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.


The Herb Alpert 2015 Award in the Arts

May 1, 2015

 By Don Heckman

Herb Alpert

Herb Alpert


Herb Alpert’s at it again, encouraging young talent to display their skills by acknowledging their abilities with supportive rewards.

Today, in a lunch at the Herb Alpert Foundation in Santa Monica, the 21st annual Herb Alpert Award in the Arts was presented to five exceptional mid-career artists.

The awards recognize past performance and future promise to artists working in Dance, Film/Video, Music, Theatre and Visual Arts; an outstanding candidate in each genre receives a prize of $75,000.

Herb Alpert with winners Maria Hassabi, Taylor Mac, Sharon Lockhart and Julia Wolfe

“It’s exciting,” said Alpert, “to be able to support these five unique artists who are always on the hunt for something they don’t yet know, something real that touches us in a deep place. Whether they are writing a concerto, making a film, an installation, a ruckus or a dance, they always look for something special and original to say. These are artists with the passion, talent and the restlessness that never makes them stop. They HAVE TO make art not just for themselves… but for all of US.”

The five 2015 winners, with the Alpert panel’s explanations for granting the awards,  are:

Maria Hassabi, for changing the nature of spectatorship, for challenging conventional ideas about performance, for stripping away busyness and the ornamentation of dancing to allow for rare contemplative experience.

Sharon Lockhart, for her films which combine structural rigor, formal exactitude, exquisite beauty, intimate attention, commitment to a cinema of duration, and a sympathetic ethnographic eye in a post–minimalist aesthetic entirely her own.

Julia Wolfe, for her fresh, uncompromising artistry, her vibrant, direct, and emotionally powerful works generous and bold in spirit and her engagement with socially conscious issues, a tradition that is passionately and unapologetically American to the core.

Taylor Mac, for his fierce, disarming, beautiful, transgressive, emotionally vulnerable work; for social critique disguised as glitter, ambitious scope, and for effervescently rearranging audiences perceptions while creating a great time.

Tania Bruguera, for the complexity, longevity, and urgency of her work, for her strong formal clarity and ongoing contribution to international conversations on freedom of speech and illegal immigration. The panel honors her for her commitment to resisting market pressures in order to seek an ethics of what art can do, and recognize the innovative ways she has reinvented the language of activism within contemporary culture.

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Herb Alpert photo by Faith Frenz.  Group photo by Steve Gunther.

Live Music: Sasha’s Bloc at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc

March 25, 2015

By James DeFrances

Bel Air, CA. Last Thursday evening at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Jazz Grill…etc. Sasha’s Bloc launched their new album – Heart On Fire – with a send off party in style.

Alex Gershman’s jazz super group pulled out the stoppers during the second night of festivities for their release party bash. Complete with limousines, red carpet, photographers, a custom interior set design and an all star cast, this was indeed Mr. Gershman’s Opus.

Sasha’s Bloc with guest star Jane Monheit

To commemorate the Heart on Fire album release, celebrity guest vocalists Jane Monheit, Alvin Chea, Nora Rothman and Tony Galla joined bandleader and bassist Gershman on stage and each performed a short set.

Sashas Bloc man and woman Seth

Sasha’s Bloc Guest Stars Alvin Chea and Glynis Leflore

The 8-piece small group which is Sasha’s Bloc sounded nothing short of amazing as they dazzled the capacity level VIP crowd. Songs like “Feels Like Jazz” and “Breakfast” were guest favorites, along with the sweet and melodic duet “Black and Blue.” Speaking of the songs, they are Gershman originals. And from my perspective, his writing is right up there with some of the classic songsmiths of the first part of the 20th century.

Alex Gershman

Alexander Gershman is not a jack of all trades; rather he is a master. He wears many hats and wears them all well: physician, surgeon, philanthropist, bandleader, songwriter and bassist to name a few.

My weather forecasts for the days ahead of Sasha’s Bloc look bright and sunny with no cloud cover. The band is a musical tour de force and has definitely turned the right heads. Look for Hearts of Fire,  currently available on iTunes music, and experience what I and so many others have already concluded: That Alex Gershman and Sasha’s Bloc are on a fast track to making musical history.

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


Live Music: Freda Payne at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

December 27, 2014

By James DeFrancis

Bel Air, CA. Last Tuesday night Pat Senatore, artistic director of Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz etc…, sardonically told me, “Christmas week is a big time for malls, not jazz clubs.” But as the lights dimmed and I looked around the room it occurred to me that something was altogether different about this holiday night’s show. Why?

Enter Freda Payne. Payne is the warmly toned r&b vocalist often remembered for her 1970 Billboard chart-topping mega hit “Band of Gold.” Payne and her entourage drew capacity level crowds for both shows on this temperate evening in Bel Air. The well-attended shows even drew industry heavyweights such as Motown Records’ founder Berry Gordy Jr. and actor Billy Dee Williams.

Payne was a bold presence in her bright red gown and fantastically done golden brown hair. On this night she was backed by a trio led by veteran pianist Christian Jacob. She employed a diverse set list ranging from holiday tunes and jazz standards to rhythm and blues numbers from decades gone by.  She opened the show with a punchy, forward moving version of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to.” Clearly inspired by Ella Fitzgerald, Payne went on to sing a heart-wrenching rendition of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.” Also on the agenda were jazz mainstays“Aurora Borealis” and “You Don’t Know Me.”

Later in the program she said “It’s almost Christmas and we should do something for the holidays,” thereby bringing her sister Scherrie Payne (of the Supremes) up to the stage to sing two holiday duets, including the tender, crowd pleasing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

In my opinion, the musical pinnacle of the evening took place when Payne pulled a song out of her repertoire that she had done some years ago for an actor’s benefit at the Pantages Theatre.

The song is called “Fifty Percent” (from the musical Ballroom). And it belongs to the longer category of tunes, very much a story-like soliloquy for the audience. Payne poured all of her vocal caresses into the number and it really showed. “She’s still got the pipes!” muttered a man standing next to me as he applauded.

As the evening began to draw to a close anxious fans were shouting “Band of Gold!” to which Payne fired back “You wanna hear Band of Gold, huh?” But she wasn’t quite ready. First she needed to address the crowd’s adoration by aiming a song directly at them, choosing “How Sweet It Is.” In the end she wrapped it with an extended version of “Band of Gold” stopping near the final phrases to thank everyone in the audience for coming out, before proceeding into a climactic chorus.

The roaring crowd couldn’t get enough. And, if Vibrato had a large enough seating capacity, I’m sure most patrons would have stuck around for both shows. And, really, what more can a performer ask of an audience? Freda Payne was a musical delight.

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Photos by James DeFrances.

Live Music: Tony Galla at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

November 29, 2014

By James DeFrances

What do you call a blues version of Tony Bennett…? Simple, call him Tony Galla. Friday night at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz etc. Galla kept the Holiday energy going as he shifted from swinging jazz tunes to soulful blues ballads and literally everything in between. Galla and his trio have been a recurring act at Vibrato over the years and he has no problem packing the house with fans of like minded musical tastes.

Tony Galla

Tony Galla

Wearing a contemporary black suit and holding his classic Gibson Les Paul guitar, Galla explained how he couldn’t leave out one particular song. That song was a duet actually, but Galla claimed he would sing both parts and that the audience had heard it before. I, of course hadn’t, being that it was my first time seeing his show, and I couldn’t quite figure what to expect. He went on to describe a duet between James Brown and Luciano Pavarotti and immediately a light bulb went off in my head…it was “This is a Man’s World.”

Based on a live recording from 2005, Galla proceeded to perform the song stating that his trio would be “imitating a symphony.” It was certainly one of the more obscure musical happenings I had ever heard up to this point with Galla playfully mimicking both Brown’s and Pavarotti’s vocal stylings and the trio playing about as large as possible. He was right, the crowd did know it and they liked it too.

Tony Galla with his trio

Tony Galla with his trio

It was an evening played by feel and not by form, with Galla trying to accom0date as many audience requests as possible, much to their approval. After quite a few Sinatra themed requests Galla said: “OK now we are going to do a 40 minute medley of Frank Sinatra and over every song he ever recorded!” His humor was well received and his talents were apparent to everyone in the room. Galla is dynamic and can play a lot of angles.

When you see his show, you are basically seeing a 3-in-one deal and each part is done well. Other notable tunes of the evening were his renditions of “Let The Good Times Roll,” “Witchcraft” and his closing number, the B.B. King classic “The Thrill is Gone.” With his high energy on-stage antics and his wide variety of song selections, Galla’s show is sure to find a common ground with almost every listener!

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Photos by James DeFrances.


Live Music: Seth MacFarlane at Vibrato Grill Jazz..etc.

November 25, 2014

By James DeFrances

Bel Air.  Sunday night at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. one performer had the world on a string. That person was Seth MacFarlane and his name should ring a bell. MacFarlane has been the long time creator of Fox’s animated series Family Guy, as well as the brains behind the 2012 feature film Ted and the host of the 2013 Academy Awards telecast…for starters.

Seth MacFarlane

On this occasion, though, he was appearing in a different capacity, as a big band singer. Which wasn’t such a far cry for MacFarlane, who released his debut album Music is Better Than Words, a late ’50’s/early ’60’s style big band vocal record, in 2012. Recorded at Capitol Records studios in Hollywood he showcased his unique voice in a style very much like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole. His TV show Family Guy also relies heavily on lush orchestral Swing style cues in between scenes and for the main theme song. His affection for this kind of music is ever apparent in all aspects of his career.

On Sunday night he was backed by the Ron Jones Influence Jazz Orchestra, which includes an A-list of Hollywood studio musicians.

Seth MacFarlane with Ron Jones and the Influence Jazz Orchestra

Crooning to a packed house of fans from all facets of his career, MacFarlane would have even made Frank Sinatra proud if he had been there. And speaking of Sinatra, there was plenty of his music in the set list. And it was quite a rare treat to actually hear the song choices, as they were not all necessarily chart-topping hits for Sinatra. Songs like: “It’s Always You,” “No One Ever Tells You” and “The Look of Love” stood out.

What was even more exciting was the fact that he used original Sinatra arrangements penned by such legendary orchestrators as Sy Oliver, Nelson Riddle and Billy May. MacFarlane’s voice was fully up to the task, as he cruised through each tune with a relaxed demeanor and plenty of power and vibrato on tap when it was needed.

Armed with a glass of scotch and a wired Shure microphone, he also explored many classics and standards from stage shows and films of days gone by. Among them were songs like “One For My Baby,” “Come Fly With Me” and “Just in Time.”

Seth MacFarlane sings with the Ron Jones Influence Jazz Orchestra

The show seemed to have gone by almost too quickly when MacFarlane announced the final number. In a Vegas-like move, he opted to close the night out with “Luck be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls featuring the iconic 1963 Billy May arrangement for Frank Sinatra.

For a few brief hours on Sunday night it really felt like 1966 at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas with the whiskey flowing and the horns blowing. MacFarlane’s star shined bright at Vibrato and it seems as if the world is his oyster, he really can do it all!

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Photos by James DeFrances.

Live Music: Anna Mjoll At Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

November 13, 2014

By James deFrances

What do jazz standards, Iceland and Bel Air have in common? Simple…the answer is the dynamic blonde haired Iceland-born diva Anna Mjoll. Last Friday night at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc., Mjoll crooned to a thoroughly filled house of diners and jazz enthusiasts alike. Only a day after Alpert and his wife Lani Hall played two sold out shows Mjoll managed to keep the blood flowing for a third consecutive night.

Her show ranged from light moving ballads to hard-driving bossa nova tunes. Impeccably supported by the #Pat Senatore trio, Mjoll did the Great American Songbook right.

Anna Mjoll and the Pat Senatore Trio

Anna Mjoll and the Pat Senatore Trio

Her voice possesses an airy, relaxed quality which makes the music even easier to digest. Her vibrato (no pun intended) is on tap when she needs it and her phrasing is uniquely her own. In between songs she keeps the audience in check by telling stories, asking questions and cracking jokes.

She asked the audience to say hello to her mother from Iceland, who was seated in the first row and only in town for the weekend. “I wish you would move to California,” exclaimed Mjoll. Mother and daughter maintained a lighthearted banter throughout  the entirety of the show.

Anna Mjoll and Pat Senatore

Anna Mjoll and Pat Senatore

Before singing “Taking A Chance On Love,” she reflected on her many marriages and philosophized on love. Perhaps the highlight of the evening, however, was when she sang “Nature Boy” with only bassist Pat Senatore’s accompaniment. She dedicated the song to Senatore, whom she said is the only man who never let’s her down. Also on the list Friday night were songs like “Come Fly With Me,” “Smile” and “Imagination.” For Mjoll who has a busy calendar it was just one of those nights and her closing tune appropriately enough was “Just One Of Those Things.”

But the large audience who remained long after she took her final bow was a sign of a job well done. Those who stayed late enough even got to hear the Senatore Trio play their “Sexy Late Night Set.” In the end, if you are looking for a night of Marilyn Monroe glamour and some hot straight ahead jazz Anna Mjoll with the Pat Senatore trio is your best ticket in town!

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Photos by James deFrances. 




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