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

December 14, 2012

By Don Heckman

Robert Davi made a return visit to Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc., Wednesday and Thursday nights.  And, once again, Herb Alpert’s elegant jazz club was overflowing with enthusiastic listeners eager to hear singer/actor Davi’s engaging tribute to Frank Sinatra.

The timing couldn’t have been better.

Wednesday, December 12, was Old Blue Eyes’ 97th birthday.  A year ago, Davi celebrated Sinatra’s 96th birthday with the release of the Davi Sings Sinatra: On The Road To Romance,  establishing his deep understanding of the Sinatra canon of song.  This time out, however, Davi stepped away from the big band settings usually associated with Sinatra.  Instead, he took a different musical path, using a sextet similar to a group Sinatra used in a 1962 world tour.

The results were fascinating, the smaller ensemble’s lighter back up sounds opening space for Davi to sing with compelling musicality, while reaching into the heart of a song.  Like Sinatra, his phrasing evoked the richest story-telling aspects of a song.

And Davi did so with a program of material underscoring his assertion that the Great American Songbook is America’s Shakespeare.  He cruised through more than twenty songs – starting with high spirited renderings of “I’ve Got The World On A String” and “At Long Last Love.”

Robert Davi

He thoroughly recalled the Sinatra mood and memory with songs that have been virtually embossed with the unique Sinatra stylings – songs such as “Fly Me To The Moon,” “I’ve Got the World On A String” and “”The Best Is Yet To Come,”  (among others). And Davi did so within the warm, interpretive embrace of his own style.  Between songs, he recalled his affection for and friendship with Sinatra.  Occasionally telling a story or a joke related to his Italian heritage, he was quick to identify songwriters (a practice many singers have nearly forgotten).

Davi also included the rarely heard Johnny Mercer ballad “The Summer Wind,” as well as a jaunty reading of “Luck Be A Lady,” Frank Loesser’s gambler’s plea from the musical Guys and Dolls.  And of course “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” with the sextet performing with the same brio of the familiar big band arrangement.

Difficult as it may be to find a single highlight in such a superb program, I can’t overlook the remarkable, mid’40s work, “The House I Live In,” a powerful cry against racism and bigotry Sinatra performed in a short documentary film of the same name.

Davi’s reading of it was equally powerful, generated by the combination of Davi’s convincing interpretive skills and a memorable work, written by Abel Meeropol (who also wrote “Strange Fruit”).

Singing for an audience that included the iconic producer/arranger/composer Quincy Jones and the brilliant jazz pianist Alfredo Rodriguez among its celebrity listeners, Davi stayed with the songs — poised, confident and musical.

Inspired by Sinatra, whom he performed with in his first film, Contract On Cherry St., Davi honored his memory in the best possible way – with a brilliant evening recalling the best of the Sinatra songbook.

Live Jazz: Bonnie Bowden at Vitello’s

May 8, 2012

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.

Here, There & Everywhere: Sing! Sing! Sing!

December 23, 2011

By Don Heckman

Christmas caroling was a regular seasonal activity in my young life.  Growing up in an Eastern Pennsylvania rust belt city, singing carols while slip-sliding our way across icy sidewalks was as necessary to the holiday as going to Mass on Christmas eve.  In a way, it was an equally necessary counter to the darker side of what we’d done on Halloween, when enacting tricks was a lot more common than  asking for treats.

All of which went through my mind last night when Faith and I took our lovely ten year old granddaughter, Maia, to the Victorian Mansion for “Candlelight Carols” by Judy Wolman, Howard Lewis and “Sing! Sing! Sing!”  And one couldn’t have asked for a more delightfully atmospheric setting to join in a holiday music singalong than the elegant wood-paneled room that jazz fans will recall as the former site of the much-missed jazz club, “The Vic.”

At the beginning, Wolman reminded me that she, Lewis and their group of singers had been doing these holiday celebrations for 20 years.  Not only that, of course, but also their continuing programs of participatory jaunts through the rich musical landscape of the Great American Songbook.  (Programs devoted to Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael and others are already scheduled for 2012.)

The “Candlelight Carols” program characteristically reached out to embrace the Songbook – with selections from Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc. — as well as a collection of traditional carols.  And the format was as comfortable and inviting as a holiday evening in a close friend’s living room.

Lewis introduced each number with some fascinating background, often including nuggets of insight into the song, as well as its creators.  Then Wolman — a superb piano accompanist, backed by Chris Conner’s bass, Dick Weller’s drums and some warm melody-making from harmonica player Ron Kalina – led the way into the song.


The audience, using lyric sheets provided by Wolman, sang along enthusiastically, sometimes even more than that.  And our granddaughter, Maia, not especially familiar with all the standards, nonetheless applied her already burgeoning musicality to every song, singing, smiling, enjoying every minute of this engaging new experience.

And what a collection of songs it was: “It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “My Favorite Things,” “White Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”  As well as “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” “The First Noel” and much, much more.

Between the singalong segments, individual singers from the Sing! Sing! Sing! vocal ensemble – Chuck Marso, Anita Royal, Jackie Manfredi and Ruth Davis – soloed.  And songwriter Jim Mann presented a brand new Christmas song, “Cheers! Cheers! Cheers!”

The sidewalks weren’t icy, and there was no snow in the forecast as we left the Victorian.  But the wind was blowing, and, as we walked hand in hand to our car, the words to one of the evening’s songs – with their perfect holiday sentiments — kept coming to mind.

           “The wind is blowing

           But I can weather the storm

            What do I care how much it may storm?

            I’ve got my love to keep me warm.”

Live Jazz: The Michael Wolff Quartet at Vitello’s

March 26, 2011

By Michael Katz

It’s always an occasion to celebrate when pianist Michael Wolff returns to LA.  On Friday night at Vitello’s he led an all-star quartet, featuring his longtime running mate John B. Williams on bass, Bob Sheppard on tenor and soprano sax and, in a rare treat for this SoCal audience, Mike Clark on drums. The quartet grabbed everyone’s attention from the start with a probing, spirited take on Wayne Shorter’s “Pinocchio.” Wolff set the chordal tone with Sheppard announcing the theme on tenor, then Michael danced around it with bright glissandos, backed by the redoubtable Williams and the dynamic rhythms of Clark.

Michael Wolff

Wolff’s arrangements offered some fresh takes on familiar tunes. A veteran of Cannonball Adderley’s last bands, he led the quartet through an updeat interpretation of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” Sheppard hit the familiar line with short, staccato bursts on soprano sax, Clark matching him with smart assertiveness. Best known from Herbie Hancock’s “Headhunters” band, Clark was a force all night long. Sharp and in command, he drove the quartet through the upbeat numbers like Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes and provided a gentler but firm backing for the ballads, including Wolff’s composition “Pandora’s Box.” The latter featured Sheppard on soprano, engaging in a haunting interplay with Wolff.

Wolff has a sometimes dark, lyrical approach to standards, and Sheppard is a perfect match for him. “Cry Me A River was a real stunner, with Wolff opening up in a dreamy, midnight setup to the tune, then Sheppard following with a thick-as-molasses evocation of the melody. Wolff took back the theme with John B Williams in support, the bittersweet meaning of the song evident in his interpretation.

Similarly, in the second set, a highlight was Wolff’s rendition of Frank Loesser’s  “If I Were A Bell.” Wolff performed this in a trio setting in his Joe’s Strut album and he announced it with the familiar minor chord at Vitello’s, but the addition of Sheppard gave it another dimension. It was an occasion for the quartet to stretch out, Williams matching a bass solo with some terrific brush work by Clark, who then picked up the sticks to drive the piece back to its familiar melody.

The band proved its versatility with a funky arrangement of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” the penultimate number in the first set, Wolff demonstrating his generational roots and Clark getting to show off a little of the Headhunters legacy. Later, in the second set, they did a funky version of Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father“, Wolff’s bright solos  again accentuated by Clark’s driving stick work.

Both sets had swinging conclusions. Wolff’s composition “Lagniappe had a Monkish quality to it, Sheppard playing with characteristic verve and Clark providing a memorable solo that crested toward the end, bringing Wolff back on top of it for a concluding solo. The second set wrapped up with a burning version  of “St. Thomas,” one of the few times I’ve heard it played where it did not sound derivative of Sonny Rollins. Michael Wolff has that effect – he shines as composer, arranger and performer, infusing every number with innovation and originality.

To read more reviews and posts by Michael Katz click HERE.


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