Live Music: The Real Vocal String Quartet in a Siskiyou Music Project Concert

May 11, 2015

By Don Heckman

Talent, Oregon. “Real Vocal String Quartet.” The words on the program guide seemed almost contradictory. What was it to be? One or the other? A vocal ensemble or a string quartet?

But when the four gifted members of the Real Vocal String Quartet began their concert Sunday night in the performance room of the beautiful Paschal Winery in Talent, Oregon, all the seemingly contradictory aspects of their name immediately disappeared.

The transformation began with “Kyili Turam,” a piece inspired by the Quartet’s fascination with world music, in this case from Macedonia. Starting with a full bodied string quartet opening, the four instrumentalists – still playing — moved close to their vocal microphones and enriched the string sounds with lush, four voice harmonies. The effect was astonishing, orchestral in its size, utterly gripping in its emotional impact. And it was just the beginning of the memorable program offered by the versatile artists of the Real Vocal String Quartet – violinists Irene Sazor and Alisa Rose, violist Matthias McIntire and cellist Jessica Ivry.

The Real Vocal String Quartet at the Paschal Winery

To say that the music was imaginative in every aspect of the word would only begin to describe a program that reached across a boundary-less array of genres. Classical, jazz, blues, Americana, fiddle music, world music and much more, all of it performed via a mesmerizing blend of authenticity and brilliant inventiveness – vocally, instrumentally and in combinations of both.

Titles were either unannounced or identified too quickly to register. But no matter; the significant information resided in the fact that most of the music was original, written or arranged by the four players – offering even more evidence of the expansive skills of this remarkable ensemble.

There were far too many highlights to list in the group’s eclectic selections. One of the most fascinating was a free improvisation, a completely spontaneous, unwritten, on-the-spot, brilliant four part composition. It’s a technique other groups have tried – dating back to the free jazz era of the ’60s. But I’ve rarely heard it delivered with the Vocal String Quartet’s inventive musical authority.

Another piece – violist Matthias McIntire’s whimsically titled “California Residents Blissful Despite Impending Earthquake” – displayed another quality, employing the group’s vocal/instrumental timbres with impressionistic impact.

The Real Vocal String Quartet (Matthias McIntire, Jessica Ivry, Irene Sazor and Alisa Rose)

In addition to their remarkable skills as an inventive musical collective, the four principals of the Vocal Jazz Quartet also displayed unique solo abilities. Each revealed convincing improvisational abilities. The two violinists – Irene Sazor and Alisa Rose – tossed riffs back and forth, slipping and sliding through blues licks, with the ease of a bebop jam. McIntire added an equal jazz authenticity to his soloing. And cellist Jessica Ivry energized the rhythm with Ron Carter-like bass lines interspersed with arching, classical counter melodies.

It was, in short, an evening overflowing with much to enjoy. The Real Vocal String Quartet, despite its seemingly confusing title, left this listener, no doubt among many others, with an evening that will be long remembered.

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First photo by Faith Frenz.

Second photo by Lenny Gonzalez, courtesy of Real Vocal String Quartet.

Live Music: Deana Martin at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

May 9, 2015

By James DeFrances

Perhaps we should be referring to her as the “Princess of Cool.” Last Sunday night, singer Deana Martin, daughter of the original “King of Cool,” Dean Martin, appeared at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. in Bel-Air. It was an evening of musical enrichment, great food and big smiles.

The adoration Deana’s fans have for her is unmatched by most other performers. At times throughout the night it seemed like a love-fest more than a concert! But Deana has a thorough understanding of what presenting a well-balanced show entails, and therefore she gives the onlookers metered doses from her figurative pyramid of entertainment. Whether it’s singing a song, telling a joke, recalling a story or providing commentary for her photo and video presentation, Deana is in complete control.

Deana Martin

Deana Martin

The room was full of friends, family, and legends of Hollywood’s golden age. Although it was an evening of classics and standards from the Great American Songbook, Deana has a knack for making something that’s very vintage into something entirely current. She also performed an abundance of her father’s songs, much to the delight of the audience, but she placed a very evident “Deana Martin” watermark on the tunes.

Songs like: “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” and “Ain’t That a Kick in The Head” were crowd pleasers. Deana went on to perform an electronic duet of “True Love” which she recorded with her father at Capitol Records’ studios. The duet was complete with audio-video monitors of Dean singing with an orchestral backing track. Other tunes that dotted the set list included an engaging version of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” a punch in the face version of “That’s Life” and an audience participation version of “That’s Amore.”

My personal favorite of the night was a tender, slow swing, bossa style arrangement of “Quando, Quando Quando.” The Pat Boone ’60s hit attracted the complete attention of the audience to center stage. And even though ”Quando, Quando Quando” is a song that’s done frequently by other singers, Deana’s breathtakingly good read and stellar arrangement left a vivid memory.

Deana Martin and her band.

Deana Martin and her band.

Expertly backed by a small group of Hollywood A-list musicians – including pianist Rick Krive, drummer Kendall Kay, saxophonist Mark Visher, bassist Chuck Berghofer and guitarist John Chiodini – the only way to go was up. But shows like these aren’t rare occurrences for Deana who, along with her man-of-many-hats husband John Griffith, completes over 280 performances annually all around the globe.

Deana is sprightly, full of youth and a genuinely nice person to strike up a conversation with. Match this with her concise phrasing, great pitch and superb resume and you have a winning trifecta.

Hey, maybe it runs in the family!

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Photos by James DeFrances.

To read more reviews by (and about) James DeFrances click HERE.


Highlights of the Long Weekend: In Los Angeles

April 15, 2015

By Don Heckman

Anne-Sophie Mutter

Anne-Sophie Mutter

– April 16. (Thurs.) The Mutter Bronfman Harrell Trio. Three international virtuosi – violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, pianist Yefim Bronfman and cellist Lynn Harrell – apply their remarkable skills to a program of classic piano trios: Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 97 “Archduke” and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. Valley Performing Arts Center. (818) 677-8800.

Pat Senatore

– April 16. (Thurs.) The Pat Senatore Trio. A cross-generational performance, with veteran bassist Senatore finding common creative ground with rising young stars Josh Nelson, piano, and Dan Schnelle, drums. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

– April 16 – 19. (Thurs. – Sun.) The Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Neeme Jarvi, perform an evening of Brahms: Symphony No. 4 and the Tragic Overture. Violinist Martin Chalifour is aso featured on Suk’s Romantic Reverie. Disney Hall.  (323) 850-2000.

Kevin Bachelder and Jason Lee Bruns

Kevin Bachelder and Jason Lee Bruns

-April 17. (Fri.) Jason Lee Bruns Jazz Collective. Drummer Bruns and singer Kevin Bachelder celebrate the release of their dynamic new CD, Cherry Avenue. The E-Spot at Vitello’s.  (818) 769-0905.

– April 18. (Sat.) An Evening With Gilberto Gil. The great Brazilian singer/songwriter makes a rare Southland appearance. Center for the Art of Performance at U.C.L.A.  (310) 825-0768.

Judy Wexler

Judy Wexler

-Apil 18. (Sat.) Judy Wexler. Convincingly singing and swinging her way across pop through jazz, Judy is a uniquely original artist.  This time out, she celebrates her “Surreal 60th Birthday Bash.” The E-Spot at Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

– April 18. (Sat.) The Martha Graham Dance Company. The great dance company performs a set of Graham classics: Appalachian Spring, Lamentation Variations, Errand and Echo-Foniadakis. Valley Performing Arts Center.
(818) 677-8800.

– April 19 (Sun.) Omar Sosa. For years, Sosa has been finding fascinating creative connections between jazz and many other areas of the world’s music. He’s backed by Leandro Saint-Hill, saxophones, flute; Ernesto Simpson, drums; Childo Tomas, electric bass. Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

Denise Donatelli

Denise Donatelli

– April 19. (Sun.) Denise Donatelli. Listening to Denise’s warm embracing voice and the buoyant swing she brings to every performance — recorded and live — inevitably raises the question as to why this gifted vocalist still hasn’t received a Grammy. But, awards or not, she continues to offer performances that are always memorable events. Don’t miss this one. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

Highlight of the Mid-Week in L.A.: Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill at the Gardenia

March 31, 2015

by Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA. No April Foolin’ around on this April 1st at the Gardenia, Hollywood’s musically rich cabaret room. The arrival of Bay area singer Wesla Whitfield and her pianist/husband Mike Greensill is a guarantee that Wednesday night will showcase a memorable evening of classics from the Great American Songbook.

Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill

Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill

I first wrote about Wesla in a Los Angeles Times 1988 Review, describing her “as a singer who not only tells a story with the dramatic sensitivity of a superb actress, but who has evolved into a marvelously subtle, jazz-based interpreter.” In the intervening decades I heard Wesla many times and wrote more reviews. And in each, I had to stretch my vocabulary of praise in an effort to describe the growing expressiveness and musicality of her art.

Wesla and Mike are based in the Bay area, performing in major venues across the U.S. and beyond. But her appearances in the Los Angeles area are rare, making Wednesday’s performance at the Gardenia – a room with the intimacy to see and hear Wesla up close and personal – an opportunity not to be missed.

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So How Great Were Wesla and Mike In Their Performance At The Gardenia?

Here’s a brief review by a member of the audience.

By Bruce Lohman:

Wesla’s performance was extraordinary.  She really has it all—a truly lovely timbre, perfectly placed pitch, sustained pianissimo high notes that make your heart stop, fresh compelling takes on standards that you don’t want to end, compelling takes on not-so-standards that you don’t want to end, endings that suspend in mid-air leaving you holding your breath,  a gifted husband who provides piano support that is not only arresting in and of itself, but is perfectly matched to her style and grace.

And I have to say, the combination of Mike Greensill, Wesla, and the sweetness of the Gardenia piano, along with the stars, were simply in perfect alignment.  It wasn’t just a performance—it was a musical experience.  Mike even sang himself—yet another ear-opening revelation in this memorable night.

The Gardenia is at 7066 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood. (323) 467-7444.


Live Chamber Music: The Daedalus Quartet

March 9, 2015

By Don Heckman

Ashland, Oregon. It was string quartet time again Friday and Saturday at Southern Oregon University’s Music Recital Hall. The spotlight was on the Daedalus Quartet, with violist Martin Beaver added for the final piece on the program.

Like the season’s previous string quartet programs presented by Chamber Music Concerts, the evening offered a compelling view of the far ranging compositional creativity that the seemingly minimal quartet instrumentation (two violins, viola and cello) has inspired in composers over the course of three centuries.

This time, two works from the Romantic period – one by Robert Schumann, another by Felix Mendelssohn – book-ended a 20th century piece by Russian/Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Each provided its own interpretive challenges to the Daedalus players (violinists Min-Young Kim and Matilda Kaul, violist Jessica Thompson and cellist Thomas Kraines), who responded with an impressive blend of technical virtuosity and interpretive excellence.

Daedalus Quartet: Matilda Kaul, Min-Young Kim, Jessica Thompson, Thomas Kraines

Schumann’s String Quartet in F Major, Op.41 opened the program. The piece’s vibrant opening Allegro Vivace and closing Allegro Molto Vivace are definitive examples of Schumann’s dedication to the rich emotionalism of the Romantic era.

Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann

Both a critic and a composer, he was that rare example of a music commentator who could match musical recommendations with accomplishments of his own. The Daedalus players perfectly captured the vibrant enthusiasm that Schumann invested in the Quartet. Playful at times, deeply emotional elsewhere, they began the evening with a performance perfectly indicating the musical pleasures that were yet to come.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg

Mieczyslaw Weinberg

It would, however, be a stretch to use the word “pleasures” in the context of Weinberg’s String Quartet No. 10, OP. 85. Weinberg lived a troubled life in Stalin’s Soviet Union, surviving as a composer because of his friendship with Shostakovich. His affection for dissonance caused problems, yet he refused to modify his creative vision. And it was vividly present in his String Quartet, which was, from beginning to end, a virtual primer in half tone dissonances.

To the credit of the Daedalus players, they played Weinberg’s difficult music, despite its demanding pitch relationships, with alacrity. More than a technical achievement, it was a remarkable display of collective musical togetherness.

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn

By the time the program reached the final work, Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 1 in A Major, it was received as a welcome glance back to Romanticism. And the Quintet (with the addition of violist Beaver) made the switch from Weinberg, happily embracing Mendelssohn’s captivating work. Interestingly, it too included technical challenges. But Mendelssohn positioned them within delightfully amiable blends of melody and rhythm. Given the far ranging aspects of the evening’s music, the Mendelssohn provided the perfect ending.

All kudos then, to Chamber Music Concerts and its Executive Director Jody Schmidt. For this music fan, along with many others, CMC’s thoughtfully chosen programs are among the many pleasures of living in Ashland.

* * * * * * * *

Photo of Daedalus Quartet by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Live Music: The Bill Frisell Quartet at the Ashland Armory.

January 31, 2015

By Don Heckman

Ashland, Oregon. It’s been considerably more than two decades since I first wrote about a Bill Frisell program – a review in 1989 for the Los Angeles Times. I covered several other Frisell events for the Times in the interim, as well. And, although there were a few performances that aroused some disapproving responses, most of what I heard was consistent with a comment I made in that first review: “Frisell may well become one of the most provocative voices of the ’90s.”

Which he did, and which he has continued to do, well into the new century. And his performance at the Ashland Armory Thursday night was a good example of another comment I made in that early review, describing Frisell as “an artist with serious intentions.”

Intentions that were fully on display in the hour and a half set offered by Frisell and his creatively supportive associates, steel guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist Tony Scheer and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

Greg Leisz, Tony Scheer, Kenny Wollesen and Bill Frisell

The performance was consistent with the approach Frisell has taken in recent years – a musical collective impressively blending pre-planned arrangements with vividly alive, improvisational spontaneity. The impact was enhanced by an almost non-stop flow of music. A few numbers concluded with lengthy, emotionally layered endings. More often, one piece after another blended amiably together without a break, handled with ease by Frisell and his world class musical companions.

This fascinating approach was applied to Frisell’s characteristic interest in a wide stylistic range of material. And he touched most of his interests – from country and Americana to blues, groove and beyond. Some of the instantly compelling moments were provided by a ¾ country tune juxtaposed against some country swing, a touching version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the Americana classic, “Shenandoah” and a few compelling excursions into blues and rock.

Typically, Frisell had almost nothing to say to the enthusiastic, packed house crowd, clearly preferring to let the music speak for itself, a wise choice. Suffice to say that Frisell and his world class players were in rare form, individually and collectively.

And, as this captivating evening came to a close, I couldn’t help but feel pleased that my decades-old comments about the future potential of Frisell’s artistry had accurately forecast the extent of his remarkable, still growing career.

* * * * * * * *

Photo by Paul Moore courtesy of Bill Frisell.

* * * * * * * *

It’s also worth noting that this was my first review of a performance at the Ashland Armory. And, despite the venue’s large, open space, its acoustics were surprisingly good. I look forward to doing more reviews in this musically friendly space.

Picks of the Weekend: January 23 – 25 in Los Angeles

January 23, 2015

By Don Heckman

It’s a slow week for music venues around the world, but there’s always a lot happening in L.A. Here’s a sampling for this weekend.

Tango Buenos Aires

Tango Buenos Aires

Jan. 23 (Fri.) Tango Buenos Aires. The Argentinian dance ensemble applies the erotic dance movements of the tango to “The Song of Eva Peron,” a work inspired by one of Argentina’s most memorable historical figures. Valley Performing Arts Center. (818) 677-8800.

Emanuel Ax

Emanuel Ax

   – Jan. 23 – 25 (Fri – Sun.)   Emanuel Ax Plays Chopin. The revered veteran pianist Ax performs Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Miguel Harth-Bedoya. And there’s more – the Phil, conducted by Harth-Bedoya, also offers a performance of Prokofiev’s rarely heard Suite from the ballet Cinderella. Disney Hall.  (323) 850-2000.

– Jan. 23 (Fri.)  Tony Galla.  His warm baritone voice sets the mood all over television in shows such as The L Word, The Wedding Planner and more.  Here’s an opportunity to hear Galla’s eclectic balladry up close and personal.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

Jan. 23 & 25. (Fri. & Sun.) The Jazz Ministry. The father and son team of drummer Abraham Laboriel, Jr. and bassist Abraham Laboriel, Sr. join up with keyboardist Greg Mathieson and guitarist Michael Landau in an inspiring exploration of the soulful roots of jazz. The Baked Potato.  (818) 980-1615.

Lauren Chipman

Lauren Chipman

Jan. 24. (Sat.) The New West Symphony. Conducted by Boris Brott, one of the Southland’s most adventurous ensembles takes on a far reaching program that includes Respighi’s Pines of Room, Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien and Rossini’s Overture to William Tell. Also on the bill – Mike Garson‘s newly comissioned Viola Variations on a Theme of Paganini, featuring violist Lauren Chipman. The Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. . (805) 449-2100.

Tom Scott

Tom Scott

Jan. 24. (Sat.) Tom Scott with the Ron Kobayshi Trio. Grammy Award winner Scott, always a compelling improviser, will be at his best in the sterling company of the Kobayshi players. Steamers.  (714) 871-8800.

Jan. 25. (Sun.) The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra plays Vivaldi and Schubert. The ensemble’s deeply descriptive interpretive skills are at their most impressive in a program reaching across a century of classical genres. A CAP UCLA concert at Royce Hall.  (310) 825-2210.

Jan. 25. (Sun.) Ron Jones Influence Jazz Orchestra and singer Seth MacFarlane. Catalina . (323) 466-2210. Animation producer, director and creator (of show such as Family Guy and American Guy) MacFarlane also has ambitions to display his creativity as a singer, as well. Click HERE.To read an iRoM review of a previous performance by MacFarlane and the Jones Orchestra.  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.


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