By Don Heckman
“Talkin’ ‘bout My Generation” was the title of jazz singer Judy Wexler’s presentation at Vitello’s Wednesday night. And it was right on target – a compilation of songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s reaching from the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell to Richie Havens, Paul Simon and more. In between numbers, she often set the scene by reading excerpts from the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. (Curiously, though, she did not include The Who song that provided the lead line for her show.)
But what made Wexler’s show unique was the convincing way in which she approached the material from a jazz perspective. Nothing new for her, since her past outings have included similarly improvisatory interpretations of songs reaching from Elvis Costello to the The Wizard of Oz. This outing, however, embraced a broad selection of pieces, touching upon the many aspects – romantic, social, sexual and beyond — of the transformative ‘60s and ‘70s. And each was handled in a way that blended its root origins with Wexler’s adept jazz interpretations.
Backed by the quartet of pianist Jeff Colella, bassist Chris Colangelo, guitarist Larry Koonse and drummer Devin Kelly, with the high spirited back up work of singers Catte Adams and Janelle Sadler, Wexler came on stage in a buoyant mood, launching the show with a perfect thematic choice – Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” Although she seemed a bit nervous, her intonation somewhat uncertain for the first few minutes,, she quickly found her groove. And by the time she settled into Richie Haven’s touching “Follow,” her rich, dark sound and story-telling phrasing were in full blossom.
“Happiness Runs” emerged, in true Donovan fashion, as a playful round between Wexler and her guest singers, and the Bacharach/David classic, “One Less Bell To Answer,” revealed another, more traditional aspect of the music of the late ‘60s. Other memorable items followed: A French and English take on Melanie’s “Look What They Done To My Song, Ma”; Lennon & McCartney’s “Fixin’ A Hole” and “In My Life”; Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” (with a guitar solo from Koonse recalling the song’s Bach connections); Paul Simon’s “One Trick Pony”; Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice”; and more.
The final number – Cat Stevens’ “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out,” was an offbeat inclusion. The song was best known, at the time, not as a recording, but for its presence in the 1971 film, Harold and Maude. Wexler may have included it because she felt it would work well as a singalong finale. Or, she may have included it as a reminder of the film’s early ‘70s dark humor. Maybe both.
Wexler’s singing was the appealing centerpiece of the show, with the arrangements – by Colella, Alan Pasqua and others – framing imaginative ways to allow her jazz phrasing to find common ground with the very different qualities of each song. Along the way, Colella and Koonse made the most of the frequent openings for instrumental soloing.
At its best, “Talkin’ ‘bout My Generation” displayed all the qualities of a concept with legs – one that warrants many more performances. Hopefully, those performances will also eventually wind up in a recording studio, on the way to becoming Wexler’s next CD.
Photo by Faith Frenz