Live Jazz: Bonnie Bowden at Vitello’s

By Norton Wright

It was such a class act, it reminded me of those sophisticated nights long ago at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City where the ballroom shows were graced by the likes of Lena Horne and Peggy Lee.

So it was no surprise that jazz songstress Bonnie Bowden’s date on Sunday afternoon at Vitello’s was sold out a week in advance and the waiting list went on forever.  Elegant, sexy, and engaging, Bowden dished up a clinic on how to present a musically delicious show. Here were some of the ingredients:

How to achieve a compelling start?  Enlist a great quartet like Llew Matthews (piano and arranger), Ricky Woodard (tenor sax), Luther Hughes (acoustic bass), and Ralph Penland (drums) and then turn them loose all by themselves to hot up the audience with an opening seven-minute, up-tempo take on the standard “Day By Day.”  And have Ricky Woodard do some great and serious blowing so all in the jam-packed room know it’s time to stop lunching and talking and do some serious listening. This opener was so good, we thought we could have just listened to the band for the rest of the afternoon. I mean, could things get any better? YOU BET!

The star’s entrance:  Quickly and from the very back of the house so everyone in an instant caught the flash of her dramatic crimson blouse, black slacks, and blonde hair pulled back into a diamond clip, Bowden made her way through the audience, up onto the stage, and into her first number. The lyrics told the audience exactly what the ebullient Ms. Bowden wanted them to know, “I Love Being Here With You!”

What’s the show about? Bowden’s easygoing intros to her songs are brief and tell her listeners something about the composers and lyricists and why the songs are special to her. We’re amazed that she’s self-taught in a broad range of music from coloratura opera to country to Broadway, but she loves jazz best, and we’re going to be treated this afternoon to The Great American – and sometimes Great Brazilian — Songbook  by composer/lyricist icons like Jimmy McHugh, Frank Loesser, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gus Kahn, Hal David/Burt Bachrach, Edu Lobo, Alan & Marilyn Bergman, and the list was to go beautifully on and on as the afternoon progressed.

Variety: Bowden has the rare capacity to convincingly turn her song renditions on an emotional dime, and so she paces the running order of her tunes so the moods do change quickly and with lots of surprises. “You Are So Beautiful” by Billy Preston & Bruce Fisher was given a soulful jazz treatment, and the audience figured Bowden was talking directly to them. Her take on “Ain’t We Got Fun” was humorous and satiric, the lyric, ‘The rich get rich and the poor get children’ as biting today as it was when penned by Gus Kahn back in 1922. And in a hot, hip-swivelin’, honkey-tonkin’ surprise, the lissome Ms. Bowden laid a jazz take on Willie Nelson’s country tune, “Crazy,” and risked prompting all the males in the audience to immediately lust after her — and this on a Sunday afternoon!

What can a singer do during the instrumental breaks in the songs she’s singing? Sometimes singers today seem to forget they’re still on stage, and during their band’s instrumental breaks they often search for something to do — like reaching down for a water bottle, publicly gurgling the H20, and then awkwardly regarding their surroundings until it’s time to resume singing… Bonnie Bowden answers the problem by turning to listen intently to each member of her band, genuinely enjoying them and in doing so, becoming at one with her audience. There’s something outright communal in a group of listeners sharing their appreciation of a band’s grooving, and Bowden doesn’t hide the fact that she digs listening to her guys.

Spontaneity: Finally, if the opportunity is there, go for it! Bowden’s affection for Brazilian jazz springs from her singing with Sergio Mendes’ Brazil ’77, and at Vitello’s by mid-set she got into an Ipanema groove singing Edu Lobo’s haunting ballad “Adeus” (“To Say Goodbye”) in perfect Portuguese and then in English. Maybe it was time then to return to the American Songbook, but spotting in the audience the legendary percussionists Paulinho Da Costa from Brazil and Mexican-American Pete Escovedo, she invited them to join with her on stage for composer Jorge Ben’s high-energy, bossa nova song, “Mais Que Nada.” The result was a gas! These two gents can play at least 200 different percussive instruments but with only shakers in Escovedo’s hands and a tambourine in those of Da Costa, they tagged Bowden’s song with such a feast of polyrhythmic accents that she and the audience just loved the fun and surprise of it. Good guys, Bowden gave them kisses, and her band and the audience gave them a great big hand.

Closing out the show were the love songs: “Why Did I Choose You” during which Bowden found a warm and beautifully textured timbre almost indistinguishable from that of Doris Day.  Then a quick change of pace to Jimmy McHugh & Harold Adamson’s  “I Just Found Out About Love”  which Bowden ended on a stratospheric note toward the top of her amazing four-octave range.  And for a finale, Jerome Kern &  Otto Harbach’s  “Yesterdays” in an unconventional and swinging tempo that gave the audience something happy to end on and propelled them to their feet. To see a crowd of 120 people of all ages spontaneously erupt into a standing and joyous ovation was enough to make you believe that Dionysus lives!

Given that competing with Bowden’s show for afternoon attention were the NBA playoffs, various Cinco de Mayo weekend celebrations, a host of tentpole movies, and a Dodger home game, Vitello’s jazz entrepreneur April Williams deserves plaudits for courageously expanding her jazz programs into daytime hours.  And on this particular Sunday afternoon, the sunshine outside Vitello’s was niftily matched inside by the bright glow of Bonnie Bowden, a jazz artist and consummate entertainer whom we’ll be seeing a lot more of.

Congratulations to both Bowden and Williams for trying something new and succeeding. Encore, encore!

* * * * *

Photos by Bob Barry.

To read more reviews and posts by Norton Wright click HERE.

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