Tag Archives: Michael Kanan

HONORING THE IRREPLACEABLE MURRAY WALL, CONTINUED: TED BROWN, MICHAEL KANAN, TARO OKAMOTO (Kitano Hotel) and JON-ERIK KELLSO, SCOTT ROBINSON, JOE COHN (Cafe Bohemia), 2011, 2020

Murray, 2016

Before we start, on Monday, August 22, 2022, there will be a celebration of Murray Wall’s life and music at the 11th Street Bar in New York City (510 East 11th Street, between Avenues A and B, where Murray and Richard Clements co-led a band for a long memorable time. The website says 7:00 to midnight; the bar does not take reservations, and I won’t be in New York, so any video documentation will be by someone else. (Will someone take that unadorned hint?)

But the best way to love Murray is not in memory but in actuality; I want to do that here.

Let’s go back to January 12, 2011, for the momentous occasion of tenor saxophonist Ted Brown’s first gig as a leader in forty years. It happened at the Kitano Hotel, and Ted was joined by Murray, string bass; Michael Kanan, piano; Taro Okamoto, drums.

FEATHER BED (Ted’s line on YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO):

and LULLABY OF THE LEAVES:

HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN? — those loving questions answered in sound and feeling:

GONE WITH THE WIND:

and finally, a performance that Murray doesn’t play on — a duet between Ted and Michael on PRISONER OF LOVE — but you’ll permit me to imagine him at a table near the band, listening and admiring, as we all were:

And something lovely that only a few people who weren’t at 15 Barrow Street, New York, on January 30, 2020, have experienced — I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME, performed by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Joe Cohn, guitar, and Murray:

Murray Wall improved the spiritual landscape for anyone who knew him, even casually, and his art continues to do so today. I will have more to share with you.

May your happiness increase!

SWINGING WEATHER FORECASTS: GABRIELLE STRAVELLI, MICHAEL KANAN, DAN BLOCK, PAT O’LEARY (Swing 46, December 14, 2021)

Spreading joy.

Every Tuesday night in June, the wonderful trio of Gabrielle Stravelli, voice; Michael Kanan, piano; Pat O’Leary, string bass, has an early-evening gig (5:30 to 7 PM, more or less) at the comfortable Birdland Theater, one flight down, at 315 West 44th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues in midtown Manhattan.

The OAO and I were there for the first Tuesday and it was delightful and delightfully varied. I couldn’t bring back any video-evidence for you, but here are two previously unseen delights from the Dan Block Quartet’s gig at Swing 46, with Dan on tenor saxophone.

I can’t account for the meteorological theme, but since everyone talks about the weather, I hope that will hold true for these beautiful musicians and their art.

Here’s a rarity, WITH THE WIND AND THE RAIN IN YOUR HAIR, by Clara Edwards and Jack Lawrence — its first recordings from 1940. (Both Edwards and Lawrence are fascinating figures: she was a singer, pianist, composer of art songs as well as popular ones, and he is perhaps best known for the Ink Spots’ IF I DIDN’T CARE — but their biographies are intriguing.)

From the rare to the perhaps over-familiar . . . ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, like ALL OF ME, has been performed so many times that I often sigh when a band or singer calls it, but not with this band and this singer. It’s credited to Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, although the gossip says that the melody was first composed by one Thomas Waller. Whether that’s true or not, I am reminded of Jonathan Schwartz’s anecdote about his father, Arthur Schwartz, saying to his son when they were walking in the shade, “Let’s cross over to Dorothy’s side of the street.”

Here, we can do the same thing (looking all four ways) and find ourselves in creative happiness. Catch Gabrielle’s exultant second chorus and the wondrous playing by Dan, Pat, and Michael (the last slyly reminding us of the pitter-pat, as he should):

Don’t miss Gabrielle and her friends, no matter what your phone tells you about the weather. They improve the darkest day.

May your happiness increase!

“COULDN’T GET ANY MORE LOVELY”: GABRIELLE STRAVELLI, MICHAEL KANAN, PAT O’LEARY at BIRDLAND (Tuesdays in June 2022)

Words heard after last night’s performance in the Birdland Theater, May 31, 2022 — a performance by Gabrielle Stravelli, voice; Michael Kanan, piano; Pat O’Leary, string bass from 5:30 to close to 7 PM.

Gabrielle told us that each of the Tuesdays to come will have a new menu of songs, so what follows is just a list of musical blessings, but since I kept notes, you get to read them The trio started with a very affirmative ‘DEED I DO, then I WISHED ON THE MOON (tender, then swinging), a defiantly rocking A SLEEPIN’ BEE, usually taken at a slow tempo, THAT OLD DEVIL CALLED LOVE, WONDER WHY, an exultantly funky I’M JUST A LUCKY SO-AND-SO. Then, a swinging I NEVER KNEW (played so often as an instrumental but its sweet archaic lyrics completely convincing) and what was a highlight of the session, LET’S BEGIN, where I thought of Gabrielle both as most expert wooer and the host of a game show where delights waited behind the second door. GET OUT OF TOWN closed with her grinning, saying, “and STAY out!” which was hilarious, then she segued into I’LL BE AROUND, after the final notes dying away, saying, “I don’t always do ‘doormat songs,’ but that one is special.” As the set neared its close, it got even better, with TAKE THE “A” TRAIN, (an audience request that took on wings) a passionate BORN TO BE BLUE, and closing with a romping FOR YOU, FOR ME, FOREVERMORE.

I’d heard this trio (with Dan Block and Danny Tobias added) about two months ago at a party and thought, “They are touching my heart more each time I hear them,” but the Birdland session was the embodiment of heartfelt chamber jazz.

Gabrielle is in superb voice, with operatic strengths but also whispers, side-of-the-mouth secrets, and the occasional growl — all dramatically used to reveal a song’s center. Pat not only sustained the harmonies and the drive but reminded us all that a splendid bass solo is something too precious to talk through, and Michael swung, commented, brought sweetness, comedy, and warmth as needed, as prescribed. At times Pat and Michael reminded me of Ray Brown and Jimmie Rowles, even Hinton and Basie or Jimmy Jones. And the trio is clearly a telepathic band: Gabrielle called a tune, pointed out the key if it needed to be pointed out, and they were off, sharing one perfectly shaped performance after another.

Another lovely aspect: the Birdland Theater is clean and quiet; the piano is well-tuned; the sound system is transparent and unobtrusive. And the substantial audience was near-reverent, as they so often are not. A wonderful place for a pre-theater or escaping-rush-hour gig, and when we emerged, the sky was still bright. And the music rang in our ears.

I was too absorbed to take phone photographs and the management frowns on interlopers with video cameras, so you’ll just have to get there yourself. They’ll be one flight down at 315 West 44th Street, just west of Eighth Avenue in midtown Manhattan every Tuesday in June. Why deprive yourselves? Or, as the Sages say, “Support gigs, they blossom; stay home, they wither.”

May your happiness increase!

“SPIRITUAL REFRESHMENT”: YAALA BALLIN and MICHAEL KANAN (February 13, 2022)

It was the Sunday before Valentine’s Day . . . and properly, the OAO and I were at St. John’s in the Village on Eleventh Street to hear and capture another delightful recital by Yaala Ballin and Michael Kanan, two of my favorite song-explorers.

As is their playful habit, Yaala and Michael made their recital inclusive in the nicest ways. No, the audience was not invited to sing along, but they did shape the event by choosing the repertoire, on the spot and in advance. And wonders resulted.

Because of the holiday, love was the theme. But since the repertoire is not only celebratory, their were beautiful tributes to devotion, harder-edged rueful dialogues on love that got away as well as its glories. Here are six beauties, some as brief as one chorus, but how much music Yaala and Michael can create in thirty-two bars!

The banner inviting all to Yaala and Michael’s 2019 concert. Truth in advertising.

LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY:

I LET A SONG GO OUT OF MY HEART:

ALL TOO SOON:

FALLING IN LOVE WITH LOVE:

IT’S ALL RIGHT WITH ME:

MORE THAN YOU KNOW:

It was snowing that afternoon, but the music kept us warm for days, and it continues to do so now.

May your happiness increase!

A TENDER INTERLUDE: GABRIELLE STRAVELLI, MICHAEL KANAN, DAN BLOCK, PAT O’LEARY (Swing 46, December 14, 2021)

A WEAVER OF DREAMS, music by Victor Young, lyrics by Jack Elliott, published in 1951, is both notable and obscure. It’s been recorded by so many people (Lord’s discography lists 154 recordings): Carmen McRae, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, John Coltrane, Kenny Burrell, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Cedar Walton, Lee Konitz, Tony Bennett come to mind, but I couldn’t remember hearing it performed on a gig until Gabrielle Stravelli sang it with Dan Block, tenor saxophone; Michael Kanan, piano; Pat O’Leary, string bass, at Swing 46, on December 14, 2021.

This version is pensive and lovely. I hope more people add this song to their repertoires, and, as always, I hope to expand the fan clubs of Gabrielle, Dan, Michael, and Pat — working band of four friends:

This band and these musicians are reasons I plan to stay in New York: they make what could be an urban desert bloom and keep blooming.

May your happiness increase!

LOVE LETTERS, SENT AND RECEIVED (Part One): YAALA BALLIN and MICHAEL KANAN, “The Great American Songbook, Requested” (St. John’s in the Village, New York, February 13, 2022)

Yesterday, while many people were watching the Olympics or the pre-game Super Bowl show, the OAO and I were at a marvelous concert, “The Great American Songbook, Requested,” which Yaala Ballin and Michael Kanan have put on four years — with a brief interruption you might know about — at St. John’s in the Village, on Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. As always, it was an extraordinary duet performance, delicate and intense at once. And what bliss to experience music in a quiet place with wonderful acoustics so that no amplification was needed.

Photograph by the fine singer Naama Gheber

If you’ve followed JAZZ LIVES for any length of time, you’ll know how I admire Michael Kanan — and of course I have company — his serious respect for the composer’s intentions, his steady but lightsome pace, the lovely voicings, his small sweet surprises. And his friendly embrace of any singer or horn player who works with him. No self-conscious “innovations,” but no cliches, no spattering-keyboard exhibitionism, just a tender swing, deeply intuitive.

Yaala is of course a wonderful singer — as opposed to someone “who sings” — and I marvel at her range of expression, from an under-the-breath conversational phrase, almost tossed away, to great sliding and bending of notes that lead into an almost operatic power and zeal without ever becoming too much. She is a grand teller of stories: better, she is a wonderful actress who writes new scripts within the familiar confines of lyrics and melodies.

Both of them are delighted to be performing this music, and their delight comes through to us: they are unabashedly joyous. And the audience — both in the church and online — couldn’t help but feel it.

Here are four love letters Yaala and Michael sent yesterday: love sent to us, to the song, to music itself.

To the lovely night sky:

To a city, home to the loved one:

To Love itself:

and to the person one thinks of constantly:

Better than roses, chocolates, candy hearts, or greeting cards: the emotions and sounds will still be fresh on February 15.

May your happiness increase!

THE ODDS ARE IN FAVOR OF SONG: YAALA BALLIN and MICHAEL KANAN, “THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK . . . REQUESTED!” (St. John’s in the Village, New York City, February 13, 2022)

Yaala Ballin

I don’t do well at games of chance, so I stay out of casinos, don’t buy scratch-off lottery tickets, and wouldn’t put down a dollar to bet where the pea would be under the walnut shell. But I am so happy to announce the return of my favorite musical game of chance, a duo-recital for voice (Yaala Ballin) and piano (Michael Kanan) that will take place this coming Sunday, February 13, at 3 PM, in the little Greenwich Village church, St. John’s in the Village, 218 West 11th Street (Google Maps points out that it is close to “Carrie Bradshaw’s Apartment,” which has obviously become a historical landmark).

Michael Kanan

Before I explain why someone might consider this concert a game of chance, let me offer some music from their most recent outing two years ago (!), Valentine’s Day 2020 . . . aeons ago, each song displaying the affectionate balance between puckish risk-taking and heart-on-sleeve emotions that Yaala and Michael create with such art.

Here they delicately unfurl the Paul Mertz – Jimmy Dorsey narrative of quiet adoration:

“We love schmaltz,” Yaala says — but this version of the Rodgers and Hart classic never gets schmaltzy. Rather, there is a sly tenderness that reminds us of what this song is all about, and how sweet those envisionings of togetherness are and will be:

A singer, a pianist, and the Great American Songbook might sound like a familiar formula. But wait! There’s more!

Most recitals have a fixed set of songs that will be performed, or as they say in Britain, “the programme.” In Carnegie Hall, it might be Haydn – Bartok – Dvorak (the audience knows this when they purchase their tickets). A jazz concert might not be announced in advance, but there is a “set list.”

Playfully but seriously, Yaala and Michael make sure the audience has a chance to choose what they will hear.

Whether the audience is there on the spot or enjoying the streaming performance, they will be asked to choose two songs they would like to hear (from a list provided beforehand — Berlin, Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Ellington, Gershwin, and more). Those “requests” go into a tangible-virtual basket and the program proceeds by intent happenstance, as Yaala picks the next slip of paper or the next virtual request. It adds whimsy and spontaneity to an already delightful duet.

Here you can purchase tickets (virtual and tangible), choose songs, and in general, involve yourselves in the afternoon’s pleasures with even greater enjoyment. Whether you are in front of your screen or on the benches at St. John’s in the Village, you will be charmed.

May your happiness increase!

JIMMIE ROWLES and SIR ROLAND HANNA at the GRANDE PARADE DU JAZZ, RESTORED (July 11, 1978)

Jimmie Rowles (courtesy of last.fm)

So much of life is a collective enterprise. My breakfast is the result of animals, farmers and truckers and grocers, even though I made the coffee and omelet myself.

This blog is my own little farm, and the produce wouldn’t exist without the musicians, and sharing it couldn’t happen without the help of friends and scholars, generous in so many ways. One such fellow is the tireless Franz Hoffmann, known for his work in documenting jazz in various media and extensive minute-by-minute research into, among others, Henry “Red” Allen and J. C. Higginbotham. Franz also reads this blog and saw my presentation of the performance done by Jimmie Rowles and Sir Roland Hanna — divided in two in the middle of a song and dark as could be. He, without my asking, sent brighter copies with the songs logically separated.

Watching this restored version, it was as if I’d never seen it before, so I invite you to this new pleasure also, with thanks and salutations to Franz. To Jimmie and Sir Roland, of course. And this post is in honor of someone who loves and evokes Jimmie, the pianist Michael Kanan, who celebrated a birthday earlier this month. Now to music.

THESE FOOLISH THINGS:

I LOVE YOU:

INDIANA:

MY FUNNY VALENTINE:

ORNITHOLOGY:

Quite grand, no? Be generous today.

May your happiness increase!

SLOWLY, WITH PASSION: GABRIELLE STRAVELLI, DAN BLOCK, MICHAEL KANAN, PAT O’LEARY (Swing 46, December 14, 2021)

Going slowly can be a true art, enabling musicians who understand to get behind the song and let light shine through, also. The four people in these two performances are masters of those subtle arts: Gabrielle Stravelli, voice; Dan Block, reeds; Michael Kanan, piano; Pat O’Leary, string bass. They don’t double the tempo; Gabrielle doesn’t reduce the beautiful lyrics to scat-rubble. What emerges, bar by bar, is magic.

First, the Hoagy Carmichael – Johnny Mercer SKYLARK, translucent, tender, intense:

Mercer again, this time with Victor Schertzinger, for I REMEMBER YOU, with the brief but touching verse:

Like bird-flight, sweetly memorable.

May your happiness increase!

EXEMPLARY BEHAVIOR: GABRIELLE STRAVELLI, DAN BLOCK, MICHAEL KANAN, PAT O’LEARY (Swing 46, October 5, 2021)

This neat little band has been attracting fans and friends on early Tuesday evenings at Swing 46 (349 West 46th Street, New York City) for more than a few months . . . and it deserves to have its names up in lights. Leader Dan Block (tenor and alto saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet) gives equal time to the wonderful Gabrielle Stravelli (vocals), Michael Kanan (piano), and Pat O’Leary (string bass). Here they are — about two months ago — tenderly moseying through the Waller-Razaf AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ — which is truly a love song about fidelity and joyous discovery — at a tempo that makes it emotionally meaningful, rather than a race to the outchorus:

What lovely playful sounds! And in their three sets on a Tuesday night, this splendid quartet creates marvel after marvel. You mean to say you could have visited them at West 46th Street and haven’t . . . ?

May your happiness increase!

“THE SPELL WAS CAST”: LOVE SONGS by YAALA BALLIN and MICHAEL KANAN (February 14, 2020)

The combination of Yaala Ballin, voice, and Michael Kanan, piano, is very special: a swirling-together of melody, joy, and wit in the most delightfully intuitive ways. And because they both know the way to our hearts through music, they can be brave. Each song is a delicately strong exercise in the taking of risks — risks that pay off.

Over the past few years, they have developed a concert “program” where the audience gets to choose the songs from a long list of classics (Porter, Berlin, Gershwin, Ellington, Rodgers and Hart and more) — each audience member picks two titles, and the slips of paper are placed in a basket, from which Yaala draws. It works wonderfully: a combination of surprise and pleasure.

I’m writing this just in time: Yaala and Michael will be performing one set together, tomorrow, November 17, 2 PM (New York time) on Facebook Live.

Here are four love songs from their Valentine’s Day 2020 concert, an occasion I recall well with great gratitude.

From OKLAHOMA! —

Berlin’s very touching THEY SAY IT’S WONDERFUL —

OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY (with the verse):

and a fitting close to this segment, AT LAST:

HEART AND SOUL for sure.

Don’t forget: Yaala and Michael will be performing tomorrow, November 17, at 2 PM (New York time). I know it’s only virtual — Facebook Live — but I look forward to the time when they can be experienced in person.

May your happiness increase!

YES, THEY UNDERSTAND: MICHAEL KANAN, HORACIO FUMERO, GUILLEM ARNEDO (Castelldefels, Spain: February 2, 2020)

And what do they understand?

Oh, little things. The subtleties of melodic embellishment. Imbuing the familiar written notes with personality. Being witty without being heavy-handed. Creating light-hearted perpetual-motions of swing. Working as a community. Honoring the elders but understanding just how innovative those elders are.

In short, the very foundations of great enticing art that never shouts or insists on capital letters. A wooing art, genial and seductive. Humane and friendly — and graciously old-fashioned in its embrace of listeners, with no hauteur.

The music that exemplifies these assertions was performed and recorded at the cleverly titled Vegans N’ Roses in Spain, a month or so before the pandemic told us that the bar was closed indefinitely. How fortunate we are to have this evidence, which drummer Guillem has just posted on YouTube and which I happily share with you.

BLUE LESTER:

TEACH ME TONIGHT:

WHO KNOWS:

MOUNT HARISSA:

Children at play in a field, but with the wisdom of the Elders — that’s what I hear. If these musicians are new to you, write their names down on the back of a grocery receipt and carry it in your wallet . . . or note them on your phone, so you won’t forget them. They know how to light the way.

May your happiness increase!

A CONTROLLED BLAZE: GABRIELLE STRAVELLI, DAN BLOCK, PAUL BOLLENBACK, PAT O’LEARY (Swing 46, September 21, 2021)

Art is all about passion: think of the great soprano arias, whether Puccini or Bechet; think of Louis or Bird — the heart on fire, so full of feelings to be shared with us. But there’s the counterbalance: passion without control might be noise. Anyone who’s tried to play or sing — seriously — knows how much exactitude is required to create the notes, the phrases, the pauses, that create that drama that didn’t exist five minutes before.

Gabrielle Stravelli and the instrumentalists surrounding her on the early-evening performances at Swing 46 not only know these truths but embody them: call it passion and control, abandonment and discipline: here are three soulful examples by Gabrielle, Dan Block, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Paul Bollenback, guitar; Pat O’Leary, string bass.

I WALK A LITTLE FASTER (Cy Coleman – Carolyn Leigh):

BORN TO BE BLUE (Mel Torme – Robert Wells):

BLAME IT ON MY YOUTH (Oscar Levant – Edward Heyman):

The closing notes of BLAME IT ON MY YOUTH say it all.

Gabrielle and her friends (most often the irreplaceable pianist Michael Kanan) have gigs all over town (hooray!) and you can find out more here or here. Even in the ruckus that is West 46th Street, sirens and chatter at no charge, their art aims straight at us. And sticks.

May your happiness increase!

“WE LOVE THEM. MADLY.” GABRIELLE STRAVELLI, DAN BLOCK, MICHAEL KANAN, PAT O’LEARY (Swing 46, October 5, 2021)

When you know, you know. I was at Swing 46 last night to see and hear and applaud Dan Block, alto and tenor saxophones; Gabrielle Stravelli, vocal; Michael Kanan, keyboard; Pat O’Leary, string bass. It threatened to rain all through the gig and the usual street theatre of that block was at its best (come visit and see for yourselves).

In the middle of the second set, Gabrielle called the Ellington LOVE YOU MADLY and they performed it with great enthusiastic beauty . . . at the end of the performance, Gabrielle said exultantly, as if she were Ida Lupino directing a film, “CUT! And PRINT!” looking at me, which I took as the sign of a small miracle, that an artist, completing a performance, is happy with it. I got permission from the other three, so you can enjoy this marvel, hot and fresh:

This wonderful quartet performs every Tuesday from 5:30 to 8:30. I’ve been there every week and have always come away full of joy. They’re loved . . . madly.

May your happiness increase!

“YOU HAVE TO GET OUT OF YOUR CHAIR SOMETIME”: LARRY McKENNA with STRINGS (World Cafe Live, Philadelphia, October 12, 2021)

Sharp-eyed readers will notice that October 12 has not come yet, so before someone writes in to explain my error, I am announcing an event that will take place in slightly more than two weeks from this evening. And it concerns this man, seen in the photograph above, the wondrous tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna. Here’s what he sounds like:

Now, imagine that sound backed by a different (but equally splendid) jazz rhythm section, and a string ensemble of three cellos, one violin, one English horn doubling oboe, one flute, arrangements by Larry and by Jack Saint Clair, the latter of whom will also be conducting.

Yes, you don’t need to imagine, but you do need to attend the event in real time as it is taking place at World Cafe Live, 8:30 to 10:30 PM, Tuesday, October 12, 2021. The WCL is located at 3025 Walnut St. Philadelphia, PA 19104 — not far from the 30th Street station. (I’ve been there: it was a very welcoming place.)

The price is $35.00 per ticket, and it is general admission: you can buy tickets and read about Covid-19 protocols here. Yes, you will have to show proof of vaccination; yes, you will be expected to wear your mask except when eating or drinking.

Yes, I am attending. Yes, I will bring my video camera, but even I — who prides himself on the possibilities of video-recording — will say that a video is not the same as being there in person. And, no (the first no!) the event is not being streamed, nor is it a seven-night engagement, and the WCL is not the size of Carnegie Hall, so, to quote the oracle Patrick O’Leary, “You snooze, you lose.”

And: before the virus changed the landscape, there were always a thousand reasons to stay home, and we know them well. Given the virus, there are more reasons. But: to me, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Perhaps it is to you also. And, in case you want to know the source of the aphorism, “You have to get out of your chair sometime,” c’est moi. I hope to see you there — for beauty’s sake.

May your happiness increase!

EVEN MORE MAGIC IN MIDTOWN: GABRIELLE STRAVELLI, DAN BLOCK, MICHAEL KANAN, PAT O’LEARY (Swing 46, September 14, 2021)

Here’s what I wrote about this superb quartet when I visited them on August 31:


Between 5:30 and 8:30 last night, beauty filled the air in front of Swing 46 (Forty-Sixth Street, west of Eighth Avenue, New York City) thanks to Gabrielle Stravelli (above), vocals; Dan Block, tenor saxophone and clarinet, Michael Kanan, keyboard; Pat O’Leary, string bass.

I don’t have any video evidence for you, but with good reason: that’s a busy street, and occasionally the music was– shall we say — intruded upon by clamor. But the music won out, of course, and it wasn’t a matter of volume, but of emotional intensity. I’ve admired Gabrielle for more than a decade now: her beautiful resonant voice, lovely at top and bottom, her wonderful vocal control. But more so, her candid expressive phrasing, matching the emotions of each song in subtle convincing ways. She’s always fully present in the musical story, eloquent and open. With witty lyrics, she sounds as if she’s just about to burst into giggles; on dark material, she can sound downright vengeful. In three sets last night, she offered a deep bouquet of ballads — and not only songs usually done slowly: FLY ME TO THE MOON; I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I?, I’LL WALK ALONE; YOU’VE CHANGED; I’LL BE AROUND. A few vengence-is-mine songs — GOODY GOODY and THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY — added spice, and her readings of the first title and the second song’s “Good riddance, good-bye,” suggested once again that she is a splendid friend and perhaps a fierce enemy. Many of the other standards — NIGHT AND DAY, JUST IN TIME, AS LONG AS I LIVE — are well-established landmarks in the repertoire, but Gabrielle made them shine. She embraces the song; her singing reaches out to us, fervently and gently.

Her delight in singing to us was matched by that of her colleagues. Dan Block is quietly memorable in any context, and his sound alone was delightful. But he and Gabrielle had flying conversations where their intuitive telepathy was a marvel. Other times, he played Lester to her Billie, “filling in the windows,” offering just the right counterpoint and loving commentary. He was matched by Michael Kanan, master of quiet touching subversions in the manner of our hero Jimmie Rowles; both he and the superb bassist Pat O’Leary not only kept the time and the harmonies beautifully in place but created their own songs throughout.

I visited Swing 46 again last night, and the four artists just outdid themselves. And although 46th Street is not ideal for video-recording, I have two to offer you. But first, some updates.

Dan brought his most magical bass clarinet to add to tenor saxophone and clarinet: he’s always astounded me on that possibly balky instrument since our first intersections in 2004. In the hustle and bustle of the street — in Gabrielle’s closing lines of AS LONG AS I LIVE, a song about how the singer wants to take good care of herself, an ambulance, lights and sirens blazing and blaring, went by — Michael and Pat created one quirky inquiring beautiful phrase after the other, supporting, encouraging, exploring, even trading musical witticisms. And Gabrielle touched our hearts in singular ways on song after song.

And this band has a splendidly expansive repertoire: two “all right” tunes — I WAS DOING ALL RIGHT and IT’S ALL RIGHT WITH ME, a seriously playful LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME and a brooding WARM VALLEY — to which Gabrielle has created very touching, simple but not cliched, lyrics; an EXACTLY LIKE YOU where it seemed as if the whole band was ready to break into laughter at something, an enthusiastic SOON, a LADY BE GOOD where Gabrielle and Dan did Lester’s 1936 solo line (!) — a few more classic love songs, FALLING IN LOVE WITH LOVE than became LET’S FALL IN LOVE (with the verse), ISN’T THIS A LOVELY DAY which perhaps subliminally led into NIGHT AND DAY. The other side of love had to be explored, and was, in LITTLE WHITE LIES and ILL WIND. There was Gabrielle’s jaunty tread through YOU’RE GETTING TO BE A HABIT WITH ME, love via meteorology with A FOGGY DAY and a few more. One I cannot forget is Gabrielle’s reading of BLAME IT ON MY YOUTH — heartbreaking yet controlled.

I heard whispers that this group is considering a CD with some deep slow songs. I hope these rumors are true.

And there’s video. Imperfect but there. But it requires a little prelude.

I had checked the weather report obsessively, hoping for enough rain to bring the band and audience inside but not enough to make the sometimes-leaky building a disaster. No such luck. So when I arrived early and was greeted by the kind, resourceful Michelle Collier (a fine singer herself) I had resigned myself to no video. But, I thought, I could set up the camera, put it on the table with the lens cap on, and have an auditory souvenir. If my video and audio capers documented in this blog haven’t made it clear, I delight in having evidence of joyous creativity — to make it last forever.

I’d resigned myself to creating the modern equivalent of radio (and the black-screen audios sound quite nice) but for the third song, when Dan put the bass clarinet together, I thought, “I HAVE to capture this,” and held the heavy camera-and-microphone in my hands for nearly six minutes (hence the mildly trembling unsteadiness . . . no time to unpack my tripod and no space for it anyway) and I am delighted I did, because this LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME is the most inspired conversation among a quartet:

I couldn’t hold the camera steady after that, but I found a place for it on the table, and I’m glad I did — for WARM VALLEY, with Gabrielle’s lyrics. Most lyrics added after the fact to Ellington songs seem out of place; hers do not:

I try to avoid hyperbole, but those are two masterpieces. I believe this quartet will appear at Swing 46 for the remaining two Tuesdays in September and the last two weeks in October. If you vibrate to the arts of this music, tender, solemn, hilarious, raucously swinging, you owe it to yourself to get to 349 West 46th Street, between Eight and Ninth Avenue (on the north side) on Tuesdays from 5:30 to 8:30. Gabrielle, Mchael, Dan, and Pat bestow blessings in every song.

May your happiness increase!

MAGIC IN MIDTOWN: GABRIELLE STRAVELLI, DAN BLOCK, MICHAEL KANAN, PAT O’LEARY (Swing 46, August 31, 2021)

Between 5:30 and 8:30 last night, beauty filled the air in front of Swing 46 (Forty-Sixth Street, west of Eighth Avenue, New York City) thanks to Gabrielle Stravelli (above), vocals; Dan Block, tenor saxophone and clarinet, Michael Kanan, keyboard; Pat O’Leary, string bass.

I don’t have any video evidence for you, but with good reason: that’s a busy street, and occasionally the music was — shall we say — intruded upon by clamor. But the music won out, of course, and it wasn’t a matter of volume, but of emotional intensity. I’ve admired Gabrielle for more than a decade now: her beautiful resonant voice, lovely at top and bottom, her wonderful vocal control. But more so, her candid expressive phrasing, matching the emotions of each song in subtle convincing ways. She’s always fully present in the musical story, eloquent and open. With witty lyrics, she sounds as if she’s just about to burst into giggles; on dark material, she can sound downright vengeful. In three sets last night, she offered a deep bouquet of ballads — and not only songs usually done slowly: FLY ME TO THE MOON; I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I?, I’LL WALK ALONE; YOU’VE CHANGED; I’LL BE AROUND. A few vengence-is-mine songs — GOODY GOODY and THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY — added spice, and her readings of the first title and the second song’s “Good riddance, good-bye,” suggested once again that she is a splendid friend and perhaps a fierce enemy. Many of the other standards — NIGHT AND DAY, JUST IN TIME, AS LONG AS I LIVE — are well-established landmarks in the repertoire, but Gabrielle made them shine. She embraces the song; her singing reaches out to us, fervently and gently.

Her delight in singing to us was matched by that of her colleagues. Dan Block is quietly memorable in any context, and his sound alone was delightful. But he and Gabrielle had flying conversations where their intuitive telepathy was a marvel. Other times, he played Lester to her Billie, “filling in the windows,” offering just the right counterpoint and loving commentary. He was matched by Michael Kanan, master of quiet touching subversions in the manner of our hero Jimmie Rowles; both he and the superb bassist Pat O’Leary not only kept the time and the harmonies beautifully in place but created their own songs throughout.

This quartet has been appearing with some regularity on Tuesdays at Swing 46 from 5:30 to 8:30. You can come by, have a drink or a full meal, and pretend — even in the intermittent clamor of midtown — that you are on vacation somewhere unnamed with the finest musicians entertaining you. To quote Alec Wilder, you certainly ought to try it.

May your happiness increase!

NOT ONLY FOR VALENTINE’S DAY (Part Two): YAALA BALLIN and MICHAEL KANAN, February 14, 2020

Let us hope that our days and nights always have room for beauty.

I’ve posted performances from a delightful concert by Yaala Ballin, vocal; Michael Kanan, piano — at St. John’s in the Village, a welcoming Episcopal church on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, New York. Valentine’s Day 2020 was a perfect reason for the charming event that Yaala and Michael have perfected, where audience members were given a list of classic songs and asked to pick two they especially wanted to hear . . . then, in true quiz show fashion, Yaala reached into the basket of paper slips, drew one out, showed the name to Michael, and that was the next number. Joyous and alive, and an intoxicating combination of emotional energy and a sweet embracing calm.

Yaala and Michael love and respect the melodies and the emotions that animate the songs, and they are also playful explorers: with the secure magic carpet of Michael’s accompaniment, Yaala can stretch the line, deliver some words in speech, offer suspenseful pauses: in effect, build new houses on familiar ground.  Michael continues to be heartfelt, swinging, and sly — within the space of an eight-bar bridge — his solos translucent marvels where melody and variations float as if skywritten.

I first met and heard Michael (because of the encouragement of the great saxophonist Joel Press) in 2010, and I believe Michael told me about Yaala in 2013 . . . so I have been an admirer for a long time. A long rewarding time.

A favorite of mine, UNDER A BLANKET OF BLUE:

I WISHED ON THE MOON, homage to Billie but also to the song as it existed before she got to it:

Porter meets Kern, EASY TO LOVE / WHY DO I LOVE YOU?:

BEWITCHED:

I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS:

Beguiled again, for sure. There’s more from this wonderful concert . . . and I hope we will see this magic pair again when the collective skies are blue blankets.

In the interim, you would enjoy Yaala’s newest CD, devoted to her non-relative, Israel Balline — with Ari Roland, Chris Flory, and Michael . . . I think it’s wonderful and said so here

May your happiness increase!

SWEET [COSMOLOGICAL] SOUNDS FROM SWING 46 (Part Three): DAN BLOCK, GABRIELLE STRAVELLI, MICHAEL KANAN, PAT O’LEARY (July 13, 2021)

On the calendar, July 13, 2021, was an ordinary Tuesday in New York City — July, hot and humid. But at Swing 46 (that’s 349 West 46th Street) extraordinary music was being created . . . by Dan Block, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Gabrielle Stravelli, vocal; Michael Kanan, piano; Pat O’Leary, string bass. I’ve posted performances from this evening for the past two days here.

Dan, Pat, Gabrielle: photo by Jon De Lucia.
Michael Kanan, photo by Jon De Lucia.
Gabrielle, photo by Jon De Lucia.

I don’t think there was a conscious choice on the part of this stellar group, but a number of the songs chosen (including Weill’s LOST IN THE STARS) suggested that their composers had their eyes aloft to the heavens. So it pleases me to group them together: perhaps NASA will subsidize a concert by this cosmic quartet?

First, Tadd Dameron’s melody line over SEPTEMBER IN THE RAIN, called ON A MISTY NIGHT:

A gleeful IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON:

The most gorgeous STAIRWAY TO THE STARS:

Harold Arlen’s IT WAS WRITTEN IN THE STARS:

May your happiness increase!

SWEET SOUNDS FROM SWING 46 (Part Two): DAN BLOCK, GABRIELLE STRAVELLI, MICHAEL KANAN, PAT O’LEARY (July 13, 2021)

The very place: Swing 46, 349 West 46th Street, New York City, where good music is fresh, hot, and sweet.
Dan, Pat, and Gabrielle: photo by Jon De Lucia.
Michael Kanan, photo by Jon De Lucia.
Gabrielle, photo by Jon De Lucia.

On July 13, which was an ordinary Tuesday, late afternoon, Dan Block, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Gabrielle Stravelli, vocal; Michael Kanan, piano; Pat O’Leary, string bass, created wonderful music for all to savor. And savor we did. In my first posting from that evening, they mingled Lester Young, George and Ira, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler . . . gorgeously here. But I said there was more to come, and I wouldn’t want to deceive anyone.

Here are three more: two Ellingtons, one Lerner and Loewe.

ALL TOO SOON (with Ben Webster at the bar, feeling it):

DO NOTHIN’ TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME:

ON THE STREET WHERE YOU LIVE:

Yes, more to come (a cosmological quartet, to pique your curiosities).

And a few words about Swing 46 — it was a pleasure to be there in a congenial atmosphere — a large food-and-drink menu and a very welcoming staff. Next Tuesday, Dan will be back with the delightful Hilary Gardner (swinging, surprising, and introspective) and other luminaries to be announced, from 5:30 to 8:30. And at 9, the irreplaceable Michael Hashim leads noble friends — who have included Chris Flory and Kevin Dorn — in an impromptu session. That’s 349 West 46th Street, the north side, between Eighth and Ninth Avenue. Leave your bedroom: put down the phone: Netflix will be here when you come back: what’s in the freezer is safe. Hear some restorative live music among like-minded friends.

May your happiness increase!

SWEET SOUNDS FROM SWING 46 (Part One): DAN BLOCK, GABRIELLE STRAVELLI, MICHAEL KANAN, PAT O’LEARY (July 13, 2021)

Four of my musical heroes made wonderful sounds the other night at Swing 46 (that’s 349 West 46th Street, New York City): Dan Block, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Gabrielle Stravelli, vocal; Michael Kanan, piano; Pat O’Leary, string bass.

Dan Block, Pat O’Leary, Gabrielle Stravelli. Photo by Jon De Lucia.
Gabrielle Stravelli. Photograph by Jon De Lucia.

Four heroes, five wonderful performances. It was a Tuesday night; the gig went from 5:30 to 8:30 — hardly the day and time one would expect aesthetic firework displays, but they certainly happened.

Michael Kanan. Photograph by Jon De Lucia.

TICKLE-TOE — an instrumental tribute to and embodiment of Lester Young, so happily. Savor the first ballad chorus!:

SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME — could anything be more tender?:

Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler give us friendly rules for living and romance, AS LONG AS I LIVE:

Even though it was becoming dark, here’s a frolicsome DAY IN, DAY OUT:

A sweetly pensive Kurt Weill medley scored for the trio — LOST IN THE STARS / HERE I’LL STAY:

And a few words about Swing 46 — it was a pleasure to be there in a congenial atmosphere — a large food-and-drink menu and a very welcoming staff. Next Tuesday, Dan will be back with the delightful Hilary Gardner (swinging, surprising, and introspective) and other luminaries to be announced, from 5:30 to 8:30. And at 9, the irreplaceable Michael Hashim leads noble friends — who have included Chris Flory and Kevin Dorn — in an impromptu session. That’s 349 West 46th Street, the north side, between Eighth and Ninth Avenue. Leave your bedroom: put down the phone: Netflix will be here when you come back: what’s in the freezer is safe. Hear some restorative live music among like-minded friends.

May your happiness increase!

“THEY SAY IT’S WONDERFUL”: YAALA BALLIN SINGS IRVING BERLIN (CHRIS FLORY, MICHAEL KANAN, ARI ROLAND: SteepleChase)

As they say, “I’m a fan.”  Not only of the wonderful, completely-herself singer Yaala Ballin, but of guitarist Chris Flory, pianist Michael Kanan, string bassist Ari Roland . . . and that Israel Baline fellow, Americanized to Irving Berlin, gleaming on a splendid new CD.

Here’s a quick video-audio tour:

and — to support the title of this post:

I can’t get enough — Yaala truly improvises! — here she is with Michael, last Valentine’s Day, telling the Ballin – Baline story in a few words:

That should convince anyone that this is music to purchase, to treasure, to share.  But a few words.

Berlin himself is — like some stocks — disgracefully undervalued.

His music has been perceived for so long as well-behaved.  No sudden shocks of the sort you find in Hart’s or Porter’s lyrics; he doesn’t always aim for the arching melodies of Kern.  Berlin’s curse is that, like Bing Crosby, he manages so deftly to appear simple.  “I could write a song as good as that.”  But you didn’t, we must point out.  Berlin can be sassy and witty: “Be careful, it’s my heart.  It’s not my watch you’re holding, it’s my heart.”  And how many of us know his arch but tender FOOLS FALL IN LOVE?  But his great strength is in his apparent plainness: the melodies that sound as if you could pick them out on the piano with one finger, the lyrics that sound like casual speech.  Of course his songs have “become part of the cultural landscape,” but that is why they get taken for granted.  Hear the singer stride into BLUE SKIES or CHEEK TO CHEEK and we may be forgiven for thinking, to quote Sammy Cahn, “It seems to me I’ve heard that song before.”  It’s easy to regard Berlin the same way one might look at the two slices of toast that accompany our eggs at the diner.  Familiar, not essential.  But his music is lit from within by a depth of feeling that makes his songs expressions of dear truths.  Think of HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN, that most passionate declaration of love couched entirely in questions, decades before JEOPARDY.

And — if we stop to listen to his songs with fresh attention, they sparkle with gentle daring.

Gentle daring also characterizes Yaala Ballin’s singing.  When I listen to her, I always wish I had a very astute companion next to me to whom I could say, “Did you hear what she just did with that tone, that pause, that phrase?” She is incapable of delivering the simplest line in a formulaic way.  Her gliding phrasing, so musical, is a kind of lively quirky speech.  A minute hesitation here, a startling rush there: she’s not locked in by the 1-2-3-4 although she keeps lovely time and swings from the start.  Her slides from one note to another summon up instrumental masters Vic Dickenson and Ben Webster.  She is a magnificently subversive actress, because we never feel that she is acting.  As you hear in the examples above, she is a quiet risk-taker.  You don’t come to one of Yaala’s songs on this CD and think, “Wow, she painted everything bright orange and nailed a chair to the ceiling for effect,” rather it’s as if a sly artist has moved one vase and two bowls in the room and everything is wonderfully improved.  Hear her second chorus of HOW MANY TIMES?  Or THIS YEAR’S KISSES, always thought of as Property of Billie Holiday — Yaala and Michael Kanan, in their first rubato duet chorus, say kindly to the Lady, “We bow low to you, but we have our own ways of getting that feeling” — rueful feeling with swing but not needing capital letters.

It would be cruel to not share it with you:

Describing Yaala’s co-equals (it would be demeaning to call them “accompanists”) — Michael Kanan, Chris Flory, Ari Roland — I find myself in the nicest critical quandary.  Are they a subtle muscular twenty-first century Nat Cole trio?  No, I think, they are the 1940 Basie band in portable form.  The tracks that began with brief instrumental introductions brought happiness from the first notes.  And their approach mixes respect and innovation.  Singers have occasionally taken Berlin very slowly: here, REMEMBER, HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN? SAY IT ISN’T SO, and BE CAREFUL, IT’S MY HEART are taken at walking tempos, stripping away decades of melodrama to reveal the strong structures beneath.  Several of the songs have unexpected rhythmic underpinnings, adding freshness: for the first time ever, I was able to put Astaire aside while hearing CHANGE PARTNERS.

And the CD sounds the way these four people sound in person, so I had the dreamy sensation of having Yaala, Michael, Chris, and Ari in my living room.  Thanks to Chris Sulit and Nils Winther for making this happen.

The CD is deliciously varied: the compact performances feel just right, completely satisfying in their old-fashioned refusal to sprawl.  Little arranging touches — Yaala in duet with each of the players, split choruses and other variations — make this a splendid tasting menu.  I kept returning to some of the songs, as if it was too difficult to let go of the sensations they had evoked until I’d heard them three or four times.  I hope for a yard-length CD series of YAALA BALLIN SINGS THE __________ SONGBOOK.  (I vote for Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, but that’s just me.)

When I had finished my first hearing of the CD, I felt as if I had been given great gifts.  And then I played it again.  Deprive yourself of such pleasures at your own peril.  The disc and its digital contents are available in the usual places and the usual ways.

May your happiness increase!

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