Live Music: Steve Tyrell at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

March 29, 2014

By Don Heckman

Bel Air.  Mention an area of the music world and Steve Tyrell has been there and done that. Whether it’s from a business perspective, running a record company or producing albums by major artists, or if it’s in the creative arena, clearly establishing his own identity as a performer Tyrell knows how to do it.

On Wednesday night at Herb Alpert’s Bel Air club – Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. – Tyrell displayed the vocal artistry he has developed as a master interpreter of the Great American Songbook.

The Songbook, of course, with its extraordinary collection of works reaching from Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Kern and beyond, has been the foundation for the careers of numerous singers. But Tyrell’s far-reaching interpretive skills have brought new perspectives to this rich catalog of material.

Performing with the skillful backing of a stellar band of players, Tyrell was at his best.

Steve Tyrell and his Band at Vibrato Grill Jazz...etc.

Steve Tyrell and his Band at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

Among the rich list of songs he sang, every selection was memorable. Starting with “I’ll Take Romance,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” he proceeded with classics such as “I Can’t Get Started,” “I Get A Kick Out of You” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “This Guy’s In Love With You” and a climactic “Stand By Me.”

He introduced most of the songs with a few insightful comments about the songwriters. On some, he often included the usually omitted verses of the songs. And he frequently added fascinating anecdotes providing intriguing insight into a song’s history.

Steve Tyrell

Steve Tyrell

But the real evaluation of Tyrell’s performance has to mention what he brought to both the music and the lyrics of every song he sang. Tyrell is often praised for the appeal of his warm, Texas accent, brisk rhythmic swing and easygoing on stage manner.

Add to that, however, his innate skills as a musical story teller. In song after song, he blended his jazz-driven phrasing with a thoughtful interpretive ability. The result was the opportunity to experience a musical poet in action, finding the most gripping lyrical moments in every song he touched.

So call it an evening showcasing the best of American song, rendered with complete creative authenticity. And listening to Steve Tyrell’s performance one couldn’t help but imagine how delighted the legion of American Songbook composers might have been to hear their musical brilliance evoked with such care and enthusiasm.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.

 

 


Live Jazz: Jane Monheit at Catalina Bar & Grill

December 29, 2013

By Don Heckman

Jane Monheit’s in town again this week for another of her holiday season visits.  She opened at Catalina Bar & Grill on Friday, continued on Saturday and will also perform at the club tonight (Sunday) and Monday, finishing up Tuesday with a New Year’s Eve appearance. And that’s great news for fans of prime jazz vocalizing.

Monheit’s first real visibility in the jazz community took place in the 1998 Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute’s Vocal Competition, when – at 21 – she was the first runner-up to veteran singer Teri Thornton in a field of competitors that also included Tierney Sutton and Roberta Gambarini.

Jane Monheit and RIck Montalbano

Jane Monheit and RIck Montalbano

She’s released a dozen or so recordings since then, and received a pair of Grammy nominations.  But as appealing as all of her CDs have been, there’s nothing like hearing – and seeing – Monheit perform live, especially with the solid backing of her trio: pianist Michael Kanan, bassist Neal Miner and her husband, Rick Montalbano, on drums. Each of the frequent performances she’s done at Catalina Bar & Grill over the past few years has been both unique and memorable. And this one was no exception.

Call it a Great American Songbook set, a program of familiar classics, starting with Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night,” and concluding with Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm.” And we can’t overlook the equally memorable “I Was Born To Be Blue,” “Moonlight In Vermont,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Never Let Me Go.”

Jane Monheit

Jane Monheit

Add to that Monheit’s reference to what she described as the jazz aspects of Judy Garland via a richly blended medley of “The Boy Next Door” and “The Man That Got Away.”

All of the above titles are essential elements in the repertoire of most jazz and adult contemporary singers. But the real question lies in what a singer does with such classic items. And Monheit has thoroughly established herself over the past decade as one of the prime imaginative singers of the current music world.

Jane Monheit

Jane Monheit

In song after song, Monheit’s Saturday night program unfolded with the gripping expressiveness of a true musical story teller. Blessed with an extraordinary instrument, she employed all her vocal skills – a far-reaching range, variable tonal qualities, briskly swinging rhythmic articulation and penetrating emotional intensity – at the service of her interpretations. Topping it off, she dipped into some scat singing on a few tunes, delivered with an inventiveness that would probably have delighted Ella Fitzgerald.

Call it a great evening of music for every member of Monheit’s enthusiastic audience. But I couldn’t help but feel that this was a performance that should be heard by other singers, too – a performance with sufficient creative information to aid anyone with ambitions for a vocal career. With three more performances this week, Catalina’s should draw more full houses to her seminars in the art of expressive vocalizing.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.


Record Rack: Lyn Stanley, Lisa Engelken

December 11, 2013

Of West Coast Girls

By Brian Arsenault

The Left Coast is not taken seriously enough by the New York centric jazz “world” as a producer of any jazz, but maybe particularly female jazz singers. Of course, Queen Bentyne is based there now but she’s late of Manhattan Transfer so the East Coast still claims her.

So here come two very different talents to turn our eyes and ears to the West. You know, LA, San Francisco. The places that mostly stay warm but are oh so cool.

 Lyn Stanley

Lost in Romance (A.T. Music)

Only a few tracks are required for the listener to be Lost in Romance with Lyn Stanley. I was there by “The Nearness of You.” By then, she has warmed the room with a series of classics from Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael.

The room is in a small club. Perhaps near the desert. Dim lighting. Bogie and Bacall unobtrusive in the back of the room. Dietrich’s set over, she stays to listen.

The room has a piano that accompanies her so well whenever Tamir Hendelman or Mike Lang sit in. Tenor sax (Bob Sheppard), trombone (Bob McChesney), flugelhorn (Gilbert Castellanos, also on trumpet) in the backing group which plays every note to complement her. Every single note.

And those notes are all full and rounded, almost never sharp and stinging. Perhaps vinyl was required for the richness throughout. I’d like to think so. (two 180 gram 45 rpm albums which I first tried to play as 33s. Slowwwwwwwww. Also available in CDs and downloads for the unromantic.)

The striking blond former ballroom dancer opens and closes the album with songs entwined with dance.

First: “Change Partners,” where she lingers over each note, each moment, seeking her chance.

Last, naturally: “The Last Dance,” where the partner has been found and the evening is regrettably ending but “keep holding me tight.”

In between, the bartender leans in to listen as she asks for “One More for My Baby.” Each word, each inflection so important as “You Go to My Head.”

Her phrasing is close, intimate, personal. Not like Sinatra’s phrasing but with Ol’ Blue Eyes’ requirement that you listen to the story, that you feel it might be sung directly to you.

I don’t think her talents are best suited for Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” but she shines on George Harrison’s “Something” which Sinatra called the only really good love song in eons.

On “Fever”, the warmth becomes heat. Peggy Lee may have been the first white girl singer so openly sexual but Lyn Stanley takes it a bit sultrier, plays with it a bit. A touch of how Marilyn would have sung it. Finger snaps as percussion.

Another strength of vinyl; each time you get to flip the album or put on the second disc (may I say record), you’ll be pleased there’s another side. You’ll wish you were at that imaginary club that night. But go ahead, careful not to smudge the grooves, put on the album and soon you will be.

Lisa Engelken

little warrior (CD Baby)

If Lyn Stanley is the epitome of classic romance and the classic American songbook, Lisa Engelken is the postmodernist purveyor of pain and alienation.

. . . for there must be a god to exist such a godless man. . .”

If Lyn Stanley rounds each note and lingers for its full effect, Lisa Engelken frequently blows through lyrics with staccato phrasing. Everything at times is a single chopped note since she must move on and not linger.

send me keys

send me jets

send me trains . . .

and don’t forget instructions as to what to do with your remains”

Don’t get me wrong. Lisa’s range of emotions, as well as octaves, is extensive. The album includes the reflective “little warrior” title song and Chick Corea’s gently rolling “sea journey.”

But pain is near at all times. It’s integral to her art.

blue valentines” is Tom Wait via Billie Holiday (can’t beat that for melancholy) through Lisa. The band gets it. Bill Cantos’ piano chords keep a somber pace. Sam Bevan’s bass descends with her voice. Sadness keeps a grip impervious to whiskey.

She moves with Joni Mitchell’s “cold blue steel & sweet fire” to some very personal hell vision of “. . . vicious gnawing in the veins. . .” This seven minutes, a dark trip, is orchestral, at times symphonic — Lisa says she wants to sing it with the San Francisco Symphony — but some of the musicians may have hooves and tails, maybe even horns.

Even in the supposedly upbeat “viva la felicita,” an alleged ode to happiness, the chorus in Italian is “eh poi, eh poi?” what else, what else is there? Can’t get more post modernist than that. Like an Italo Calvino short story.

For this album to end on the sweetness of “All I Do Is Dream of You” is either ironic or an inside joke. This is a singer pushing some boundaries and a long way from romance. But we know the World needs more than one vision.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


Live Music: Lyn Stanley at Catalina Bar & Grill

August 28, 2013

By Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA.  A celebration of the release of a new CD is a fairly common event at music clubs around town. It is, after all, the chance to attract a presumably supportive roomful of fans and friends. Followed by the opportunity to have the new CD signed personally by the artist.

Singer Lyn Stanley’s appearance at Catalina Bar & Grill Tuesdy night was publicized as just such a CD release party for her new album, Lost in Romance.

As it turned out, it was all that and more.

The program, which was emceed by the inimitible wit and wisdom of KJAZ radio personality Bubba Jackson, actually consisted of three distinct segments.

The first belonged completely to Stanley and her musicians, as she offered a virtual banquet of songs from the new CD. As a former competitive ballroom dancer, her program reflected the dance aspects that continue to play a prominent role in her music career, as well. And it was no surprise that both the CD and her live performance began with the Irving Berlin song Change Partners” and wound up with Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “The Last Dance.”

Lyn Stanley

Lyn Stanley

But that was just the beginning of a string of songs from the CD’s program of far-ranging selections from the Great American songbook. Among the numerous appealing album selections explored by Stanley were “Fever,” “The Nearness of You,” “That Old Black Magic,” “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and the whimsical “What Am I Gonna Do With A Bad Boy Like You,” all sung with the enthusiasm of a vocalist eager to establish her own musical identity.

She was backed by a stellar collection of players that included pianists Mike Lang, Tamir Hendelman and Llew Mathews, bassists Jim DeJulio and Dominic Genova, drummer Bernie Dressel. guitarist Grant Geissman, trombonist Bob McChesney and tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard, conducted by the album’s producer Steve Rawlins.

That’s as prime a line-up of accompanying musicians as any singer could hope to have. And to Stanley’s credit, she made the most of their melodically supportive, rhythmically swinging back-up.

Maria Nikolishina and Nikolai Vononovich

Maria Nikolishina and Nikolai Vononovich

The program’s second segment further underscored her continuing involvement with ballroom dancing. At one side of the stage, a small area was set aside as a dance stage.

And, for several fascinating interactive songs, Stanley’s singing and her musicians’ playing provided the perfect accompaniment for dance numbers by the Russian duo of Latin dance world champions Maria Nikolishina and Nikolai Vononovich.

Both of the dancers were remarkably attractive, moving with the the grace of ballet artistry and the ease of superb athletes. Interacting with Stanley’s vocals, the combination recalled the inextricable and compelling linkages that have always existed between dance and music.

The final segment of the program was a tribute to the late pianist Paul Smith and his wife, singer and teacher Annette Warren Smith, both of whom were deeply supportive of Stanley’s nascent career as it began to blossom. Mixing a few of Stanley’s vocal versions of tunes favored by Smith with several instrumentals recalling Smith’s long history as a much favored, prominent Los Angeles pianist, the segment provided yet another overview of Stanley’s transformative vocal career.

Full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for Lyn Stanley’s Lost In Romance before I heard heard her perform live. But her abilities were nonetheless fully apparent on the album – and completely confirmed by this memorable appearance at Catalina’s.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.


Live Music: Michael Feinstein at the Valley Performing Arts Center

May 13, 2013

By Don Heckman

Northridge, CA. One of the first times (and there were many) that I reviewed a Michael Feinstein performance was in 1991 for the Los Angeles Times. I described him then as a “reincarnation of a classic movie juvenile lead. Slicked-back Dick Powell hair, flashing Russ Columbo eyes, a smile that would charm the Sphinx.”

Twenty two years later, Feinstein – now 56 – could still come pretty close to that image of the movie juvenile lead. When he strolled on stage Saturday night at the Valley Performing Arts Center, slender and full of vitality, his warm smile gleaming, he was still as dynamic and vital as he was two decades ago.

Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein

In the interim, of course, Feinstein has thoroughly established himself as one of the prime devoted caretakers of American popular song. His archivist’s dedication to preserving the classic works of Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Berlin, Mercer and so many others has continued to grow over the years. And, equally important, he has personally taken on the challenge of keeping those works alive in performance.

Feinstein has always been a fine singer/pianist, the high quality of his abilities apparent even in his early, cabaret performances in the ’80s at the Cinegrill. But his appearance at VPAC was the work of a mature, masterful performing artist. Far more than simply singing the classics from the Great American Songbook, Feinstein was as informative as he was entertaining.

Each song was introduced with background information about the composer and/or lyricist, often with whimsical stories about the circumstances behind the creation of the song. Many of Feinstein’s comments traced to his personal associations with the songwriters. One example: his long term friendship with Ira Gershwin, tracing to a period when he worked as Gershwin’s personal assistant. That connection was the starting point for Feinstein’s recently published book, The Gershwins and Me (Simon & Schuster).

Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein

Celebrating his Gershwin linkage, he sang a superb medley of Gershwin songs – including “Of Thee I Sing,” “S’Wonderful,” “Embraceable You,” “Our Love Is Here To Stay” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.”

The rest of the program was a banquet of musical goodies. Since it was May 11, Irving Berlin’s birthday, Feinstein did a marvelously hard-swinging “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” On “Hello, Dolly” he offered a loving simulation of Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice, recalling one of the song’s most unique interpretations. On “Fly Me To The Moon,” he referred to the desire of Bart Howard, the songwriter, to hear it in his original conception of it as a waltz, rather than the rhythmically upbeat version by Frank Sinatra. And Feinstein, with the aid of guitarist Jim Fox, found the deep, lyrical center of the tune. He chose to cast “The Way You Look Tonight” as a bossa nova, and recalled Sammy Davis, Jr. with an atmospheric rendering of “What Kind of Fool Am I?”

There was much more. Songs such as “Shall We Dance” (sung with the verse), “Put On A Happy Face,” “Just One Of Those Things” and “At Long Last Love,” among others.  All of it brilliantly arranged by pianist/music director Sam Kriger.

It was, in other words, a delightful musical evening on all counts. And it was topped off with the additional good news that Feinstein will be spending more performance time in the Southland in coming months. He has been appointed Principal Pops Conductor of the Pasadena POPS, replacing the late Marvin Hamlisch. Feinstein’s first program with the Pops takes place on June 1.

Get your tickets now. Click HERE for information.


Live Jazz: Cat Conner and Gene “Cip” Cipriano at the Out Take Bistro

December 16, 2012

By Don Heckman

Studio City, CA.  Jazz performances don’t get any more up close and personal than the bi-weekly appearances of Cat Conner and Gene “Cip” Cipriano at the Out Take Bistro in Studio. City.  At their performance on Friday night, singer Conner and saxophonist/clarinetist Cipriano, with the aid of guitarist Jim Fox, were comfortably ensconced in a convenient corner of the venue’s main room, surrounded by clustered tables and enthusiastic listeners positioned virtually within an arm’s reach of the musicians.

The trio made the most of the intimacy, singing and playing with the sort of rich expressiveness one might experience at a living room jam session.  And with less than two weeks until Christmas, Cat and Cip further enhanced the mood of musical intimacy with a program overflowing with holiday songs.

Cat Conner and Gene ("Cip") Cipriano

Cat Conner and Gene (“Cip”) Cipriano

Among the highlights: Cat’s fun-loving take on “Merry Christmas, Baby,” her warm reading of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and the whimsically instructional behavioral warnings of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”  Add to that Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas,” sung with the too-rarely heard, scene-setting verse.

Here, as elsewhere in a pair of generous sets, Cat’s interpretations were rich with musical eloquence.  The sweetness of her sound, combined with her gently swinging rhythmic phrasing, recalled some of the big band girl singers of the ‘40s and ‘50s –  Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney and Dinah Shore among them.  But always done from Cat’s unique creative perspective.

She sang Johnny Mandel’s “Emily” accompanied only by Fox’s fluent guitar lines.  On other tunes – “Caravan” among them – she dueted with the laid back, woody tones of Cip’s persuasive clarinet lines.  The far-ranging program also featured her equally engaging interpretations of a pair of  familiar Johnny Mercer/Henry Mancini items – the film song, “Charade” and the Academy Award winning “Days of Wine and Roses” – as well as an unusual view, with lyrics, of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.”

Cat Conner, Gene "Cip" Cipriano, Jim Fox and Dick Nash

Cat Conner, Gene “Cip” Cipriano, Jim Fox and Dick Nash

And there was more, all of it done with Fox’s guitar work providing  superb, on the spot arrangements.  Add to that Cip’s atmospheric counterlines on clarinet and tenor saxophone.  Further enhancing the program, the group was joined – halfway through the set — by trombonist Dick Nash, whose buoyant style was a dynamic addition to the evening’s instrumental versions of tunes such as “Georgia On My Mind” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

Call it an appealing way to hear first rate jazz artists in a cozy, appropriately spontaneous setting.  Cip and Cat’s performance schedule calls for appearances at the Out Take Bistro every other Friday night.  And if you can’t wait another two weeks to hear them in action with their gifted musical associates, check out Cat’s debut CD, Cat Tales, which also features the presence of the gifted pianist/producer, the late George Mesterhazy in one of his last performances.


Here, There & Everywhere: Sing! Sing! Sing!

December 23, 2011

By Don Heckman

Christmas caroling was a regular seasonal activity in my young life.  Growing up in an Eastern Pennsylvania rust belt city, singing carols while slip-sliding our way across icy sidewalks was as necessary to the holiday as going to Mass on Christmas eve.  In a way, it was an equally necessary counter to the darker side of what we’d done on Halloween, when enacting tricks was a lot more common than  asking for treats.

All of which went through my mind last night when Faith and I took our lovely ten year old granddaughter, Maia, to the Victorian Mansion for “Candlelight Carols” by Judy Wolman, Howard Lewis and “Sing! Sing! Sing!”  And one couldn’t have asked for a more delightfully atmospheric setting to join in a holiday music singalong than the elegant wood-paneled room that jazz fans will recall as the former site of the much-missed jazz club, “The Vic.”

At the beginning, Wolman reminded me that she, Lewis and their group of singers had been doing these holiday celebrations for 20 years.  Not only that, of course, but also their continuing programs of participatory jaunts through the rich musical landscape of the Great American Songbook.  (Programs devoted to Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael and others are already scheduled for 2012.)

The “Candlelight Carols” program characteristically reached out to embrace the Songbook – with selections from Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc. — as well as a collection of traditional carols.  And the format was as comfortable and inviting as a holiday evening in a close friend’s living room.

Lewis introduced each number with some fascinating background, often including nuggets of insight into the song, as well as its creators.  Then Wolman — a superb piano accompanist, backed by Chris Conner’s bass, Dick Weller’s drums and some warm melody-making from harmonica player Ron Kalina – led the way into the song.

Maia

The audience, using lyric sheets provided by Wolman, sang along enthusiastically, sometimes even more than that.  And our granddaughter, Maia, not especially familiar with all the standards, nonetheless applied her already burgeoning musicality to every song, singing, smiling, enjoying every minute of this engaging new experience.

And what a collection of songs it was: “It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “My Favorite Things,” “White Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”  As well as “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” “The First Noel” and much, much more.

Between the singalong segments, individual singers from the Sing! Sing! Sing! vocal ensemble – Chuck Marso, Anita Royal, Jackie Manfredi and Ruth Davis – soloed.  And songwriter Jim Mann presented a brand new Christmas song, “Cheers! Cheers! Cheers!”

The sidewalks weren’t icy, and there was no snow in the forecast as we left the Victorian.  But the wind was blowing, and, as we walked hand in hand to our car, the words to one of the evening’s songs – with their perfect holiday sentiments — kept coming to mind.

           “The wind is blowing

           But I can weather the storm

            What do I care how much it may storm?

            I’ve got my love to keep me warm.”


Live Jazz: John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey at Disney Hall

December 21, 2011

By Don Heckman

Who would have thought that Tuesday night’s Disney Hall performance by jazz guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli would wind up in a singalong with the entire audience joining in on “The Twelve Days of Christmas?”

The answer is anyone who’s ever seen Pizzarelli, his trio, and his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, in action.  Together, they have created some of the jazz world’s most consistently engaging entertainments.  Like Louis Armstrong, Dave Frishberg, Dizzy Gillespie and Mose Allison, among others, they’ve done so in an irresistibly swinging  jazz setting.  As they did on Tuesday.

Their set was especially enlivened by the blending of seemingly dissimilar songs into lyrically pointed combinations.  Not quite medleys, they were more like a contrapuntal tossing back and forth of words and music.  The pairing of Irving Berlin’s “The Best Things Happen When You Dance” and Bobby Troup’s “Nice Girls Don’t Stay For Breakfast,” for example, was a perfect opportunity for Pizzarelli to play the seducing male to Molaskey’s reluctant female.  On another blend, Molaskey accurately noted the co-dependency aspects of the lyrics to “I Want To Be Happy” (“But I can’t be happy, until you’re happy, too”), while Pizzarelli responded casually with “Sometimes I’m Happy.”

And there were other blends, equally pointed in their own ways: Stephen Sondheim’s “Buddy’s Eyes” with Billy Joel’s “Rosalinda”; Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Aguas de Marco.”

Backed by the solid support of pianist Larry Fuller (whose soloing was one of the evening’s musical highlights), bassist (and brother) Martin Pizzarelli and drummer Tony Tedesco, the vocal excursions were balanced by plenty of opportunities for Pizzarelli’s high flying guitar lines to solo, often in unison with his vocal scatting – notably so on “Sleigh Ride.”  Molaskey, a Broadway star in her own right, applied her warm and supple voice to a touching reading of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” and Pizzarelli touched on the real meaning of the holiday with an equally moving “Count Your Blessings.”

But back to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  It almost seemed like another of his throwaway lines when Pizzarelli proposed a singalong of the old classic, assigning the melody of one of the days to each of the many individual audience areas.  And there was faltering along the way, especially from some of the smaller sections.  But, unexpectedly, it all came together – with the upper center section offering a near-professional version of “Five golden rings” – and the others responding with, at the very least, plenty of enthusiasm.

As I suggested above, it wasn’t exactly what one expected at a jazz concert.  But it was delightful, nonetheless.  As was the balance of this utterly enjoyable evening. Call it a musical Christmas present from the Pizzarellis – a Christmas present to remember.

Photo courtesy of the Pizzarellis.


Live Jazz: The 54th Monterey Jazz Festival — Sunday

September 19, 2011

By Michael Katz

Monterey, California.  Sunday at Monterey began with a group of precocious teenagers and ended with an ageless octogenarian, concluding a festival that had highlights from every corner of the musical world.  The Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, MJF’s signature contribution to jazz education, is more than just a group of talented kids gathered from all precincts. Under the leadership of Paul Contos, it has become a first-class band that will challenge your perception of what young players can accomplish.  From their first notes Sunday afternoon at the Arena, it was clear that they had filled the one hole in the Arena’s scheduling: a bona fide large jazz ensemble.

One of the early highlights was a crisp arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Here Comes McBride,” an ode to the bassist that kicked off with a round of blues solos, anchored by the band’s own bassist Daryl Johns.  There were terrific soloists in this group, including pianist Chase Morrin, who contributed an award winning composition, “Mumphis,” and trombonist Calvin Barthel, who sat in admirably with the Berkeley Flamenco group Saturday and is headed there on scholarship, as well as trumpeter Tree Palmedo.  Alto saxophonist Patrick Bartley did a stunning turn on Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.” Vocalist Hope Flores wowed the crowd with simmering renditions of “Dancing Cheek To Cheek” and “Gee, Baby, Aren’t I Good to You.”  Then came the alumni. Joshua Redman joined the band for a scintillating chorus on “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” surpassing his brilliant performance of the night before. Tenor Donnie McCaslin had a soaring solo as did pianist Bennie Green,  joining the band for Ellington’s “C Jam Blues,” closing the show to a standing ovation from the sun-kissed crowd.

From there I did some skipping around, making sure I didn’t miss my annual dosage of barbecue, cobblers and a cold microbrew. In between I managed to catch the end of an impressive set on the Garden Stage by pianist John Donaldson, featuring alto sax player Shay Salhov.  Walking in on their last two numbers, I wished I’d seen more. And I took in the last portion of a set on the Courtyard Stage with singer/keyboardist Judy Roberts and Greg Fishman on sax, Judy delivering a cool “Senor Blues” and Greg joining for a terrific version of “Four.”

Bruce Forman

The highlight of the mid-afternoon was guitarist Bruce Forman’s Cow Bop, a western tinged quintet that performed with zest and humor. Starting with the tune Sonny Rollins turned into a jazz classic, “I’m An Old Cowhand,” the quintet featured fiddler supreme Phil Salazar, Alex King on bass and Jake Reed on drums. “Pinto Pam” Forman provided western style vocals with pizzazz, adding just the right amount of swing on classics like “Besame Mucho” and Gene Autry’s “Back In The Saddle Again.”  There were some jazz standards like “Slow Boat to China,” where Foreman unloaded his considerable guitar chops, aided by bassist King, and a cha-cha version of “Comes Love.” Stellar western guitarist Rich O’Brien joined the group for Louis Armstrong’s “Sweet Temptation,” bringing the crowd to its feet, trading licks with Forman and Salazar.  There were more fireworks with “El Combanchero,” with Forman mixing in samples from Dizzy’s “Night In Tunisia” and “Bebop.”  Cow Bop finished off the set with their slant on “Get Along Little Doggies,” and the aforementioned “Back In The Saddle.”  The crowd, by this time jammed into every nook and cranny of the Garden Stage, roared their approval.

At 5:30, the Garden Stage crowd was treated to an extended set by emerging tenor sax player Tia Fuller. Fuller, who came out of the Stanford program and tours with pop star Beyonce, was a sight to behold in tight dress and stiletto heels, but she has the chops for straight ahead jazz. I caught about half the set, in which she played mostly songs from her latest recordings. Her band included a terrific young pianist, Shamie Royston.

Benny Green

Once again there was too much going on Sunday to catch everything, but I wasn’t going to miss the Benny Green Trio with Donald Harrison, doing a set of Thelonious Monk’s music at the Night Club. Green’s superb trio consisted of Ben Wolfe on bass and Kenny Washington on drums.  There are so many Monk tunes that it was possible to begin with one the casual listener might be unfamiliar with — the lilting, low-key “Jackie-ing.” Green moved on to the quieter “Reflections,” but the trio really caught fire with one of Monk’s first recorded tunes, “Thelonious.” Green’s dazzling technique on the infectious line was augmented by Wolfe on the bass. Donald Harrison then joined the group, occupying with fiery distinction the sax chair filled in Monk’s time by the likes of John Coltrane and Charlie Rouse. Harrison provided the emphatic melody to “Epistrophy,” with Green deftly adding the counter tempo. They followed with another of Monk’s engaging lines, “Nutty,”  Green and Wolfe reading each other’s minds on piano and bass, while Harrison, seemingly effortlessly, had complete command of his alto.  Lest you take him for granted, Kenny Washington was an exquisite performer, enunciating Monk’s complex rhythms, adding his own measures of dash and accent when called for.

There were too many highlights to mention in this set, but among them were an up tempo version of “52nd Street Theme,” with Benny providing a knockout piano solo, following Harrison’s insistent introduction of the theme. Compelling bass work by Wolfe ensued, then Washington broke loose with his own solo.  If there is one essential Monk tune it is “Round Midnight.” Harrison introduced it with a lovely run through the opening chords, then Green took over for a sensitive exploration of the familiar theme. There were a couple of more swinging numbers, including “Calling The Blues.” “Bye Ya,” was a natural finale, Benny Green contributing a delightful, bouncy solo, with a sprightly contribution by Harrison. The set concluded with the consistent brilliance of Wolfe and a final flourish by Kenny Washington.

Sonny Rollins

And then there was Sonny.  Taking to the spotlight in a flowing red shirt, bent forward as he roamed the stage, Lear-like, Sonny Rollins closed the festival with a performance that was sui generis.  The unmistakable Rollins intonation is still there.  If it has been stilted somewhat by virtue of his eighty-one years, it was hardly noticeable.  For much of the set this was classic Road Show Sonny, with Rollins establishing a theme, repeating it, embellishing it,  stalking  the stage as he explored every facet of a seemingly simple line.  Backed by his longtime stalwarts Bob Crenshaw on bass and Sammy Figueroa on percussion,  and drummer Kobie Watkins, Rollins had the additional support of world class guitarist Peter Bernstein. Bernstein’s rhythms gave the Caribbean numbers a breezy feel, and he was the main supportive soloist when Rollins needed a breather. The material alternated between ballads and island themes, with Rollins speaking only a few times to the audience. “Nice Lady,” which was included in Road Show Vol 1, was a typically bright Caribbean tune, with Figueroa’s congas and Bernstein’s rhythms pushing it along and Sonny wailing away. There was one new tune, “Professor Paul,” the literary connection unexplained, but the tune had enough quirky intelligence that you could get the picture.

Toward the end of the set, the tone shifted to vintage Rollins, the style he established in the heart of his career.  From the opening cadenza, when you could pick out the notes to Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” this was Sonny at his best, exploring the melody of a standard, challenging it with every nuance of his horn’s tonal depth,  moving in and out of the chorus,  placing his own emblem on the song.  It could have been the perfect ending to a show that had already gone well over an hour, but Sonny had much more in reserve. He went back into Caribbean mode and now the entire arena was up on its feet, swaying back and forth.  Sonny carried forth, trading solos with guitarist Bernstein, backed by Figueroa, Watkins and Crenshaw. Fifteen minutes later you got the feeling the audience was exhausted from dancing, but Sonny played on. A gentleman of a certain age standing behind me remarked, “I didn’t have that much energy when I was 21.”

Finally, Sonny put the horn down and addressed the crowd. “We’ll see you next time,” said the man who had had performed at the first Monterey Jazz Festival. “Long live Monterey!”

Amen to that.

To read Michael Katz’s review of Monterey Jazz Festival Friday click HERE.

To read Michael Katz’s review of Monterey Jazz Festival Saturday click HERE.


Live Music: Sue Raney and Alan Broadbent at Vitello’s

April 27, 2011

By Don Heckman

On Monday night at Vitello’s, Sue Raney gave an unofficial seminar in the art of song. A seminar, that is, that illustrated by example, not by textbooks. And the key word was “art.” Because Raney’s remarkable vocal skills were completely at the service of her creatively illuminating interpretations of material from the Great American Songbook — and beyond.

Sue Raney

The performance began impressively with a stunning solo rendering of Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean” by pianist Alan Broadbent, who would provide the sole accompaniment for Raney’s set. Long term musical companions, the near-symbiotic presence of Broadbent’s extraordinary support was immediately established as the launching pad for Raney’s soaring interpretations.

Her first song was the Burke/Van Heusen classic (most famously sung by Bing Crosby), “Aren’t You Glad You’re You.” Done with buoyant, whimsical charm, it immediately defined one of the many aspects of Raney’s story telling skills. A tender version of Dave Frishberg’s “Listen Here,” followed by a jaunty romp through Burnett & Norton’s pre-WW I “Melancholy Baby,” further revealed the breadth of her vocal art.

As did similarly insightful readings of Sherwin & Maschwitz’s “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square,” Rodgers & Hart’s “He Was Too Good To Me,” Warren & Gordon’s “You’ll Never Know” and David Raksin’s atmospheric theme from “The Bad and the Beautiful.”

Alan Broadbent

The set hit its peak with stunning anthems to Spring — including Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” and Michel Legrand and the Bergmans’ “You Must Believe In Spring.” In the closing vamps, Raney light-heartedly tossed in quotes from other songs about Spring. And, more subtly, Broadbent slyly used the opening phrase from Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring” as an introduction.

What Raney brought to all this memorable material was a stunning mix of craft and dramatic imagination, engagingly expressed via her warm-toned, far ranging voice — all of it combined in a perfectly balanced, utterly compatible musical blend.

I’m not sure how many singers were in the overflow crowd, but I know there were a few. And I’m willing to wager that they came away from Raney’s casual but mesmerizing seminar with some vital ideas about the enhancement of their own vocal art.


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