by Scott Yanow
A performer since the age of five and a major name since he turned 20 in 1987, Harry Connick Jr. has carved out a unique career as a singer, pianist, bandleader, actor and personality. While one can criticize individual recordings or a few minor missteps, Connick has had a pretty impressive career and he is still just 50.
The best way to experience Harry Connick Jr.’s talents are to see him live. His shows feature a wider variety of music than one might expect, they move quickly, and his sincere talking and humorous ad-libs are charming and entertaining. All of this was in evidence recently at the Hollywood Bowl where he starred for three straight nights. I caught the closing performance.
The opening act was an unfortunate group called Bonerama. Comprised of three trombonists, guitar, bass (occasionally switching to sousaphone) and drums, the ensemble sounded like a bar band from circa 1975. The material was weak, their singers were weaker, and none of the trombonists proved to be strong soloists, never even using a mute to alter their bland sound. Singer Erica Falls came out after a few songs and helped initially but there was nothing memorable about her so-so vocalizing. One wonders why Connick used this group to open his show when he could have used the opportunity to introduce a new talent.
Fortunately the rest of the night was on a higher level. Harry Connick Jr. led a 12-piece ensemble with six horns. Their long set started with a spirited “Bourbon Street Parade” that featured trombonist Lucien Barbarin and trumpeter Mark Braud, a sloppy but fun “That’s A Plenty,” and “Oh Didn’t He Ramble,” all of which paid tribute to New Orleans’s 300th birthday. On “Doctor Jazz,” Connick surprised many in the audience by picking up a trumpet and playing credibly including holding a note (via circular breathing) for most of a chorus. Next he performed a medley from When Harry Met Sally (“Our Love Is Here To Stay,” an instrumental “Stompin’ At The Savoy” on piano and “It Had To Be You”). Guitarist Jonathan Dubose Jr. played an emotional spiritual medley, Connick paid homage to the great blues pianist (and one of his mentors) James Booker on an impressive “Tico Tico,” and then it was time for some tap dancing. First Connick did some simple tap steps and then he brought out a real dancer, Luke Hawkins. They did a humorous tradeoff (a little bit like Bing Crosby trying to keep up with Fred Astaire) before Hawkins showed his stuff in some hot interplay with drummer Arthur Latin.
There was still plenty more to go. Connick and his band did their interpretation of a jazz funeral, playing a slow “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” (with Connick on bass drum), and then parading into the audience with a lengthy version of “The Saints.” Back on stage, Connick switched to electric keyboard for a funky piece that climaxed with some spectacular fireworks. The night concluded with a New Orleans blues (“Big Chief”) and a standing ovation that was well deserved.
In her career, singer-songwriter Roberta Donnay has led nine albums, been a regular member of Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks, wrote the theme (“One World”) for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, and has had many of her songs featured on television and in the movies. While she has sung a wide variety of music throughout her life, jazz is her first love. She put together the Prohibition Mob Band in 2015 to perform songs from the 1920s and ‘30s. They recently released their excellent new CD My Heart Belongs To Satchmo (a Louis Armstrong tribute album) and performed at Vibrato in Bel Air near Los Angeles.
Ms. Donnay is a colorful and witty performer. Her bluesy swing style is at times a little reminiscent of Maria Muldaur, not so much in her tone but in her sassy yet friendly attitude and her versatility. Dressed to-the-hilt for 1928, she sang vintage standards in a timeless style, made humorous comments between songs, and put on an entertaining and swinging show.
The Prohibition Mob Band (comprised of trumpeter Mike Fortunato, trombonist Dave Ryan, Horace Alexander Young on tenor and soprano, pianist Sam Cady, bassist Karl Vincent and drummer Mb Gordy) hinted at earlier styles without being restricted to the time period. Some of their ensembles (such as on “Sugar”) could have passed for an Eddie Condon group but in general their concise solos were more modern while keeping the melodies and format in mind. The band could use a clarinet which would help it sound a little more like the 1920s, but they had the right spirit.
Among the highlights were a sultry “Squeeze Me,” “Sugar,” a sing-along on “Old Man Mose,” a feature for the singer with the rhythm section on “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans,” “Up A Lazy River” (on which Fortunato quoted a half-chorus of Louis Armstrong’s original solo), a joyful “I’ve Got A Feeling I’m Falling,” ‘Mama’s Gone Goodbye,” a nice 1950s arrangement of “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.”
It made for a fun evening filled with good spirits and infectious music.
The brilliant Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez was classically trained in Cuba, became interested in jazz at 15 when he heard Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert, performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006 where he was discovered by Quincy Jones, and defected to the United States in 2009. Since getting settled, he has played around the world at many of the top festivals and clubs and recorded several impressive CDs, most recently A Little Dream for the Mack Avenue label.
At the Moss Theater for a concert sponsored by Ruth Price and the Jazz Bakery, Rodriguez was joined by bassist-acoustic guitarist Munir Hossen and drummer Michael Olivera. Although I have seen the pianist several times, this was the most enjoyable and colorful performance yet. In a set full of variety and surprises, Rodriguez displayed both his superior classical technique and his inventive use of space and dynamics. Hossen’s virtuosic bass playing (sometimes funky, sometimes swinging) was matched by his work on the acoustic guitar which often found him interacting in duets with drummer Olivera, who was a subtle but strong asset for the trio.
Some numbers were Rodriguez originals including two on which he sang using a keyboard device that had him emulating a choir. He also got the audience to sing along on a couple of the themes. In general his improvisations with his trio were episodic, changing tempos and moods along the way. That was certainly true of his delightful explorations of “Besame Mucho,” the late 1920s Cuban song “Mama Inez,” and “Guantanamera.” While keeping the melodies close by, Rodriguez and his trio took those traditional songs through many different changes (a bit like Mozart’s variations on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or Gershwin’s piano version of “I Got Rhythm”), showing affection for the themes even while deconstructing them with a steady flow of creative ideas. Those playful renditions were each quite memorable and had their witty moments, particularly “Mama Inez.”
There was not a slow moment throughout the memorable set which ended with a loud and long standing ovation from the enthusiastic crowd.
Nate Chinen wrote about jazz for the New York Times for 12 years and had a regular column for a time in Jazz Times. He currently works for WBGO and NPR. In his career thus far, he has primarily covered the New York modern jazz scene. Playing Changes – Jazz For the New Century (Pantheon Books) is his first book.
When writing about any topic, one should stick to what one knows. Chinen does that throughout Playing Changes. His book is about the music and musicians that he has seen in New York (other than a chapter on jazz in China) and focuses pretty exclusively on cutting edge players. With few exceptions, there is no real attempt to discuss approaches to jazz that are based in historic styles (some of which he seems to write off) prior to post-bop. The one departure is a chapter that discusses Jazz At Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, and the controversies that dominated the program’s early years. The New York writers of the time inflated the importance of Marsalis’ conservative programming at Lincoln Center (none of which mattered much to those of us not in New York) and Chinen gives us much of the story.
Also discussed at length in Playing Changes are such artists as Brad Mehldau, John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Steve Coleman, the Wayne Shorter Quartet, Keith Jarrett, the Bad Plus, Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, D’Angelo, Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spaulding, and Mary Halvorson plus the jazz education movement. Many other current musicians make briefer appearances although virtually no one from the bop, swing or trad worlds.
There are times when Chinen acts more as a reporter than a critic, making it difficult to know what he thinks of certain artists including Kamasi Washington with whom he starts the book. Unlike with the great Whitney Balliett, one does not come away from these generally interesting essays and interviews with a deeper understanding of what most of these musicians actually sound like although their motivation behind their music is covered well. Very much an inclusive writer, Chinen is comfortable with the current music scene way beyond jazz, and certainly approves of the many attempts to mix pop, rap and rock with improvised music.
Overall, Playing Changes makes for an interesting read that will increase readers’ understanding of the current music scene and make one want to hear more.
JAZZ IN AVAILABLE LIGHT
Veryl Oakland, a self-taught photographer who did not take pictures until he was already 25, quickly made up for lost time. Through his black and white photos, he documented the jazz scene of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. His photos have appeared in many magazines and books, so it was long overdue that he have a book of his own. Jazz In Available Light (Schiffer Publishing) is a large work not only filled with hundreds of superb photos (many rare and previously unseen) but Oakland’s detailed and colorful storytelling about the subjects and his interaction with the greats.
Just a brief and incomplete list of the artists covered include Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Shorty Rogers, Stan Getz, Sun Ra, Art Pepper, Joe Zawinul, Dexter Gordon, Joe Williams, Chet Baker, Paul Bley, Art Farmer, Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor, Charles Lloyd, Jackie McLean, James Moody, Phil Woods, Emily Remler, Weather Report, Wynton Marsalis, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Elvin Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli, John McLaughlin, Clark Terry, Shelly Manne, Duke Ellington, Art Blakey and Buddy Rich.
With the wonderful photos and the fascinating anecdotes, both of which bring out the humanity of these talents, Veryl Oakland’s Jazz In Available Light is a highly recommended book that will gives readers many enjoyable hours.