By Don Heckman
Studio City CA. Jackie Ryan’s appearance at Vitello’s Monday night was one of the most musically gripping performances of recent memory. Listening to her two extended sets of songs before an enthusiastic, packed house crowd, I found myself wishing that the entire evening had been videotaped.
Why? In part for the pleasure of Ryan fans who couldn’t make the gig (or those who, like me, did but who would love to have a video for future enjoyment). And in part because a video of her performance could well have served as a virtual seminar in song for vocal classes in university jazz programs around the world.
None of all this, of course, was in Jackie’s mind as she kicked off the evening with a light hearted romp through the often-covered Bob Dorough/Ben Tucker tune, ‘Comin’ Home Baby.” Music, not video, was clearly her focus – music reaching across the spectrum from blues to ballads to bossa nova, with a lot of other enchanting stops along the way.
Beyond that, and at the heart of all her interpretations, it was Jackie’s musical story-telling gifts – as a singer and an actress — that brought her songs vividly to life, regardless of their style or substance. More than almost any other jazz singer I’ve seen lately, she is an irresistible communicator.
Jackie was superbly supported by the world class ensemble of tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard, trumpeter John Reynolds, guitarist Graham Dechter, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. Most of the players (with Reynolds replacing Gilbert Castellanos and Hamilton replacing Obed Calvaire) were present on Jackie’s highly regarded CD, Listen Here. And her program was completely dedicated to a live, in-performance look at some of the musically and dramatically rich collection of songs on the album.
The highlights came, one after another.
A lovely bolero, “La Puerta,” chosen to honor Jackie’s Mexican mother, was done as a musically intimate duet between Jackie’s voice and Dechter’s guitar. Dechter also played an equally vital role in “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”), sung in English and Portuguese. The piece was wrapped up with a delightful coda in which Jackie did a stunning vocal simulation of Brazilian percussion.
Pianist Gerald Clayton played with similar finesse on several tunes, including some full-out gospel piano accompaniment as Jackie preached her way through “Accentuate the Positive,” done with the verse. And Clayton’s subtle touch, a vital element in almost every number, was especially well crafted in his accompaniment for Jackie’s poignant rendering of “I Loves You Porgy.”
In some of the more lively songs, the horn players provided dynamic instrumental backing, often soloing between vocal choruses, with trumpeter Reynolds delivering in laid-back Chet Baker style and saxophonist Woodard dipping into the warm seductiveness of Ben Webster-like phrasing. Bassist Clayton and drummer Hamilton meanwhile served as the dependable rhythmic engine, keeping everything on track.
And there was more: standards such as “How Little We Know” and “The Gypsy in My Soul,” more offbeat items including “How Long?” “To the Ends of the Earth” and Dave Frishberg’s “Listen Here” (the album title song). Add a pair of relatively new songs: “Rip Van Winkle” by Jon Mayer and Mark Winkler, and a new tune with lyrics by the Bergmans and music by John Clayton – “Before We Fall In Love.”
Finally, Jackie wrapped this remarkable evening with a romp through “Red Top” featuring both her scatting and her vocalese in another vivid display of her extraordinary abilities.
Reveling in this climactic ending, one could only hope that she will increase the number of her too-rare appearances in the Southland. Either that, or start providing some videos for her fans who would like to have more frequent contact with Jackie Ryan and her music.
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Click HERE to read a recent iRoM review of Jackie Ryan’s new album, “Listen Here.”
Photos by Faith Frenz.