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ARTIST: Ken Peplowski Quartet
VENUE: Birdland; New York City
DATE: July 17, 2021
PERSONNEL: Ken Peplowski (cl,ts); Ted Rosenthal (p); Martin Wind (b); Matt Wilson (d).
In Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Rear Window”, Thelma Ritter laments “You’d think the rain would cool things down, but all it did was make the heat wet”. She could have been speaking of the weather in the Big Apple on July 17, 2021. It was hot, sticky and uncomfortable—
basically, the least likely climate for an enthusiastic audience to gather to hear jazz. However, we are not in ordinary times, and the capacity crowds at Birdland clearly valued having a good time in public more than enduring the oppressive weather.
Birdland’s featured performer, Ken Peplowski, did not disappoint. He played two full sets without repeating any songs. Those songs were connected with Peplowski’s comedic patter which was almost as much fun as the music. A born raconteur, Peplowski joked about the heat (“Can you put another log on the air conditioning?”), ribbed his sidemen (“That was a great solo! What went wrong?”), and told tales about composers Arthur Hamilton and Carroll Gibbons. He noted that one of his recordings was used in a movie as the background for a striptease by Nicole Kidman. When introducing a later tune, he claimed that when Nicole Kidman heard it, she put her clothes back on!
Of course, the main attraction was the music. Peplowski presented a richly varied collection of songs, some of which were quite obscure. The first set’s opener, “It All Depends on You” started with a careful delineation of the melody from Peplowski’s clarinet before moving into pure improvisation. His fluid technique was perfectly matched with a rich tone that extended across all registers of the horn. Ted Rosenthal, one of the finest accompanists in New York, countered with a delightful potpourri of jazz tropes and gestures. Martin Wind punctuated his solo with a well-stated quote, but Wilson—usually the comedian in such surroundings—played it straight…for the time being. Wilson had his own moments throughout the night, including a surprise solo on tamborim during a Pixieguena choro, a witty set of four-bar exchanges on “Soon”, and a brilliant interplay with Wind on “Have You Met Miss Jones” where the two musicians stretched and contracted the meter seemingly at will.
Many of the obscure titles came from Peplowski’s vast collection of vintage sheet music. From my vantage point, I could see that at times,
Rosenthal was reading from copies of the original sheets. Peplowkski played several of the rare ballads on tenor sax. Although the ghost of Ben Webster appeared on occasion, Peplowski’s tone remained soft and tender as he caressed the forgotten melodies. On songs like “I’ll Close My Eyes”, the quartet saw no reason to complicate the original tune, but “Garden in the Rain” benefitted from the spontaneous counterpoint between clarinet and piano. Near the end of the evening, Peplowski played Benny Carter’s “The Courtship” in a manner as elegant as the composer. Then came a breathtaking unaccompanied version of “Single Petal of a Rose” on which Peplowski merged the inner and outer voices of Duke Ellington’s solo piano work. By the time the concert ended, we went outside and discovered that the heat and humidity had subsided. It always feels that way after an evening of serenades.
ARTIST: Kenny Barron Trio
VENUE: Keystone Korner; Baltimore, MD
DATE: June 12, 2021
PERSONNEL: Kenny Barron (p); Kiyoshi Kitagawa (b); Johnathan Blake (d).
One of the cardinal rules about live performances is “Expect the unexpected”: the passage which never worked in rehearsal suddenly falls together in front of an audience; an outside noise intrudes on a player’s concentration or, in the case of the Kenny Barron Trio, the acoustics have suddenly—and unaccountably—changed since the previous night’s gig at the same club. After Saturday night’s opening set, Johnathan Blake confirmed this to me when I asked him about a seemingly chaotic approach to the opening number. When this happens, the instinctual belief among musicians is that they cannot be heard by their fellow players or the audience. Therefore, they play at maximum volume to start and adjust as the music progresses. From my vantage point at the bar, I had difficulty hearing Barron’s improvisation as he competed against the rest of the band, all playing at top volume. When it came time for Kitagawa’s bass solo, Barron and Blake dropped out. The bassist’s delicate notes and impressive tone filled the room, and when piano and drums returned, Barron and Blake adjusted their volume to the bass, and the problem was solved. The medium-tempoed “How Deep is the Ocean?” which followed featured a beautifully sculptured Barron solo, and effective accompaniment by Kitagawa and Blake, with the latter switching between brushes and sticks without disturbing the mood.
Barron followed with an exquisite solo medley of songs by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Barron developed each piece over two choruses, bringing out their individual characteristics. The short repeating figure of “Lotus Blossom” contrasted with the longer-limbed melodies of “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and “Melancholia”, while the melodic riches of the tunes culminated in “Star-Crossed Lovers”, the “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired piece from “Such Sweet Thunder.” Barron told me that he wants to make a solo piano album soon. An Ellington/Strayhorn collection would be most welcome.
The highlight of the set was a high-energy up-tempo interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”. Stripped of its innate mysticism, the piece became a swirling maelstrom loosely supported by ambiguous blues changes. In the middle of Barron’s solo, a Latin idea popped up and was briefly developed by the trio before it was also swept up in the overall soundscape. Blake topped off the number with an extended drum solo notable for the extraordinary number of pitches produced on his three-tom setup. A slow and meditative version of “Blue Moon” was the perfect answer to what had just transpired. Here, Barron’s delicate touch was on full display as he tenderly interwove his original thoughts with Richard Rodgers’ classic melody. Barron’s masterful statement made a closing statement of the melody completely unnecessary.
Unfortunately, that was all of the music I was able to hear. The first set started quite late, and when I left the club at 10 pm to return to Wilmington, the Keystone’s staff was still seating a new audience for the set which was scheduled to start at 9:30. As later concerts and shows become more widespread, late-night train schedules will expand to reflect demand. It can’t happen soon enough.
VENUE: 55 Bar; New York City
DATE: May 27, 2021
PERSONNEL: Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, Melissa Stylianou (v); Michael Cabe (p); Matt Aronoff (b); Ross Pederson (d).
For their first post-pandemic concert, the vocal trio Duchess returned to the same venue where they sang their debut performance seven years earlier. The 55 Bar is a holdover from Prohibition, an old speakeasy tucked in a corner of Greenwich Village. The venue holds about 50 people at most, but by the time Duchess finished their two-set dinnertime gig, the room was filled with friends and well-wishers. The musical energy inside the room was more than ample competition for the hip-hop dance event occurring right outside the doors.
The members of Duchess were buzzing with nervous energy before the show started, and before the audience knew it, the last-minute soundcheck had melded into the opening of the performance. Their traditional set-opener “We Love Being Here with You” was the only song repeated in both sets, and on the second time around, I caught a new line referring to COVID-19. The pandemic was a natural source of the stage banter, with the topic showing up in the intros to “A Little Jive Is Good for You” and “Blah, Blah, Blah” (the latter termed a “pandemic love song” by Gardner and Stylianou—not George Gershwin’s intentions, I’m sure!) Cervini, not one to be topped, had her own share of funny lines through the show, the best coming when Stylianou produced three kazoos from a nearby suitcase. Cervini noted that the Andrews Sisters did not have kazoos. They had instruments…and a manager.
Despite their months apart, the group re-discovered their ensemble style right away, breathing and phrasing as one, and pronouncing the ridiculously fast double-speak chorus of “Everybody Loves My Baby” with absolute precision. Wycliffe Gordon’s exquisite arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” includes a wonderful spot for the three vocalists to scat together. At the 55 Bar, the chorus sounded like a pot of gumbo simmering on a stove, mixing blues feeling with reduced dynamics. “On the Sunny Side of the Street” included more interplay, but this time, it built into a powerful shout chorus punctuated by Pederson’s tom-tom and bass drum hits (This was Pederson’s first gig with Duchess—he usually plays with Manhattan Transfer—and he did a superb job keeping on top of the many tempo changes in the Duchess book). Cabe turned in a powerful solo in octaves on “Three Little Sisters”, and Aronoff made great use of his extended solo space on several numbers. Gardner swung mightily on an energetic “Hallelujah, I Love Him So”, Stylianou’s deep tones enriched the standard “Humming to Myself” and Cervini wailed as she covered Connie Boswell’s solo part on “Heebie Jeebies”. The show ended all too soon, but the 55 Bar had another band booked for later in the evening. It won’t be long before Duchess will have the headline spots for themselves again.
ARTIST: Michelle Lordi
VENUE: South Jazz Kitchen; Philadelphia
DATE: May 14, 2021
PERSONNEL: Michelle Lordi (v); Nir Felder (g); Nathan Pence (b); Rudy Royston (d).
As Michelle Lordi said from the stage of South Jazz Kitchen, it was good to sing in a nightclub again. Outdoor gigs and livestreams helped to fill the performance gap during the pandemic, but there is no greater inspiration than an attentive audience. The audience was glad to be there, too. There was nary a conversation nor an errant cellphone ring to interfere with the music at hand. Although the CDC had just announced the lifting of mask requirements the day before, South was still working under restricted occupancy rules. Only 35 people were allowed in the room, and tall plexiglass barriers separated the musicians from the audience.
As she did in an outdoor concert last July, Lordi performed several selections from her latest CD, “Break Up with the Sound”. What was new in the South performance was Lordi’s renewed intensity as she slowly sang the familiar lyrics of Alec Wilder’s “Moon and Sand” making us remember the deep meaning of the words. Her version of the Jacques Demy/Michel Legrand movie song, “I Will Wait for You” had a special poignancy after nearly 15 months of enforced isolation. Lordi also premiered some of her newest original songs, the most memorable being “Never Break”, which tells of the uneasy feelings which come with a new relationship. The rhythm section was completely in step with Lordi’s message, responding with seemingly cautious rhythms over a tight, minimalistic drumbeat. The band’s easy flexibility was on display throughout the set. On “Wayward Wind”, Felder quickly moved from laid-back country fills behind the vocal to a progressive jazz feel in his solo. Royston spiced up “Lover Man” with a complex beat pattern he calls a “6/8 Afro-Cuban mix”. Regardless of the terminology, the beat inspired powerful swing from Felder and Pence. Pence opened the concert with a stunning unaccompanied intro to Cole Porter’s “True Love”. And as evidence of this group’s continued creativity, the repeat performance in the second set had Felder and Royston joining Pence in the same spot for a remarkable three-way improvisation.
After over a year’s hiatus, any concerts are bound to have a few rough edges. Lordi and the trio skirted most of the common issues: her voice was in very good shape, with accurate pitch, fine diction, and superb control, while the band was well-rehearsed and very inspired. As Lordi mentioned in a stage announcement, there aren’t many “happy songs” in her current repertoire, and those songs would be welcome for an audience emerging from a difficult period. I’m confident that those songs will appear soon, and that this exquisite band will find a way to make this new material uniquely their own. For now, it’s just good to be back.