Daily Archives: January 28, 2012

BEAUTY IN THE CORNER: ROSSANO SPORTIELLO and NEAL MINER (Jan. 25, 2012)

Harold Ross, who edited THE NEW YORKER, once wrote, “Talent doesn’t care where it resides.”  I think of jazz improvisation as a secret beautiful art.  Although the players are happy to have a receptive audience, often the audience’s inattention matters not at all, for the players are creating something that we happen to eavesdrop on. 

This was the feeling that the Beloved and I had listening to pianist Rossano Sportiello and string bassist Neal Miner last Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012, at Sofia’s Ristorante (211 West 46th Street).  I had originally entertained thoughts of going there as a civilian — an ordinary listener with nothing more complicated in his hands than his drink, but the music was so quietly eloquent that I started videotaping and then asked permission of Rossano and Neal when they took a breather.

Photograph by Lorna Sass. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012.

Listening to Rossano, one hears his delicate touch, his rhythms (romping or subtle), his orchestral sense of the piano balanced with crystal-clear lines, his unerring ear for what Coleman Hawkins called “the choice notes.”  And Neal Miner embodies swinging persuasiveness.  Bass players usually get less attention than people with shiny horns.  Understandable in a way: the bass is in the lowest register and it stands to the rear of the background.  But the horn players I know admire the shape and scope of Neal’s lines and would be delighted to have invented them. 

On some of these performances, the audience is somewhat interactive.  You’ll hear someone’s comment when Rossano began to play a dreamy Liszt piece, “What is this, classical music?”  Yes, sir.  Classical and classic in the best senses of the words.  And rather than be annoyed at the people who chatted while the music was being created, I would simply hope that they went home subliminally elated by the fine loving sounds.  Maybe, with luck, someone might think, “At that bar there’s really nice background music . . . ” 

Early in the evening, a breezy optimism prevailed — even in the face of current economic reality, as the duo swung into THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE:

A Basie improvisation on I GOT RHYTHM changes that began as JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE and then went its own merry ways:

Indecision was never so pleasantly propulsive as in this UNDECIDED:

And the unexpected high point of the two sets — Liszt’s CONSOLATION # 3 in Db . . . a sweet musing exploration . . . then Rossano took a breath and turned the corner with Neal — uptown — to STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY:

And this set concluded with Tadd Dameron’s GOOD BAIT:

Talent, taking up temporary residence on 46th Street.  Beauty in the corner.  Much to be thankful for.

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“JAZZ LIVES” GOES TO BROADWAY: “PORGY AND BESS,” January 2012

I approached the new production of PORGY AND BESS with some mildly-suppressed skepticism, expecting it to be a star turn for the glorious Audra McDonald, who would shower the rafters with operatic splendor while the inhabitants of Catfish Row waited for her lovely upper register to stop reverberating.

I was entirely wrong.  I had an ecstatic theatrical experience.

I am a restless spirit at most Broadway musicals — finding them unsubtle (overamplified music played luridly) — the books seem thin, the gestures hyperbolic.  And in the case of PORGY AND BESS, I had heroic voices in my mind — Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong.  Especially Louis.  I have been listening — physically and mentally — to his and Ella’s version of the score for more than forty years.  (Another Louis — my father* — brought home a copy of the lp for me when I was in my teens.)  These performances of the arias by George and Ira made me feel as if PORGY AND BESS would be a series of musical performances with some unidentified threads in between the singing.  Since I think no one possibly sings with the emotional power of Louis, I was waiting to be disappointed.  Again, wrong.

I told a friend, “Ten minutes into the production, I lost my heart to what was going on onstage.”  My enchantment — the hallmark of great theatrical experiences — was a combination of many things.  Rather than feeling, “Oh, this is A PLAY,” I felt that the actors on Catfish Row, dragging boxes and chairs and fishnets, were utterly natural.  They were there and we were permitted to watch them being themselves.   Yes, the analytical part of my brain did think, “What lovely sets and what beautiful lighting — a mass of orange-yellows,” but I accepted it as real.  And when Clara and Jake began to sing SUMMERTIME to their baby, I felt tears welling up — not because the singing was so extraordinary or because it washed away my memories of Billie et al., but because it seemed the most wonderful melding of the familiar and the new: the beloved but over-familiar piece of music placed into an utterly right context, part of the plot, part of the dialogue moving forward inexorably.  Casually right, not calling attention to itself as a “great song.”

(I know that more experienced theatre-goers might think these perceptions naive — but my naivete, if you want to call it such, is a kind of openness, and although I kept making notes on my pad to write this for JAZZ LIVES, I was part of the experience.  I didn’t look at my watch once.)

I was continually absorbed by the way in which the staging and the music suggested larger ideas — the way little communities formed and broke apart on the stage, in duets and trios and more.  Consider, for instance, the group of young fishermen led by Jake — remember this name:  JOSHUA HENRY, a wondrous singer and actor — who form a small supportive group to sing and enact IT TAKES A LONG PULL.  It held true for the dancing as well.  And although the book has its own thinness — Bess as a woman torn between Goodness and the allure of Evil — so much was happening among the cast in terms of their relations between one another, suspicious of or accepting the outsider, that I put my English-professor mind aside and sunk into the show.

I admired the dramatic lighting — the undersea blue-green of the scene where we learn of Jake’s death in the second act; the way in which we are compelled to watch the huge dark shadows the actors create above and behind them (perhaps a homage to German Expressionism or the great films of the Thirties, to CITIZEN KANE).  I admired the shifting of moods — always carried along by the music that hinted at country-dance music of the teens, at Black vaudeville — when Mariah, NaTASHA YVETTE WILLIAMS, takes the stage, I thought, “This is what TOBA must have been like — echoes of Butterbeans and Susie, of young Moms Mabley — hilarious and taking no stuff from any man alive” — to gospel, to keening laments for the dead.

And what of the principals?  AUDRA McDONALD gave generously of herself as a member of the ensemble — being many women in one, from the hard-edged temptress in a red dress, to the woman who learns what love is, to the victim of Crown’s brutalities, to the woman who cannot help herself but follow Sportin’ Life to New York.  And her voice rang and chimed — but was in character.  I knew DAVID ALAN GRIER from television comedy, but was delighted by his strutting, his insinuating nasal singing, with strong overtones of Cab Calloway and of Louis — but in his bulky gracefulness and the way he held his hat, a very effective two-dimensionalizing of Fats Waller, who would have played the role perfectly although without the necessary evil.  My strongest praise goes to NORM LEWIS, who made Porgy so much more than a victim, so much more than a cripple — but the moral center of the play, the man who gives himself for love, the man who grows stronger in his desire to protect someone who needs it.  His affect, his singing voice — entirely convincing.

The curtain came down, but PORGY AND BESS is very much alive in my head.

Here is a video that shows a great deal about the process, and the progress, of this particular production — very revealing and a great pleasure:

It’s at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, on 46th Street — and JAZZ LIVES readers who don’t often go to Broadway will feel themselves right at home: Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks play Monday and Tuesday nights at Sofia’s across the street, and Sofia’s also features fine jazz Wednesday through Saturday.

For more information, here’s the official website for the show:   http://www.porgyandbessonbroadway.com/

*My father remains alive in my head, as well: January 29, 2012, is the thirtieth anniversary of his death.  A whimsical man who loved music, he not only gave me physical life but encouraged me to be joyous — one Louis who gave me the ears to hear another Louis.  I miss him but that is the tribute we pay the dead, and he knows this.

FIFTY-FOUR SECONDS OF BLISS

Someone took his or her phone / camera to California Adventure Disney and caught the Ellis Island Boys in action — Ralf Reynolds, washboard, vocal; John Reynolds, guitar, vocal; Marc Caparone, trumpet; Westy Westenhofer, sousaphone (sitting in for Katie Cavera, string bass). 

SADIE GREEN (The Vamp of New Orleans) from 1926 — a delicious miniature of hot jazz, hokum, and hilarity — and listen to the way Marc ends his bridge.  Mother, mother, pin a rose on me!

Pssssst.  The Ellis Island Boys are usually known as The Reynolds Brothers or The Reynolds Brothers Rhythm Rascals when they perform elsewhere . . . they will be at the 2012 Dixieland Monterey Jazz Bash by the Bay . . . will you?