Live Jazz: Barbara Morrison’s 60th Birthday Celebration at the Ford Amphitheatre

By Devon Wendell

The pure and joyful celebration of the life that exists in the blues was the central element of a most special performance for Barbara Morrison’s 60th birthday Saturday at the Ford Amphitheatre, when she was joined by a wide array of artists from the world of jazz, blues, and soul.

After a loving introduction by the event’s host, KPFK’s James Jannise,barbara morrison Morrison took the stage with a childlike, gleeful enthusiasm, joined by the Larry Curtis Big Band, who have been accompanying her for the past 22 years. “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face” was the perfect beginning, with Morrison appearing confident, relaxed and fully in command of the vocal skills that have characterized her 35 years in show business.

Well-coiffed jazz crooner Alistair Tober was the first special guest of the evening, doing a rather bland and tame rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me.” Though the vocal delivery was lackluster, Larry Curtis’s big band shined, with the brass section, in particular, delivering soulful, swinging hooks. Morrison then returned with an invigorated punch on “Every Day I Have The Blues.” Although every blues and jazz artist under the sun has covered this Memphis Slim classic, Morrison tapped into the heart of the blues, shaking her hips, singing with a sassy, boastful confidence reminiscent of Big Mama Thornton (whom she portrayed in the play Howlin’ Blues & Dirty Dogs), Koko Taylor, and Etta James, without losing her own, one-of-a-kind warmth and delightful stage presence.

The Stuart Elster Trio, consisting of Elster on piano, bassist Richard Simon and drummer Lee Spath, took over as the house band, and 16 year old R&B newcomer, Mercedes York delivered a heartfelt rendition of Etta James’s “At Last,” despite an occasional flat passage when she was reaching for the high notes. Elster’s trio was then joined by soprano saxophonist John Altman and the stellar Andre Earles on vibes. Earles led the trio through a brilliant version of Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” demonstrating his uniquely fluid and soulful technique in a performance that was one of the show’s highlights.

Morrison protégé Yvette Stewart was next on the bill, joined by the legendary Houston Person for the Adolph Green/Jules Styne standard “Just In Time.” Morrison’s influence was clearly present in Stewart’s vocal styling and witty stage presence. But it was Person who stole the spotlight with his Lester Young-esque vocal tone and hard-bop-to-soul tenor work that sounded as fresh as it did 40 years ago.

Person and the Elster Trio were then joined by Doctor Bobby Rodriguez on trumpet and Albert Alva on tenor saxophone as Filipino vocalist Charmaine Clamor sang “Hindi Kita Malimot” with what she calls her “Jazzipino” phrasing and sensual appearance — all of it coming together into a refreshingly original performance. Rodriguez, Alva, and Person added an atmospheric sense of texture and mood.

LA jazz veteran Kathy Segal Garcia’s performance, with her tasteful scat singing — backed by Rodriguez’s masterful trumpet work on “Willow Weep For Me” — was another standout moment of the show. Person added his own unique touches, seeming to sound even more energized with every new guest vocalist — and there were quite a few. Tierney Sutton performed a thoughtful and impressive version of “S’Wonderful.” Since 2005 Sutton has proven to be an original force to be reckoned with amongst jazz vocalists. And she, like many of the singers, included phrasing that was an obvious nod to Morrison, who looked on adoringly from the side of the stage.

Morrison couldn’t stay on the sidelines for long, though. When she swung into “Exactly Like You,” her singing, her demeanor and her banter were filled with a delightful blend of humor and irony. John Altman added a tasty soprano solo as well, but the appearance of the Barbara Morrison Swing Dancers half way through the song seemed distracting, though well intentioned. She closed the jam-packed first half of her birthday bash by conjuring up a parade of the dominant female empresses of the blues with a slow, sexy, and soulful rendition of “Candy,” capturing all the subtle nuances of Big Maybelle’s hit version from 1956 in her finest performance of the evening.

After a brief intermission, vocalist Billy Valentine’s birthday gift to Morrison was “Barbara” in which Valentine lyrically revamped the lyrics to the old standard, “Georgia,” to pay homage to Morrison’s illustrious career. R&B/jazz trailblazer Freda Payne (also celebrating her birthday), performed “Easy Living” with a fantastic, bluesy call-and-response set of exchanges between Payne’s superb, near-falsetto vocals and Gordon’s talking, muted trombone. At this point, all eyes were on the surprise guest of the evening — tenor saxophonist James Moody — who joined the band on “Honeysuckle Rose.” Although he seemed at first to struggle with his mouthpiece, he eventually brought out the warm, rich tone and syncopated bop lines that justifiably have made him one of the most influential jazz artists of all time.

As Payne exited the stage, the band dug into “Lullaby of Birdland.” Oddly, it started off a little out of tune; but Moody quickly dipped back into his days with Dizzy, inspiring the other soloists to great heights, taking Hollywood all the way back East to 52nd Street. Morrison then persuaded Nikki Harris, who was in the audience, to join her on Percy Mayfield’s blues classic “Send Me Someone To Love.” Both ladies demonstrated what the blues is all about with the soulful nostalgia and grace that have made this such a timeless piece. Next up in this amazing parade of talent, Yve Evans sat at the piano as the band cleared the stage, performing “Love Is Beautiful,” stopping after a few verses to deliver some humorous jabs and loving memories of her long camaraderie with Morrison.

At this point, the show took a surprise twist with the arrival of tap dancer Chester Whitmore. dancing with astonishing flexibility, elegance, rhythm, and imagination (at one point using a pair of drumsticks on his body while dancing). Gloria Hendry provided yet another off-beat contribution, reciting a a poem to Morrison about friendship and love. But her performance of Ella Fitzgerald’s arrangement of “Make Love To Me,” though traditional and tight, only suggested the sort of power that Morrison would have brought to this chestnut.

For the big finale, Morrison gathered her special guests on stage to clap, sing along, and dance with the Barbara Morrison Swing Dancers, all backed by The Bu Crew — pianist Ron Bishop, drummer Peter Buck, bassist Rickey Taylor, guitarist Charles Small and harmonica player Glen Doll — in a a funky, Memphis blues style takeover of “Summertime.” Morrison was having a blast, imitating both Michael Jackson and James Brown with her dance moves, and belting out the blues with her honored guests.

As everyone on stage segued into “Happy Birthday,” Morrison thanked all her friends, both on and off the stage, including Gerald Wilson who shared the same birthday and was present. Her birthday bash was a celebration of uptown blues, jazz, dance, and all things happy, with an original and bold choice of artists both young and old. All shared the same love and enthusiasm for a true class act, whose boundless energy made it feel as though she could easily be entertaining us for another 60 years.

Read more reviews and posts by Devon Wendell here.

3 thoughts on “Live Jazz: Barbara Morrison’s 60th Birthday Celebration at the Ford Amphitheatre

  1. Rich with history and a true love of Jazz music, this review demonstrates a classy,knowledgeable and creative penmanship worthy of the highest praise.

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  2. […] Live Jazz: Barbara Morrison’s 60th Birthday Celebration at the Ford Amphitheatre The International Review of Music – PeopleRank: 55 – September 15, 2009 …John Altman and the stellar Andre Earles on vibes. Earles led the trio through a brilliant version of Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” demonstrating his uniquely fluid and soulful technique in a performance that was one of the show’s highlig… Cited people : Barbara Morrison  Ella Fitzgerald  Etta James  Frank Sinatra  Freda Payne  Gerald Wilson  Gloria Hendry  Houston Person  James Brown  James Moody  + vote […]

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