazz- Chamber Music, Vol. 1. Lyric and Autumn: In Moving Pictures Jazz-Chamber Music Vol. 2 , each of which contained a Grammy-winning composition.  Opening with a unique recasting of Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debby” (featuring rich, articulate soloing from harpist Robbins), the program proceeded to include such idiosyncratically titled Childs compositions as “Man Chasing the Horizon,” “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “Hope, in the Face of Despair” as well as a work commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival and another unique arrangement, this time of the traditional English ballad, “Scarborough Faire.”

Words fail in an effort to describe the complexities and the subtleties of Childs’ musical imagination, which is far-reaching.  But several aspects in this performance should be mentioned.  The first harkens back to my original comment about Third Stream music.  Child’s works did not simply place genres side by side.  Instead, they found a common creative ground reminiscent of Rumi’s “community of the spirit.”

Similarly, Childs also chose his own way of dealing with elements from both genres.  His approach to unusual meters, for example, always followed the path of rich musicality.  Instead of pounding out a repeated 7/4, 9/4 or whatever, his metric shifts were organic, never arbitrary, flowing and shifting through a piece as part of its inner tapestry.  The propulsion of Price and Hass, brilliantly linking rhythmic foundations with rhythmic movement, was essential to that process.

Add, as well, the visual and emotional components that were inherent to Childs’ musical conceptualizing.  If any label applies to much of his music, it’s one that he himself favors – contemporary impressionism, a view that is often underscored by the titles he chooses for his works, as well as by their atmospheric visual imagery.

Equally important, there was the interfacing between improvisation and through-composed sections.  With superb improvisers such as Koonse and Sheppard — as well as his own inventive playing — soaring through the composed tonal densities of the Calder Quartet players, Childs succeeded thoroughly in his quest to create music with the capacity to come alive, in a constantly changing form, in every performance.

But don’t call it Third Stream.  Just call it great.

* * * * *

Billy Childs photo by Tony Gieske.


Live Jazz: The Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble at Vitello’s

November 7, 2011

By Tony Gieske

Billy Childs comes right out and admits it: He was inspired by Laura Nyro.  He liked her collaboration with Alice Coltrane on Christmas and the Beads of Sweat.

And so he formed the Jazz Chamber Ensemble, which also has at its nucleus, piano, acoustic guitar, and harp. A version of this he brought to Vitello’s Saturday ((Nov. 5))  with salutary results, to paraphrase Walter Pater.

Marvin "Smitty" Smith

Naturally, his familiar guitarist partner Larry Koonse gave Childs as good as he got during this improvisation-laden evening.

And there were a couple of added solo attractions riding the dashing rhythm section  of Hamilton Price, bass, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums.

One was harpist Carol Robbins, who found a groove as down-home as you could ask with no flowery embellishments.  The other was the avant-garde saxophonist Katisse Buckingham, whose tonality bucking duel with Childs on the latter’s extended work in E flat partook of the historic in its last measure-for-measure exchanges.

(Robbins had preceded the Buckingham performance with some fours-trading of her own.)

Childs likes to create tone poems based on physical landscapes. Tonight, however, he worked with a foundation of music alone, which in my opinion is what one ought to do. Hate to have to thank Laura Nyro.

Photos by Tony Gieske.


Picks of the Week: Feb. 8 – 14

February 8, 2011

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

John Daversa

- Feb. 8. (Tues.)  The John Daversa Progressive Big Band. Trumpeter/composer/arranger  Daversa takes the big band instrumentation into fascinating new musical areas.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

- Feb. 8. (Tues.)  Lianne Carroll.   BBC Jazz Award winner Carroll, who accompanies her vibrant vocals with equally dynamic piano playing, makes her North American debut. Catalina Bar & Grill (323) 466-2210.

- Feb. 9. (Wed.)  The Clare Fischer Voices and Latin Jazz Group. A fascinating blend of vocal and instrumental jazz from Clare Fischer’s prolific musical imagination.  Brent Fischer directs the ensemble.  Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

- Feb. 9. (Wed.)  The John Altman Quartet.  Busy alto saxophonist Altman takes a break from his composing, arranging and producing for laid back jazz jam with Mike Lang, piano, Frank De Vito, drums, Putter Smith, bass.  Charlie O’s.

Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg

- Feb. 9. (Wed.)  Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg with the New Century Chamber Orchestra. Now the conductor of the NCCO, violinist Salerno-Sonneberg joins with the ensemble in a diverse program of Bartok, Piazolla and Tchaikovsky.  The Broad Stage.   (310) 434-3200.

- Feb. 9 & 10. (Wed. & Thurs.) Oz Noy.  Israeli-born guitarist Noy leads a jazz/rock/fusion trio with Dave Weckl on drums and Darryl Jones (of the Rolling Stones) on bass. Catalina Bar & Grill (323) 466-2210.

- Feb. 10. (Thurs.)  Kodo.  The entertaining Japanese percussion collective bring their colorful collection of instruments and irresistible rhythms to Disney Hall.  (323) 850-2000.

Lorraine Feather

- Feb. 10. (Thurs.)  Lorraine Feather.  Singer/songwriter Feather writes songs in which jazz is the root and poetry the blossom.  There’s no one quite like her, and she should be heard at every opportunity.  Backing her: Russell Ferrante, piano and Mike Valerio, bass.  Vitello’s. (818) 769-0905.

- Feb. 10 & 11. (Thurs. & Fri.)  Natalie Cole. She’s a beyond definition artist, as comfortable with jazz as she is with the blues and classic pop songs.  No doubt she’ll be unforgettable (and probably sing it, as well) with the Pacific Symphony, conducted by Richard Kaufman. Segerstrom Concert Hall (714) 556-2787.

- Feb. 10 – 13. (Thurs. – Sun.)  and Feb. 17 – 20. (Thurs. – Sun.)  The Who’s “Tommy. It’s one of the classics of the sixties, still a compelling work of musical art.  This version is a Chance Theatre Production. Segerstrom Concert Hall Segerstrom Center for the Arts. (714) 556-2787.

- Feb. 11 (Fri.)  Tessa Souter.  Souter’s warm sound and intimate interpretive style are backed in this pre-Valentine’s Day celebration, by the solidly supportive playing of guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Steve Haas.  Musicians Institute. A Jazz Bakery Movable Feast.  (310) 271-9039.

Larry Karush

- Feb. 11 & 12. (Fri. & Sat.)  Larry Karush Solo & Quartet. Pianist/composer Karush, ever in search of new musical horizons, displays his creative adventures in both a solo and an ensemble setting.  The Blue Whale.   (213) 620-0908.

- Feb. 11 – 14. (Fri. – Mon.) and Feb. 17 – 20 (Thurs. – Sun.)  Steve Tyrell.  Singer Tyrell’s nouveau-pop style, with its traditional pop echoes, is successfully aimed at finding the life in great American song.  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

- Feb. 12. (Sat.)  Inner Voices“An A Cappella Valentine Show.” The Southland’s masterful a cappella ensemble apply their extraordinary vocal magic to a program of Valentine standards. Vitello’s. (818) 769-0905.

- Feb. 12 & 13. (Sat. & Sun.)  The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Jazz at Lincoln Center OrchestraLeonard Slatkin conducts Gershwin’s An American In Paris, Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No.1 and the West Coast premiere of Wynton MarsalisSwing Symphony (commissioned by the LAPA).  Disney Hall. (323) 850-2000.

- Feb. 13. (Sun.) Herb Alpert and Lani Hall.  The music world’s ultimate power couple.  And they can still deliver it.  Hall has been, and remains, one of the underrated jazz singers.  And trumpeter Alpert knows how to find both the space and the center in an improvisation. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

Charmaine Clamor

- Feb. 14. (Mon.)  Charmaine Clamor.  .  Jazz vocalist Clamor is rapidly establishing herself as one of the uniquely creative, rising vocal stars.  The equally incomparable Bubba Jackson hosts.  KJAZZ Valentine’s Day Jazz Dinner The Twist Restaurant in the Renaissance Hollywood \Hotel.  (562) 985-2999.

San Francisco

Maria Volonte

- Feb. 8. (Tues.) Maria Volonte.  Argentine singer/songwriter/guitarist Volonte’s music is an appealing blend of traditional roots rhythms – tango, candomble, etc. – with the sounds of contemporary jazz, pop and funk.  The Rrazz Room. (415) 394-1189. To read an earlier iRoM review of Volonte click HERE.

- Feb. 8 & 9 (Tues. & Wed.) Kenny Garrett Quartet. Grammy award-winning alto saxophonist Garrett has a resume reaching from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis.  This time out, he offers his envelope-stretching sounds at the front of  his own quintet.  Yoshi’s Oakland (510) 238-9200.

- Feb. 10 – 14. (Thurs. – Mon.)  Pete Escovedo Latin Jazz Orchestra.  Pete Escovedo and the Escovedo family have been energizing Latin jazz since the ‘60s.  And they’re all still at it.  This time out, the band includes special guests Sheila E. and Peter Michael EscovedoYoshi’s San Francisco. (415) 655-5600.

New York City

Gato Barbieri

- Feb. 10 – 12 (Thurs. – Sun.) Gato Barbieri.  Tenor saxophonist Barbieri’s long, checkered career has reached from the avant-garde years of the ‘60s through his Grammy-winning score for The Last Tango In Paris to more recent smooth jazz outings.  The Blue Note.  (212) 475-8592.

- Feb. 8 – 13. (Tues. – Sun.)  Chris Potter Trio. Tenor saxophonist Potter takes on the familiar Sonny Rollins challenge of performing with only bass and drums as a rhythm team.  His companions: bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland. Village Vanguard.   (212) 255-4037.

- Feb. 8 – 13. (Tues. – Sun.)  Freddy Cole “Valentine Swing” with Harry Allen.  Cole’s sound and style are clearly, and unabashedly, influenced by his big brother Nat.  But Cole has a way of adapting those qualities to his own engaging musical identity.  Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (212) 258-9800.

- Feb. 8 – 14. (Tues. – Mon.)  Hilary Kole.  Jazz singer Kole, who usually hosts Birdland’s Sunday Jazz Party, does a full week’s run at the club.  And her rich way with a ballad is the perfect lead-in to Valentine’s Day.  Birdland.   (212) 581-3080.

Denise Donatelli

- Feb. 11 & 14. (Fri. & Mon.). Denise Donatelli.   Grammy-nominated singer Donatelli makes a pair of too-rare Manhattan appearances which will inform New York jazz fans about what Angelenos have known for years — that she is a singer with the sound, the skill and the imagination to be included at the top levels of the jazz vocal art.  Donatelli is backed by the Geoff Keezer arrangements and quartet featured on the Grammy-nominated “When Lights Are Low.”  Fri.: Coca-Cola Circle of Fashion Lounge, Time Warner Center, 6:30 p.m.  Mon.: Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, 7:30, p.m.  (212) 258-9800.


Picks of the Week: Dec. 7 – 12

December 7, 2010

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Neil Sedaka

- Dec. 8. (Tues.)  Neil Sedaka.  Hitmaker Sedaka showcases his memorable catalog of songs in a performance replacing a date cancelled in late October. Disney Hall.   (323) 850-2000.

- Dec. 8. (Wed.)  Carol Welsman Canadian-born Welsman has the rare ability to surround the supple timbres of her voice with an intimate piano style.  Her versatility reaches from American standards to songs in French, Italian and Portuguese.  With any luck, she’ll offer her intimate version of the lovely Italian song, “Estate.”  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

- Dec. 8. (Wed.)  Emil Richards/Joe Porcaro Quartet.  Featuring Abraham Laboriel, bass and Mike Lang, piano. A quartet of veteran players reveal the broad, generational reach of masterful jazz.  Charlie O’s. (818) 994-3058.

- Dec. 8. (Wed.)  The Celtic Tenors Holiday Show. An evening of musical holiday cheer from the soaring voices of the Celtic tenors, embracing classical, Celtic, Americana and pop music.  Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.  (562) 916-8501.

Natalie Cole

- Dec. 9. (Thurs.)  Natalie Cole.  The eclectic Cole, who – like her Dad – reaches convincingly across genres from jazz to blues and pop, makes her Disney Hall debut.  Disney Hall.   (323) 850-2000.

- Dec. 9. (Thurs.)  Adam Schroeder.  Rising star jazz saxophonist Schroeder hosts a pair of release parties for his new CD, A Handful of Stars.  W. Graham Dechter, guitar, John Clayton, bass, Jeff Hamilton, drums.  Vitello’s. (818) 769-0905.   Also Dec. 10 (Fri.) at the The Culver Club for Jazz at the Radisson L.A. West Side Hotel.   (310) 649-1776 Ext. 4137.

- Dec. 9. (Thurs.)  Eric Reed Trio.  Once a teen-age pianistic jazz prodigy, Reed is now firmly established as mature jazz star.  He performs with Hamilton Price, bass, Kevin Yokota, drums.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

- Dec. 9. (Thurs.)  Denise Donatelli. The Southland is blessed with an impressive array of gifted jazz vocalists.  Donatelli’s one of the best – here and elsewhere.  To read a recent iRoM performance review click HERE. Charlie O’s. (818) 994-3058.

- Dec. 9 – 11. (Thurs. – Sat.)  The Pacific Symphony with pianist Kirill Gerstein in an evening of memorable classics.  On the program: the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #2 and Dvorak Symphony #9 (from the New World).  Segerstrom Concert Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center.   (714) 556-2787.

- Dec. 9 – 12. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Mike Stern Quartet.  Guitarist Stern leads an ensemble of guys, all of whom, fly freely across a colorful array of jazz genres.  With Randy Brecker, trumpet, Dennis Chambers, drums and Anthony Jackson, bass.  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

- Dec. 10 – 12. (Fri. – Sun.)  Hilary Hahn and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Hahn applies her rich, interprettive style to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, and Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducts the LA Phil in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique Disney Hall. (323) 850-2000.

James Ingram

- Dec. 11 & 12. (Sat. & Sun.)  The Colors of Christmas.  It’s been one of the annual pleasures of Christmas for nearly two decades, with Peabo Bryson, James Ingram, Oleta Adams and Stephanie Mills bringing holiday musical joy to the season.  Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.  (562) 916-8501.

- Dec. 12. (Sun.)  Red Holloway and Plas Johnson.  Two of the most inimitable jazz tenor saxophonists in the business team up for a holiday jazz celebration.  The irrepressible Bubba Jackson hosts.   KJAZZ Sunday Champagne Brunch.   (323) 491-1000.

- Dec. 12. (Sun.)  Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz.  Grammy-nominated McGarry performs selections from her album, Less Is More, Nothing is Everything, with her husband, guitarist Keith Ganz.  The Royal T. (310) 559-6000.

San Francisco

Charlie Hunter

- Dec. 9 – 12. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Charlie Hunter.  Guitarist Hunter, who sometimes manages to make his diverse guitar playing sound like a one man band, arrives for his eleventh annual December appearance at Yoshi’s Oakland. (510) 238-9200.

- Dec. 9 – 12. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Los Van Van.  The great Cuban band, crossing genres in every stylistic direction, and doing it with vitality and substance, makes a rare San Francisco appearance.  Yoshi’s San Francisco.   (415) 655-5600.

New York

- Dec. 7. (Tues.)  Theo Bleckmann & Ben Monder Duo.  The unique duo of Bleckmann and Monder trigger musical magic via the blending of voice, live electronics and guitar.  The Cornelia St. Café. (212) 989-9319

- Dec. 7 – 11. (Tues. – Sat.)  The Roy Haynes Quartet.  Ageless, 85 year old drummer Haynes, continues to give seminars in the art of swinging, backed by his Fountain of Youth Quartet.  Birdland.   (212) 581-3080.

- Dec. 7 – 12. (Tues. – Sun.)  Robert Glasper Trio.  Pianist Glasper is one of the rare young jazz artists who can bring authenticity to the combination of jazz, rock, hip hop and more.   Village Vanguard.   (212) 929-4589.

Manhattan Transfer

- Dec. 7 – 12. (Tues. – Sun.)  The Manhattan Transfer. Vocal music – jazz, pop, blues and beyond – doesn’t get any better than the Transfer. Forty years together and their performances are still utterly mesmerizing.  The Blue Note. (212) 475-8592.

- Dec. 9 – 12. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Patricia Barber. Pianist/singer Barber is one of a kind, opening new vistas in every song she sings.  Hopefully she’ll play an advance tune or two from her upcoming album, The Storyteller, due out in 2011.   Jazz Standard (212) 576-2232.


Live Jazz: The Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble at Vitello’s

November 23, 2010

By Tony Gieske

I was thinking all night that nobody at Vitello’s could possibly deserve, much less grasp, all the wonders that Billy Childs and his ensemble were bestowing on us last Saturday.

Billy Childs

Childs was playing in his flawless and bounteous way on the piano, in front of which sat Larry Koonse, listening to him with a smile on his face and occasionally playing flawlessly if not bounteously.

Caroline Campbell

Just beyond them onstage was the beautiful Caroline Campbell, first violin in the Sonus String Quartet, whose every solo chance was Paganinian, and very pretty as well.

Supplying hard swinging drive or elegant harmonicism, whichever the Childs pen had bidden, were the bassist Hamilton Price and the drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith. Carol Robbins got her harp into the rhythm-section work, although it was sometimes imperceptible within the aural avalanches.

Bob Sheppard

Saxophonist Bob Sheppard stood about as far away from the Childs keyboard as you could get in Vitello’s vast upstairs room, but he got more work than anybody else, since he had to enunciate the fiercely complex themes that Childs had written for him, then proclaim his grasp of the gnarls by improvising on them at length.

Up against the wall, he was never less than authoritative and enjoyable in that task.

Authoritative and enjoyable will do as adjectives for Childs’s playing, too, but the reader must endure many more.

Larry Koonse

He calls this group the Jazz-Chamber Ensemble, and its first CD was nominated for three 2006 Grammy awards, winning for the vast and ambitious Into the Light.  The latter was the salient feature of the Vitello night. I won’t attempt to bore you with a verbal map, there’s just too much to go over. It wowed me.

So did the other works, such as “Hope in the Face of Despair,” which he began with merry Satie-like piano triplets in the right hand and ominous deep chords in the left.

Then Sheppard played a supersmart soprano sax chorus, among other delights. Childs returned with a songlike passage preceding some Ellington sounds.

All night, the strings were darling, the jazz sector just as cool, and the writing  more intelligent and effective than anything Gunther Schuller, Charles Mingus, John Lewis or any other Third Streamers had offered us previously.

Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble

I haven’t heard the Laura Nyro-Alice Coltrane work Childs cites as an influence, “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat,” if it actually exists. And I saw no foreshadowing of this night in Childs’ pastoral output for Windham Hill Jazz.

Said Childs at the end: “There was a lot of music to work on tonight…and a lot to listen to.”

Photos by Tony Gieske.  To read and see more of Tony’s essays and photos at his personal web site click HERE


Live Jazz: Denise Donatelli at Vitello’s

October 22, 2010

By Don Heckman

One of Denise Donatelli’s most unique characteristics as a jazz singer is her confident willingness to perform in complex musical settings with stellar jazz instrumentalists.  Her new CD, When Lights Are Low, is a good example.  Like her previous release, What Lies Within, it includes arrangements by Geoffrey Keezer that virtually translate some of the tracks into art song settings.

Attractive as the charts may be, they can also make their own demands.  But Donatelli can handle them.  Credit her innate musicality with her capacity to find her own interpretive pathways through an instrumental countryside that sometimes insists upon maintaining its own atmospheric milieu.

All of which was apparent Thursday night at Vitello’s, when Donatelli celebrated the release of the album, backed by Keezer, guitarist Pete Sprague, saxophonist/woodwind player Rob Lockart, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, with singers Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh adding back-up vocals on a few tunes.  In some cases – “Don’t Explain” was one – the ensemble sound was less lush in timbre than the larger, string-rich ensemble present for those tunes on the recording.  But, in most of the selections, her singing was showcased within carefully framed and structured arrangements.

Each chart called upon Donatelli’s vocal versatility.  Occasionally – as in segments of “It’s You Or No One” – she was asked to supplement her articulate rendering of a song by adding wordless vocal sounds to the textures of the instrumental ensemble. Often, her readings were surrounded by complex counterlines.  Yet, despite the fact that some of the extended soloing left her to simply stand there, listen and smile, despite the fact that Smith’s busy, high decibel drumming sometimes seemed to overwhelm Vitello’s intimate performance room, Donatelli appeared content to maintain an equally level playing field with her musicians.

But there also were passages – her vocals on “Don’t Explain” and “Kisses (Cantor de Noite)” – in which brief opportunities opened up for Donatelli to tell the musical story in her own way.  And it was in those moments – reminiscent of the voice and piano version of “Why Did I Choose You” on the album – that her rich interpretive skills came fully into the spotlight.

It’s worth noting that the sound reproduction didn’t help matters.  Given a more carefully blended audio mix, one in which the central focus was on Donatelli’s vocals, the integration of voice and background would have been far more effective.  As effective as it is on the album, When Lights Are Low, which underscores Donatelli’s growing visibility as she rises toward the highest levels of the jazz vocal art.

Photo by Faith Frenz.


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