Live Music: Robert Davi at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

October 24, 2014

By Don Heckman

Bel Air. Robert Davi was back at Herb Alpert’s elegant Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. at the top of Beverly Glen last night. And, as always happens in his performances, he spent most of his program demonstrating his belief in the Great American Songbook as “America’s Shakespeare.”

Robert Davi

Robert Davi

Davi, whose acting career began in a film starring Frank Sinatra, has been one of the most convincing Sinatra-influenced vocal stylists for most of his career. But, unlike the growing cadre of Sinatra wannabees, he’s never been an imitator. Inspired by Ol’ Blue Eyes, he has instead invested the lyrical expressiveness and rhythmic swing of the style with his own considerable interpretive skills.

As he did Thursday night at Vibrato. Backed by a solid, six piece band led by his music director, pianist Andy Waldman, Davi offered a program mixing Sinatra classics with an intriguing range of tunes from a variety of other sources.

For many responsive listeners, the Sinatra songbook items – “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Just One of Those Things,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “That Old Black Magic,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “The Best Is Yet To Come” and “That’s Life” among them – were the high points. And there’s no disputing the fact that they were brought vividly to life within a Sinatra framing shaped by the Davi imagination.

Roberto Davi and his band.

Roberto Davi and his band.

Other songs were equally persuasive: a warmly intimate reading of “Moonlight In Vermont”; a stunning medley of “Old Man River” and “River Stay Away From My Door,” thoroughly displaying the rich timbres of Davi’s mellow baritone voice; a Broadway stage-worthy version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”; and a rendering of “New York, New York” deeply touching the heart of every former New Yorker (including this one) in the room.

Robert Davi walking the room

Robert Davi walking the room

Davi enhanced lengthy segments of many songs with tours through Vibrato’s forest of tables, using a wireless microphone to create an informal, living room setting. And he was typically humorous, as well, often jokingly arguing with some of his show biz friends in the crowd about the correct identities of various songwriters. In one especially amusing segment, he recalled meeting “Russia’s Frank Sinatra” during a concert program in Russia. Imitating what he heard, Davi sang “The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else” with what can best be described as a hilarious Russian accent.

Robert Davi

Robert Davi

As he has done in past performances, Davi also sang “The House I Live In,” from a mid-’40s short film, featuring Sinatra. The film, rare for the time, offered powerful opposition to Anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. And Davi, always a strong supporter of the best characteristics in American culture, underscored the song’s contemporary value at a time when those characteristics are most needed.

In sum, Davi’s performance was a virtual seminar in how to bring imagination, creativity, musicality and the sheer pleasures of entertainment to a beautifully expressed evening of song. And it was done so well that it aroused – for this listener – a feeling I’ve occasionally had at past Davi performances: the desire to hear his extraordinary skills at the service of a even wider repertoire of songs.

Among the possibilities: more works by the incomparable Alan and Marilyn Bergman; more songs by Leonard Bernstein; and Davi is more than versatile enough, as well, to find some offbeat musical riches in the singer/songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s.

That said, Davi’s performance was another musical night to remember. And when he returns to the Vibrato stage, we’ll be there once again, packing the house, along with his legions of enthusiastic fans.

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Photos by Faith Frenz

Live Music: Charles Aznavour at the Greek Theatre

September 15, 2014

By Don Heckman

What is there to say about a 90 year old French singer/songwriter with the ability to mesmerize a packed house at the Greek Theatre? Not much that Charles Aznavour didn’t himself say at the Greek on Saturday night. Not just in his words, although there were plenty, in both French and English. What Aznavour had to say was based on musicality, lyricism, emotion and warmly intimate communication.

There may come a time when the vision of a nonagenarian singing a nearly two hour long program, strolling, sometimes dancing, across the stage, interacting humorously with his listeners and his musicians and winding up seeming as energetic as when he began, won’t be a rarity. But until that enlightened time, anyone who’s been fortunate enough to see and hear Aznavour in action – Saturday night at the Greek and elsewhere – will surely remember the experience as the rare and remarkable event that it was.

Sometimes described as France’s Sinatra, Aznavour performed with the kind of dynamism associated with Ol’ Blue Eye’s live performances. But Aznavour, who is also a brilliant songwriter, with a thousand or more songs to his credit, in four different languages had a more far ranging set of creative skills to offer.

Add to that his extraordinary ease on stage. At one point he paused in singing to address the age old question directed at songwriters – What came first, the words or the music? And on one song, he was joined in a delightful duet by one of his daughters.

The program of Aznavour originals ran the gamut of his grand catalog of works. Among them, such Aznavour classics as “Mon Ami, Mon Judas,” “La Boheme,” “She,” “Je Voyage,” his remarkably touching “Ave Maria,” one of his most-covered songs, “Yesterday, When I Was Young” and “What Makes A Man,” the song that triggered some of the most enthusiastic audience response of the evening.

But the central, most mesmerizing aspect of this memorable performance was the still potent quality of Aznavour’s captivating vocals. Soaring across octaves, from a rich baritone to penetrating head tones, he brought each phrase vividly to life, applying his stunning musicality to the story-telling enhancement of every song.

Rumors of Aznavour’s retirement were heard over the past year in Europe and the U.S. But he has repeatedly denied them. One can only hope that he will in fact return again to Los Angeles, and the many other cities on his usual itinerary before he actually does write finis to his incomparable performance career. Charles Aznavour is, has been and will always be one of a kind.

Photos by Bonnie Perkinson

Live Music: “Stradivarius Fiddlefest” by members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at the Broad Stage

March 30, 2014

by Don Heckman

Santa Monica, CA. The opportunity to hear an actual Stradivarius violin in action is the sort of rare musical event that would be a delight to most classical music fans. But the opportunity to hear five of the legendary instruments, played by a group of superb violinists from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, is a memorable, one of a kind music event.

And that’s what we experienced on Friday night at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica in a LACO program titled “Stradivarius Fiddlefest.” The program was a virtual definition of violin compositions at their finest, some classic, some contemporary. The first half of the program included works by Telemann, Moszkowski, Kreisler, Brahms, Corigliano and Franck. The second half was equally compelling, featuring compositions by Saint-Saens, de Sarasate, Ravel, Kreisler, Piazzolla and Bartok.

The Serdet Stradivarius

The Serdet Stradivarius

The focus of the evening, of course, was on the instruments themselves. Dating from the early 1700s, they were crafted by Stradivari himself during his “Golden Period.” And it didn’t take a violin aficionado to fully appreciate the qualities of the instruments – from the lush, richness of their sound to the articulateness of their virtuosity.
But the program, in its fullness, was at its most compelling in the dramatic interfacing between the magnificence of the instruments and the extraordinary skills of the violinists.

Jeffreyi Kahane

Jeffrey Kahane

Accompanied by the expressive piano playing of LACO’s Music Director, Jeffrey Kahane, the violinists – Margaret Batjer (the LACO’s concertmaster), Chee-Yun, Cho-Liang Lin, Philippe Quint and Kiang Yu – approached their instruments with a stunning blend of enthusiasm, creative intimacy and musicality.

Each violinist found a way to express his or her unique artistry in a fashion that balanced the very special qualities of the Stradivari instruments with the individual demands of the compositions.



As the program unfolded, two soloists displayed especially appealing qualities. Chee-Yun captured listeners with her passionate interpretations of the Saint-Saens and de Sarasate works.

Phillipe Quint

Phillipe Quint

And Philippe Quint was equally intense in his renderings of the Corigliano piece, and joined Chee-Yun in several works calling for two-violin interaction.

In sum, it was yet another memorable evening with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. And, like so many past LACO performances, the “Fiddlefest” offered an immensely entertaining introduction to music not often heard, performed on rare period instruments.

All plaudits, then, to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for once again offering a unique and engaging program of classical music at its finest.

* * * * * * * *

Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.


Live Music (and More): Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion at the Greek Theatre

June 11, 2013

By Mike Finkelstein

On Friday night Garrison Keillor and the cast of A Prairie Home Companion descended upon the Greek Theater ostensibly to record the latest installment of their delightfully entertaining radio show for public radio.    It was a beautiful evening as the sun started to set over Griffith Park.   You couldn’t imagine a more intimate feeling in a gathering of thousands.

As I headed to my seat, there seemed to be some commotion in front of me…and this was because Keillor had made his entrance by sauntering up in song from the stage and arriving all the way at the top of the theatre to savor the view.

A Prairie Home Companion is a unique slice of radio entertainment these days.  The show’s format is a throwback to old time radio variety shows.   It relies on the engaging voices of its host and cast to bring cleverly worded scripts to warm life.  True to the old radio tradition, listeners can’t help but let their imagination run with it to concoct their own vision of what they hear.   That’s a lost art in these times of nonstop video gratification. But the sound of it was vintage radio, even with the modern references.   How would it be with no need to imagine the proceedings?  I’m happy to say the results were thoroughly entertaining.

The Cast of A Prairie Home Companion

The rear of the stage had, naturally, a life size façade of a narrow two-story Minnesota prairie style house, as well as the logos of several of the mock sponsors of the show.    The 7-piece Shoe band, led by pianist Rich Dworsky and guitarist Pat Donohue, sat in several layers in front of the house.  Whether they were featured or setting up the atmosphere with background music, their blend of jazz, folk, and boogie was a perfect fit with the rest of the program.

To the side of the stage we had the fascinating table of gizmos and knick-knacks that Fred Farrell uses for sound effects.   His crop duster impression was perfection, as were his one-man cocktail party, flushing toilets, breaking branches (Styrofoam plate) and flapping wings.  Next to Farrell stood Tim Russell and Sue Scott.

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor

At center stage there was Garrison Keillor, moving the whole thing along so very smoothly.  The guests for the night included Martin Sheen reading scripted characters, Lily Tomlin reading scripts and making conversation, Paula Poundstone doing standup and also reading scripts and conversing.

It’s fun to watch actors and comedy artists do something formatted like reading a radio script as you can see their personalities leap forth while they read.  Ah, the lost art of simply reading aloud with panache.   Lily Tomlin got to deliver the line, conversationally, “What is reality but a collective hunch?” and Tim Russell got on a roll with his impressions of George W. Bush, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Tom Brokaw, and even Henry Kissinger.

The musical guests included semi-regular PHC members, the singing sisters Jearlynn and Jevetta Steele.   They gave the music a gospel feel when they sang, very up beat and just as joyous.  Colin Hay, formerly of Men at Work, performed solo.  He is an engaging storyteller, a man with different guitar for each song, and he has a big, rich voice.  It’s been a while since I’ve heard “Overkill,” but I remembered how good the lyrics were when I first heard them.

Between the skits, monologues, musical numbers, and mock ads, one becomes aware that there is a prodigious amount of material and coordination that goes into putting these shows together on a weekly basis.   Whoa!   In one monologue Keillor told us about the descent into LAX and filled us in on fine details of places like Whittier, Southgate, and who is buried in the Inglewood Cemetery.  Speeches like this take a fair amount of research every week.

There was so much beautiful rhyme woven into the night’s dialogue.   It was also there in the lyrics of the songs, the ads, and even in a touching poem that Keillor wrote for a neighbor’s cat (“they are God’s beauty”).   Well, the show was sponsored by P.O.E.M (the Professional Organization of English Majors).

"The Adventures of Guy Noir"

“The Adventures of Guy Noir”

No PHC show would be complete without an episode of Guy Noir, private eye.  This installment featured erudite flirtations between Keillor and Tomlin, plenty of alliteration, and an amusing dissection of the lyrics to doo wop songs like “Who Put The Bomp,” and “Who Wrote The Book Of Love.”   The actors were clearly enjoying the humor in the written words and riffing a bit with it, too.

During this two and a half hours show there were a whole lot of ideas touched upon.  Many times we noticed how little time it took to get a pretty deep observation about people over to the audience.  Near the end of the show Keilor told us about the time he was asked to give the commencement speech at his high school.  He went on to describe how he didn’t speak about the lifelong bonds that we make with people from our youth (that they are our tribe), but about instead about success.   It turned into a heartfelt reminiscence of his youth — and then the principal mentioned how hard it is to get a good graduation speaker.

But I’m guessing Garrison Keillor actually gave a great speech at Lake Wobegon High School.

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Photos courtesy of the Prairie Home Companion.

To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

Live Music: The Tenors at the Greek Theatre

June 3, 2013

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles, The Tenors – all four of them – surged onto the Greek Theatre stage Saturday night with all the panache and enthusiasm of the hot music act they have become.  There have been various installments of the quartet since they were originally formed as The Canadian Tenors.  But the current members —  Fraser Walters, Clifton Murray, Victor Micallef and Remigio Pereira – have mastered the musicality, the humor and the appealing blend of rich, ensemble singing and stylish soloing that are the essence of the Tenors’ identity.

Over the course of two sets, the music roved freely across genres, fully illuminating the Tenors’ far-reaching versatility.  Many of the tunes traced to their latest album, Lead With Your Heart.  They sang their hit version of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” and countered it with a sort of Elvis Presley imitation on “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

The Tenors: Fraser Walters, Remigio Pereira, Victor Micallef and Clifton Murray

And there was much more: a delightfully passionate reading of the Spanish classic, “Granada”; the Italian love song, “Caruso”; a song from “Les Miserables”; “Lead With Your Heart,” the title song from the Tenors’ new album, as well as their PBS special.

Add to that a three song medley in which they featured the fine players in their backup group; a Tenors’ reworking of the song “A Woman In Love,” from a male perspective; a soaring “Amazing Grace”; “Anchor Me”; and a climactic “Nessun Dorma.”  Nor were they allowed to leave the stage without performing their memorable interpretation of  Leonard Cohen’s “Hallellujah.”

The melodic leads passed from one singer to another, alternating with the lush harmonic textures of all four voices together.  And, because each of the tenors has an individual vocal texture, the solo passages were filled with emotional variation, and the ensemble segments came vividly to life via the colorful blending of sounds.

In addition to their impressive individual and collective musicality, the four tenors also emerged as appealing individuals.  Each had a solo segment in which to introduce his background and fully display his individual voicess.  They did so with wit and an engaging interaction with their audience.  And their listeners, understandably, seemed to respond with even more applause and cheers as they came to know each of the quartet members – beyond their obvious vocal mastery.

They also included a pair of guest artists to their program: singer Rita Wilson and producer/composer/pianist David Foster, both of whom made their unique contributions.

But the evening belonged to The Tenors. To their singing, to their musicality, to their entertaining collection of songs, and to their warm and irresistible amiability.

Live Jazz: Cheryl Bentyne at Vitello’s

April 8, 2013

By Don Heckman

Studio City, CA.  The stage setting for Cheryl Bentyne’s performance at Vitello’s Friday night seemed surprisingly spare.  An acoustic bass and a music stand on the left, a pair of guitars and a music stand on the right, and a stool and a vocal mic in the middle.

That was it.  “Up Close & Personal” was the title Cheryl gave her performance.  And it was right on target: Kevin Axt on bass, Wayne Johnson on guitar, and Cheryl in the center. No drums, no piano, no horns.  None of which were needed in two sets of exquisite songs performed with intimate lyrical and musical clarity.  One couldn’t have asked for more.

A multiple Grammy-winning member of the Manhattan Transfer, Cheryl has long been drawn to a far-ranging collection of material, with the Transfer, as well as her superb solo performances.  And on this magical evening, her choices combined to illuminate a gallery of what might best be described as contemporary art song.

Several familiar standards – “Love For Sale,” “I’m A Fool To Want You” and “It Might As Well Be Spring” — book-ended the evening with Cheryl’s convincing interpretations.

Her versatility surfaced with more pop oriented songs from Nelly MacKay, k.d. lang, Lennon & McCartney, Leonard Cohen, Melody Gardot and Patricia Barber.  And Cheryl displayed her jazz perspectives with Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues,” Matt Dennis’ “Angel Eyes” and Landesman/Wolf’s “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.”

As if that wasn’t a fully adequate expression of her versatility, Cheryl also included several lush film melodies by Ennio Morriconne, enhanced by her own lyrics.

Kevin Axt, Cheryl Bentyne and Wayne Johnson

Each tune was supported – often in brilliantly spontaneous fashion – by the stirring contributions of Axt and Johnson.  And, in addition to their keenly balanced backing, they offered inventive solo passages.

Ultimately, of course, even the most appealing program of songs – no matter how eclectic – calls for convincing vocal interpretations.  And Cheryl’s readings, with their rich musicality, reached into the inner heart of everything she sang.

She is, seemingly by nature as well as skill, a dramatic performing artist.  Whether she was swinging her way through “Senor Blues,” capturing the deep intimacies of the Cohen and Barber songs, as well as her Morriconne collaborations, or telling her sometimes jocular between-songs remarks, she was utterly captivating.

By the time Cheryl concluded the long embraces of her two sets of songs, the only thing missing was perhaps another word to add to the program’s title.  It might more accurately have said “Up Close, Musical & Personal.”

* * * * * * * *

Photos by Faith Frenz.

Live Music: Bobby McFerrin at Disney Concert Hall

April 4, 2013

By Don Heckman

There’s one thing that can almost always be anticipated about a Bobby McFerrin appearance: that there’s no telling what to expect. His performance at Disney Hall Wednesday night, for example, seemed to be specifically on track, with the whimsical title, “Spirityouall,” announcing a program honoring his father, Robert McFerrin, Sr., an operatic baritone and interpreter of spirituals.

And the evening did indeed overflow with spirituals, from classics such as “Wade in the Water” to McFerrin originals. But the songs – as always in a McFerrin performance – were just the starting points for startlingly creative musical expeditions.

Bobby McFerrin

Bobby McFerrin

At the center of each song was the astonishing McFerrin voice. Blessed with an extraordinary instrument, reaching over several octaves, capable of leaping giant intervals in a single bound, there were no limits to his expressive potential. Whether simply arching warmly through a familiar melody, adding his own inventive variations or showcasing his remarkable vocal gymnastics, he was utterly fascinating. And he enhanced his appeal with a wry sense of humor and compelling interaction with his musicians.

Which raises another vital aspect of this mesmerizing evening – the presence of a quintet of musical artists completely in sync with McFerrin’s every subtle improvisational twist and turn. At the keyboards (and accordion) Gil Goldstein also served as musical director and arranger; David Mansfield doubled on guitar, mandolin and violin; Armand Hirsch also played guitar and mandolin; Jeff Carney payed contrabass; and Louis Cato doubled impressively on drum set, percussion and back up vocals.

There were far too many high points to mention them all. Among the most memorable:

  • A version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” ranging from pensive to gently swinging.
  • “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho”: enhanced by McFerrin’s high flying scatting; it’s hard to name any current jazz singer who can vocally improvise with his rhythmic elan and melodic inventiveness.
  • The emotionally touching originals, “Woe” and “Jesus Makes It Good” (performed by McFerrin at the piano).
  • A stunning, bebop-driven trio medley with bassist Carney and drummer Cato.
  • And another medley, this time with a distinctly bluegrass slant, featuring violinist Mansfield and keyboardist Goldstein.
  • Add to all that McFerrin’s frequent singalong interactions with his receptive audience, as well as a living room moment in which he asked any listeners who so desired to join him at the stage to share a song. And a few did, enthusiastically doing their best with “Amen.”

McFerrin wrapped the program with an encore version of “Wade in the Water,” a final reminder of his extraordinary creative gifts, and a delightfully conclusive ending to a memorable musical adventure.


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