Friday, February 3, 2023

The tasty groove of Jazz Simpatico

After pandemic pauses and a Hurricane Ian-related cancellation last fall, the Charlotte County Jazz Society delivered the fifth edition of its informal matinee concerts on Thursday, February 2 - and it was a gem.

Bob Zottola
Trumpeter Bob Zottola performed with his Naples-based Jazz Simpatico band at the Grill at 1951 in Port Charlotte, Florida. It was billed as a trio performance with steady collaborators Stu Shelton on keyboard and Tim Ruger on drums. But it was much more, given the scope of their musicality and an unexpected guest: tenor saxophonist Len Pierro, a Philadelphia bandleader who spends winters here.

Len Pierro, Bob Zottola
Zottola moved to Florida in 2004 after decades on the New York jazz and Broadway musicals scene, including a 16-year run in the pit orchestra for Les Miserables. The leader's trumpet and flugelhorn chops belie his 86 years on the planet. His range and control of dynamics on this most demanding of instruments are marvelous. He often muted his trumpet with a purple Seagram's Crown Royal bag to dampen the horn's bright sound.
Stu Shelton

Shelton brought an interesting twist, passing up the venue's Yamaha grand piano for his own electric keyboard. He has an unusual technique, playing swinging, beautiful melodies with his right hand while delivering solid bass lines with his left. Close your eyes, and you'd swear there was a string bass player in a dark corner of the stage. 

Tim Ruger
Ruger spent years on the road with the Tony Award-winning musical The Fantastics. He delivered solid, no-frills propulsion all afternoon, adding tasty accents without any excess or bombast. This is a very good thing.

Their material shifted between The Great American Songbook and a bit of Broadway to jazz chestnuts, the latter including Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova classic "Triste." Pierro added his beautiful tenor work to half of them. Zottola also sang on four numbers: "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," "Bye Bye Blackbird,"  "I'm Old Fashioned" and a poignant version of Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" from the 1944 musical On The Town.

Pierro, Zottola
Several instrumental choices underscored the band's creativity:

  • Their uptempo version of John Coltrane's minor blues "Mr. P.C.," written in tribute to bassist Paul Chambers, featured Pierro on tenor sax, with Shelton delivering a relentless bass line and a classic B-3 organ sound.
  • Alternating notes on their respective horns, Zottola and Pierro teased their way into the melody before turning up the heat on "Stella by Starlight."
  • A clever rearrangement of Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" took the beautiful ballad in new directions.
  • An extended exploration of the classic tenor saxophone feature "Body and Soul," which Coleman Hawkins transformed into a jazz standard, showcased Pierro's beautifully laid-back tenor sound. He can swing hard when warranted, but never overplays.

They closed the afternoon with an extended take on "The Theme," one of Miles Davis's classic jazz heads based on the first eight bars of "I Got Rhythm." They rode with great joy over the chord changes, known in the jazz vernacular as "rhythm changes." It was the perfect summation of everything that preceded it.

Pierro, Zottola, Ruger Shelton 
Prior concerts in this occasional series featured pianist Bobby van Deusen in 2018, pianist Billy Marcus and bassist Don Mopsick in 2019, pianist Roy Gerson's trio in January 2020, and guitarist Nate Najar and singer Daniela Soledade in 2021.

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