Saturday, November 19, 2022

The joy of piano personified

Pianist Bobby van Deusen returned to southwest Florida on Friday, November 22 with a long-overdue performance that celebrated his mastery of virtually every keyboard style - delivered with joy and enthusiasm.

The Pensacola-based keyboard marvel hadn't performed locally in nearly four years, thanks to pandemic and hurricane postponements.That made his performance in Morrie Trumble's South County Jazz With Morrie series even more special.

Over nearly two hours, van Deusen covered a lot of territory, both stylistically and in the sourcing of his material.

"I'm gonna play a lot of tunes everybody knows," he told the audience at the at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Venice. "That seems cliched, but they're not cliched if you play them your own way." And he did.

Van Deusen won his second senior division title at the World Championship Old-Time Piano-Playing Contest over Memorial Day Weekend in Oxford, Mississippi. He said he is gunning for a third.

The tunes of the day ranged Scott Joplin's ragtime classic "The Entertainer" to Bobby Troup's classic "Route 66" to Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" to a stunning, shortened version of his amazing "Phantom of the Opera" medley.

"Route 66" was an appropriate inclusion, as van Deusen took various turns all afternoon down Ragtime Road, Stride Street, Boogie-Woogie Boulevard and Classical Circle to add delicacy or thundering passages as the moment prompted him. At times he sounded like the piano duo Ferrante & Teicher rolled into one.

"I Left My Heart in San Francisco" was embellished with lush ornamentation and stride segments. He also dug with zest into "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "Tenderly," "Mandy, Make Up Your Mind" (one of his Old-Time Piano-Playing Competition" selections this year), "Edd Tide," the Four Freshmen hit "Shangri La," "Stardust," Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness," and a eye-popping take on Willie "The Lion" Smith's aptly named composition, "The Fingerbreaker." There were many others, as well.

Late in the program, he dropped in a teasing, sometimes off-kilter version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" that resolved with a lot of boogie-woogie. 

In the spirit of the season, he added a few classics from Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas repertoire, including the joyous "Linus and Lucy" and "Skating." He closed the afternoon with a holiday medley that opened and closed with popular singer Andy Williams' 1963 hit "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

For van Deusen, the afternoon revealed that he is consumed with sharing his love of piano - right down to his socks.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Letting the good times roll

Singer Ronnie Leigh celebrated the kinship between jazz, the blues and R&B in his Monday, November 14 appearance in Punta Gorda, FL for the Charlotte County Jazz Society.

Ronnie Leigh
The suave, engaging entertainer from upstate New York made his CCJS debut with a performance that dug into the Great American Songbook and more-modern jazz and R&B sources, including material from Gregory Porter, the late Al Jarreau and even Steely Dan.

Leigh and his tight seven-piece jazz band put extended interpretations on all of the material. The band included saxophonist David MacKenzie, trumpeter Charlie Bertini, trombonist Herb Bruce, pianist John O'Leary, bassist Charlie Silva, drummer Paul Parker and guitarist Steve Luciano. While the other players were no strangers to CCJS audiences, this was also Orlando-based Luciano's first visit.

MacKenzie, Bertini, Bruce
Leigh opened with Porter's “On My Way to Harlem,” a wistful but upbeat acknowledgment of jazz and the Harlem Renaissance as one's musical roots. Right away, it was clear that generous solo space for the horn players would be a strength all night.

Leigh, Parker, MacKenzie
The three-man horn section added unison riffing behind Leigh's sometimes-teasing, laid back, mellow vocals. He also dropped in wordless scatting segments on various songs without overdoing the techniques. A few times, he sounded like a fourth horn, emulating the sounds of a trombone or trumpet while trading melodic phrases with MacKenzie.

A Latin-tinged take on “Stompin' at the Savoy” had Leigh scatting a bit and dancing in place to its cha cha rhythm. It was followed by another gem from Porter, who emerged a decade ago as a fine singer-songwriter equally at home in the jazz and R&B genres. This one was “When Love Was King,” an extended ballad that Leigh sang with just the rhythm section.

After a laid-back, teasing introduction, Leigh transformed the standard “Bye, Bye Blackbird” into a playful yet soulful treat, riding Silva's beautiful bass line. MacKenzie on flute and trumpeter Bertini were featured soloists.

Over the course of the two sets, Leigh dug into four Jarreau tunes. “We're in This Love Together” during the first set was just the teaser. The second set included three more hits from the Jarreau songbook: “I Need Somebody” (featuring a robust horn interlude), the uptempo “Easy” and “Mornin',” with Leigh's soaring vocals riding the groove. On all of these, scatting and horn emulation supplemented the vocals, much like Jarreau did.

John O'Leary
Riffing horns and a frisky tenor sax solo from MacKenzie enhanced Leigh's take on “Bring It Back.” The singer first heard the gritty tune performed by singer Catherine Russell, who recorded it in 2014. It was written in the late 1940s or early 1950s by R&B and jump blues singer-guitarist Harrison Nelson, who performed under the name Peppermint Harris.

Leigh also shared Steely Dan's “Deacon Blues” and jazz singer Ron Boustead's humorous, quasi-romantic “(Let's Go Out For) Coffee.” Leigh's melodic accents and pauses added a joyous effect to the latter, setting up an extended keyboard solo from O'Leary.

The night's three other tunes spoke volumes about headliner's zest for the stage and rapport with an audience: “Let the Good Times Roll,” a bluesy take on “Ain't Misbehavin'” and, of course, “I Love Being Here With You.”

This event at the Gulf Theater and the Military Heritage Museum became the CCJS 2022-2023 season opener. An October concert was canceled due to facility damage from Hurricane Ian.

The Ronnie Leigh Octet

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Charles McPherson's both sides now

It took two and a half-years, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic lull, but alto saxophonist Charles McPherson finally got back to Artis-Naples. He appeared with the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra on Wednesday, November 9 in the quintet's All That Jazz series. His last visit to Naples was about 10 years ago.

Charles McPherson
On this night, he treated the audience to two sides of his musical psyche: a fine composer with wide-ranging material, and a true-blue bebopper who can add high-energy artistry and rapidly shifting ideas to most any tune.

The top-notch band supporting him this night at Daniels Pavilion included tenor saxophonist and musical director Lew Del Gatto, trumpeter Vince DiMartino, pianist Jerry Stawski, bassist Chuck Bergeron and drummer Mike Harvey. 

Jerry Stawski, McPherson
McPherson, now 83, opened the program with four diverse originals: his burner "Bud Like," two very different pieces from his Jazz Dance Suites, and the playful "Jumpin' Jacks," which was inspired by the game jacks that kids used to play on floor, driveways or sidewalks many moons ago.

The dance pieces were quite interesting. McPherson is the resident composer of the San Diego Ballet, where his daughter Camille is a principal dancer. "Song of the Sphinx" was gorgeous and intricate with both Spanish and Middle Eastern tinges. He followed it with the frisky, upbeat tune "Wedding Song." McPherson said it was inspired by an Old Testament tale of a hopeful young woman jilted by King Solomon.

McPherson, Lew Del Gatto
After those four originals, he played an inspired, occasionally delicate take on the standard "Old Folks" with just the rhythm section. The evening's lone ballad was a splendid showcase for Stawski's fine keyboard skills.

Then, with Hurricane Nicole bearing down on Florida, McPherson and the band shifted into gale-force bebop.

Vince DiMartino
They roared through Dizzy Gillespie's classic "A Night in Tunisia" and Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are," and closed with a blistering take on Charlie Parker and Gillespie's "Anthropology" with all of the band members turning in fine solos.

Early in his career, McPherson spent 14 years in bassist Charles Mingus' band. He noted that Mingus tweaked the beloved Kern standard a bit, and called his version "All The Things You Could Be By Now if Sigmund Freud's Wife was Your Mother." DiMartino rolled out the melody on this one, showcasing his bright and beautiful trumpet artistry.

It was good to hear McPherson in Southwest Florida again, playing in Naples after a four-night run at Smoke in New York City. 

He had been scheduled to play at the opening night main stage concert of the Sarasota Jazz Festival in March 2020. It was cancelled because of COVID-19 just an hour or so before showtime. His scheduled Naples return a month later was cancelled, and he was unable to make planned concerts in November 2020 and January 2022.

New Orleans trumpeter Wendell Brunious is the next featured guest in the All That Jazz series on December 14.

Charles McPherson with the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra