Live Music: Steve Tyrell at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

March 29, 2014

By Don Heckman

Bel Air.  Mention an area of the music world and Steve Tyrell has been there and done that. Whether it’s from a business perspective, running a record company or producing albums by major artists, or if it’s in the creative arena, clearly establishing his own identity as a performer Tyrell knows how to do it.

On Wednesday night at Herb Alpert’s Bel Air club – Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. – Tyrell displayed the vocal artistry he has developed as a master interpreter of the Great American Songbook.

The Songbook, of course, with its extraordinary collection of works reaching from Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Kern and beyond, has been the foundation for the careers of numerous singers. But Tyrell’s far-reaching interpretive skills have brought new perspectives to this rich catalog of material.

Performing with the skillful backing of a stellar band of players, Tyrell was at his best.

Steve Tyrell and his Band at Vibrato Grill Jazz...etc.

Steve Tyrell and his Band at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

Among the rich list of songs he sang, every selection was memorable. Starting with “I’ll Take Romance,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” he proceeded with classics such as “I Can’t Get Started,” “I Get A Kick Out of You” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “This Guy’s In Love With You” and a climactic “Stand By Me.”

He introduced most of the songs with a few insightful comments about the songwriters. On some, he often included the usually omitted verses of the songs. And he frequently added fascinating anecdotes providing intriguing insight into a song’s history.

Steve Tyrell

Steve Tyrell

But the real evaluation of Tyrell’s performance has to mention what he brought to both the music and the lyrics of every song he sang. Tyrell is often praised for the appeal of his warm, Texas accent, brisk rhythmic swing and easygoing on stage manner.

Add to that, however, his innate skills as a musical story teller. In song after song, he blended his jazz-driven phrasing with a thoughtful interpretive ability. The result was the opportunity to experience a musical poet in action, finding the most gripping lyrical moments in every song he touched.

So call it an evening showcasing the best of American song, rendered with complete creative authenticity. And listening to Steve Tyrell’s performance one couldn’t help but imagine how delighted the legion of American Songbook composers might have been to hear their musical brilliance evoked with such care and enthusiasm.

* * * * * * * *

Photos by Faith Frenz.



Live Music: Michael Feinstein at the Valley Performing Arts Center

May 13, 2013

By Don Heckman

Northridge, CA. One of the first times (and there were many) that I reviewed a Michael Feinstein performance was in 1991 for the Los Angeles Times. I described him then as a “reincarnation of a classic movie juvenile lead. Slicked-back Dick Powell hair, flashing Russ Columbo eyes, a smile that would charm the Sphinx.”

Twenty two years later, Feinstein – now 56 – could still come pretty close to that image of the movie juvenile lead. When he strolled on stage Saturday night at the Valley Performing Arts Center, slender and full of vitality, his warm smile gleaming, he was still as dynamic and vital as he was two decades ago.

Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein

In the interim, of course, Feinstein has thoroughly established himself as one of the prime devoted caretakers of American popular song. His archivist’s dedication to preserving the classic works of Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Berlin, Mercer and so many others has continued to grow over the years. And, equally important, he has personally taken on the challenge of keeping those works alive in performance.

Feinstein has always been a fine singer/pianist, the high quality of his abilities apparent even in his early, cabaret performances in the ’80s at the Cinegrill. But his appearance at VPAC was the work of a mature, masterful performing artist. Far more than simply singing the classics from the Great American Songbook, Feinstein was as informative as he was entertaining.

Each song was introduced with background information about the composer and/or lyricist, often with whimsical stories about the circumstances behind the creation of the song. Many of Feinstein’s comments traced to his personal associations with the songwriters. One example: his long term friendship with Ira Gershwin, tracing to a period when he worked as Gershwin’s personal assistant. That connection was the starting point for Feinstein’s recently published book, The Gershwins and Me (Simon & Schuster).

Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein

Celebrating his Gershwin linkage, he sang a superb medley of Gershwin songs – including “Of Thee I Sing,” “S’Wonderful,” “Embraceable You,” “Our Love Is Here To Stay” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.”

The rest of the program was a banquet of musical goodies. Since it was May 11, Irving Berlin’s birthday, Feinstein did a marvelously hard-swinging “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” On “Hello, Dolly” he offered a loving simulation of Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice, recalling one of the song’s most unique interpretations. On “Fly Me To The Moon,” he referred to the desire of Bart Howard, the songwriter, to hear it in his original conception of it as a waltz, rather than the rhythmically upbeat version by Frank Sinatra. And Feinstein, with the aid of guitarist Jim Fox, found the deep, lyrical center of the tune. He chose to cast “The Way You Look Tonight” as a bossa nova, and recalled Sammy Davis, Jr. with an atmospheric rendering of “What Kind of Fool Am I?”

There was much more. Songs such as “Shall We Dance” (sung with the verse), “Put On A Happy Face,” “Just One Of Those Things” and “At Long Last Love,” among others.  All of it brilliantly arranged by pianist/music director Sam Kriger.

It was, in other words, a delightful musical evening on all counts. And it was topped off with the additional good news that Feinstein will be spending more performance time in the Southland in coming months. He has been appointed Principal Pops Conductor of the Pasadena POPS, replacing the late Marvin Hamlisch. Feinstein’s first program with the Pops takes place on June 1.

Get your tickets now. Click HERE for information.

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 Jim Hall Quartet in a Jazz Bakery Movable Feast Concert

March 27, 2011

By Michael Katz

There is a moment at the Musicians Institute Saturday night when all is stillness. Guitarist Jim Hall has just announced the next tune, “All The Things You Are.” The near capacity house is riveted as Hall plucks the first few chords, his left hand working up and down the frets like a painter dabbing oils on a canvas, the slightest touch altering mood and perception. The only sound other than the near acoustic resonance of Hall’s strumming is the whir of the fans above. The chords start from a near whisper,  building into the recognizable Jerome Kern theme, then Hall is joined by his superb quartet, first bassist Steve Laspina countering Hall’s melody and then drummer Joey Baron artfully painting a rhythm on brushes. Finally Greg Osby steps in on alto sax, bobbing and weaving around the main theme, grabbing the audience’s attention and then retreating as Hall’s eloquent patter morphs back into the lead voice.

Jim Hall

It is not often that an artist gains such rapt attention from a jazz audience. It helps that the Musician’s Institute stage is acoustically perfect for such an event. Throughout the evening, each note or percussive stroke seems in perfect intonation. Add to that the reverence built in from fellow musicians and students in the audience and the modesty with which Hall reflects that sentiment with his onstage comments. It is all underlined by the cohesiveness of this quartet, by the confidence with which they elegantly build musical stories.

The quartet’s canvas covers everything from blues to standards to free form improvisation. “Furnished Flats,” the opener, is a self-described blues, but an introspective one, like much of Hall’s work. The members have their moments as duos, with Baron responding to Laspina’s bass line with quick brushwork, and later Hall and Osby finding each other’s groove with some unison playing. After “All The Things You Are,” they take up a Brazilian tone for “Bejas Flor,” which Hall describes as “about a hummingbird,” with Osby playing the lead role.

Hall’s take on standards can be tangential, as in “My Funny Valentine,” where we distinguish the opening chords, then listen as he builds free form solos around the melody. It’s almost like watching a Polaroid picture develop in front of your eyes. Baron makes extensive use of hand tapping on the snares– the brushes actually seem like a step up in volume. He is a visual presence as well, artfully touching the cymbals to cut the corners of percussive tones. It is not much of a change in direction when Hall announces a “Free Piece” next, pure improvisation, with each member of the quartet sailing off, yet finding each other at every turn.

You can make a case for any individual number in this rich set as a highlight. There’s  “In A Sentimental Mood,” with Hall and Osby accentuating Ellington’s melody with their own sense of longing, followed by a brisk sixteen bar blues. Osby, who has spent much of the evening floating in and out of themes established by Hall, takes center stage in Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” He handles the lead beautifully, with Hall’s chord work underneath lending perfect accompaniment.

They close with Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” and if you have scrolled down from my review the previous night of Michael Wolff’s quartet,  (he closed his second set with the same tune) you can sense the fun of two uniquely composed groups making this standard their own. Hall’s playing is energetic, the Caribbean sound punctuated by Laspina’s bass line. Baron works with mallets to produce yet another distinctive sound, Osby darts in and out on his alto, giving his own take on the Rollins melody.

Jim Hall is 80 now and if he doesn’t move around on stage as quickly as before, his fingers seem eternally lithe, his musical innovation unyielding. It is no wonder the Musician’s Institute audience rewards him with a lengthy standing ovation,  reluctant to release their embrace until the lights go up.

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

Here, There & Everywhere: R.I.P. Mary Cleere Haran

February 9, 2011

By Don Heckman

Like everyone else who ever heard Mary Cleere Haran perform, I was stunned last weekend to see the news of her death.  It couldn’t have happened in a more unlikely, even absurd, fashion.  Riding a bicycle in Florida, where she’s been taking a break from performing, she was struck by a car pulling out of a driveway.  Two days later, she was gone, having never regained consciousness.

Gone with her was a gorgeous voice, a free-roving musical imagination and a dedicated advocacy for the music of the Great American Songbook.  Mary Cleere brought that music vividly to life — music we’d heard over and over again from every imaginable source.  Yet, when she sang Gershwin or Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter — to name only a few — she found the beating heart of the music, the intimate details of the lyrics, literally brought the song to life.

Add to that her snap crackling wit and whimsy.  Somebody once described her as “the wittiest performer to ever interrupt a punch line with a song.”  And there was a lot of truth to the comment, if only because her punch lines were as well crafted as her songs.   I reviewed her twice for the Los Angeles Times, back in the ’90s, and enjoyed every minute — even when her backing wasn’t what it should have been, even when she performed in spite of a cold that limited her usual far-ranging voice.

I wish I’d had more chances to hear her in action.  I wish she’d had more chances to continue to work her art.  Yes, it’s fortunate that we have a few recordings — although not enough.  But Mary Cleere will be missed, wherever there are people who care about the beauty of American song and the importance of its survival.

To read the Mary Cleere obituary I wrote for the Los Angeles Times click HERE.

LIve Jazz: Carol Welsman at Vitello’s

November 11, 2010

By Don Heckman

Believability is one of the most vital elements in the convincing singing of songs.  And one that’s too often overlooked or forgotten — both by singers and by listeners.  Believability, that is, in the sense that a song is a form of musical storytelling, with a beginning, a middle and an end.  The way it is told is what differentiates the various forms of musical storytelling.  But the importance of believability is beyond genre.

Carol Welsman’s performance at Vitello’s Wednesday night was a prime example.  In her hour and a half set, she sang a diverse program of material: songs from I Like Men, her Peggy Lee tribute CD, songs by Duke Ellington, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Cole Porter, blues songs, a classic by Charlie Chaplin and more.  The range was broad enough to challenge the versatility of any singer, regardless of genre.  And Welsman responded to the challenge superbly, as both a singer and a pianist, telling each song with storytelling believability and jazz authenticity.

Some examples: a tender reading of Jerome Kern’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”; a poignant version of Chaplin’s “Smile”; the intimate embrace of Porter’s “Do I Love You?”; the buoyant swing of “Why Don’t You Do Right,” “I Love Being Here With You” and a high voltage “Lover”; the rapid patter and vocalese of “Cottontail”; and the intensity of a rarely heard Jobim song, sung in Portuguese but, again, with complete emotional believability.

She was aided, in every respect, by the stunning playing of guitarist Pat Kelley, bassist Rene Camacho and drummer Jimmy Branley.  It’s a collective that has worked together frequently. But this was far more than a singer-with-first-rate-backup.  The combination of Welsman’s voice and piano with the symbiotic interplay of Kelley, Camacho and Branley was a complete musical entity. An entity that freed her to open the fullest resources of her extraordinary musicality.  And do so with seeming ease.

Canadian-born Welsman, now a Los Angeles resident, has performed in venues reaching from Japan and Brazil to Europe, Canada and the U.S.  She is, by any definition, a world class jazz artist.  But she still hasn’t — from this listener’s perspective — received the full attention her impressive talents deserve.  It’s time.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 245 other followers