Sunday, March 19, 2023

Chris Walters digs the masterful composers

Nashville-based pianist and singer Chris Walters dug deep into the Great American Songbook - and two of his own worthy gems - in what mostly was a tip of the hat to icons George Gershwin and Cole Porter at the Gulf Theater in Punta Gorda, Florida on Saturday, March 18.

Walters called this tour "Rhapsody in Burlesque" - melding a reference to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with his sometimes playful and unusual treatments of the material. Rest assured, there were no dancers involved, other than his fingers dancing over the keyboard. 

Chris Walters
He was backed by bassist Zebediah Briskovich and drummer Miles Vandiver, both from St. Louis. While each had a few improvisational moments, this was more a well-arranged tribute to composers who had a profound impact on 20th century American music and the extensive jazz repertoire.

Walters opened with medley from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess operetta that included an intimate, dirge-like take on "Summertime" and infused "It Ain't Necessarily So" with a bit of honky-tonk piano and his husky vocals.

Miles Vandiver
Zebediah Briskovich
Porter's "Night and Day" and a boogie-woogie treatment of "Anything Goes" followed. Briskovich's rich-toned bass was featured on Gershwin's "Lullaby," which segued right into his "Cuban Overture." Much later in the program, Vandiver was featured with a wide-ranging drum solo on Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," which provided the most extensive jazz feel of the night.

Walters made sure to acknowledge a few other composers, with instrumentals that included Willie "The Lion" Smith's "Echoes of Spring," Jack Fina's sprightly "Bumble Boogie" (based on "Flight of the Bumblebee"), Peter Nero's clever "Scratch My Bach" and a solo piano journey through "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The latter piece ended with a snippet of Judy Garland's vocals from The Wizard of Oz. 

The trio delivered several standout moments:

  • Walters paired a salty take on Gershwin's "Here Come De Honey Man" with Porter's "Love For Sale" with his own unusual twist. Both lyrics were sung from the viewpoint of a pimp, not the lady marketing her wares upstairs.
  • He also shared two beautiful standards-quality originals: "Waltzing With a Broom," about a man whose wife/dancing partner had passed on, and "Cool Blue Swing," the latter a metaphor for living the good life. It was delivered with a shuffle-beat rhythm of his native New Orleans.

The 90-minute performance, with no intermission, concluded with Walter's exquisite interpretation of "Rhapsody in Blue."

Walters has extensive jazz, pop and country music credentials. He was pianist and musical director for Barbara Mandrell and J.D. Souther, toured for seven years with the band Alabama, and now works with Alison Brown, the Peter Mayer Group and saxophonist Jeff Coffin's Mu'tet.

The concert was co-sponsored by the Gulf Theater at the Military Heritage Museum and the Charlotte County Jazz Society.

Briskovich, Walters, Vandiver

Saturday, March 18, 2023

The art of the duo personified

The jazz duo is the ultimate musical challenge. With just two musicians on stage, there is no coasting allowed. You're either doubling on the melody, listening intently to anticipate how to respond to the other player's solo, comping behind him -- or all of the above.

Dick Hyman, Diego Figueiredo
That fine art was in the spotlight at the 42nd edition of the Sarasota Jazz Festival on Friday, March 17 in the hands of pianist Dick Hyman and Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo. 

Their musical conversation belied their half-century age gap. NEA Jazz Master Hyman turned 96 last week. Figueiredo, a rising star on his instrument, is just 42.

It was a call-and-response set from the get-go as they explored a wide range of Brazilian and Cuban material, with a few American standards sprinkled in for good measure. At every turn, they found common ground through the music itself.

Diego Figueiredo
"The Color of Brazil" and "So Danca Samba" led to a playful take on "All The Things You Are," with Figueiredo filling behind Hyman's lead. Whether he is popping off blistering solos or comping, the Brazilian draws on his wonderful combination of finger pick-style jazz and classical guitar techniques, sometimes adding a bit of body English for emphasis.

After digging in to Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova classic "Wave," the festival's new musical director, Terell Stafford, joined them on flugelhorn for an extended exploration of Jobim's "Triste." 

Then came a solo tune apiece by the two co-stars. Hyman uncorked a teasing-at-times, bouncy and bright version of "Cherokee" that included a clever Stride piano segment. Figueiredo used his solo space to explore "Tico-Tico No Fubรก," one of the high-energy Brazilian features in his repertoire. Zequinha de Abreu wrote this Brazilian choro in 1917. 

Dick Hyman
Because it happened to be St. Patrick's Day, Hyman included "Danny Boy" in the program. This gentler moment was a chance to catch one's breath before the fiery closer. Together, they roared through Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona's Latin classic "Malaguena."

Hyman, a prolific pianist, organist, composer, arranger, bandleader, composer of film scores and orchestral works in a career dating to the late 1940s, is a master of the keyboard. He mixes sparking delicacy with uptempo fluidity, exploring multiple styles with ease.

Dick Hyman, Diego Figueiredo
He played the first Sarasota Jazz Festival back in 1981 and has been the event's most frequent performer. At first a snowbird, he has lived in nearby Venice full-time for more than 25 years. At 96 and not wanting to travel extensively anymore, this may have been one of his last significant performances. But you never know.

This year's festival, produced by the Jazz Club of Sarasota, was held under the Circus Arts Conservatory's Big Top at Nathan Benderson Park. 

The festival's other headliners included singers Kurt Elling (with guitarist Charlie Hunter), and Lizz Wright, pianist Christian Sands, bassist Marcus Miller, reed player Paquito D'Rivera, B-3 player Tony Monaco, tenor saxophonist Houston Person and the more-contemporary Allen Carmen Project with Gumbi Ortiz.

Dick Hyman, Diego Figueiredo, Terell Stafford

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

A Night of Classic Jazz and Other Gems

Gems from the Great American Songbook, opera and operettas, and a few classic-jazz staples were in the splendid mix when The Midiri Brothers brought their quintet to Punta Gorda FL on Monday, March 13 for their first Charlotte County Jazz Society appearance.

The Midiri brothers
Paul and Joe Midiri have both serious chops and a love for the instrumental jazz tradition. Together, they imbued the music with a bright sound and connected with the audience through humorous, well-honed banter about their identical twinship.

The band this fine night included Paul - the older brother by one minute - on vibraphone, Joe on clarinet and saxophones, Jeff Phillips on piano, Jay Mueller on bass, and Patricia Dean on drums. It was night three of a brief Florida tour.

Joe Midiri
The brothers have a finely honed sound warmed by the collective brightness of their primary instruments. Paul's vibes style draws much from pioneers Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo, while Joe's clarinet playing comes straight from the Benny Goodman approach. The pair hail from the Mid-Atlantic Region. They've been a hit at classic jazz festivals across the U.S. for more than 20 years.

Their interplay and the band's swinging tempos made for a joyous night as they coursed through an interesting range of Swing-era standards. "Always" and "Poor Butterfly" (inspired by Madame Butterfly) led into a burning version of "Lady Be Good." 

Jeff Phillips
Paul Midiri shifted with ease between two and four mallets depending whether he was featured on the melody or comping with chords behind his brother's solos. Joe switched to soprano sax for a beautiful take on "September Song," which featured an elegant yet understated piano solo from Phillips. 
Patricia Dean

Whether or not intentional, then came an interesting thematic grouping of songs with "You" in the title. 

Patricia Dean, a Southwest Florida double threat on drums and vocals, was featured on the Peggy Lee hit "I Don't Know Enough About You." Phillips provided the keyboard pyrotechnics on "Yours is My Heart Alone," a Franz Lehar gem from the 1929 German operetta The Land of Smiles. It was first recorded in the U.S by Bing Crosby and later was a mega-hit for Mario Lanza. The thematic cluster, and the first set, ended with the quintet's take on Eubie Blake's nostalgic classic "Memories of You," which was popularized by Goodman and Rosemary Clooney.

After intermission, The Midiri Brothers offered more treats from a wide range of sources. Fat's Waller's classic "Honeysuckle Rose" turned into an extended improvisational jaunt, particularly for clarinet, piano and vibes. Then came "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," Frank Sinatra's first hit  when he sang with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1940. Ol' Blue Eyes stayed with the band for three years before launching his solo career.

Paul Midiri, Jay Mueller

Dean was featured on no-theatrics vocals again on "This Can't Be Love," a Great American Songbook staple by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart from the Shakespeare-inspired Broadway musical "The Boys From Syracuse." 

The Midiri brothers
Joe Midiri's soprano sax artistry on the Sidney Bechet ballad "Si Tu Vois Ma Mere" (If You See My Mother) was poignant moment. Bechet wrote it in 1952 after moving to Paris. The song was popularized in Woody Allen's 2011 film Midnight in Paris.  

Joe then shared his lone vocal solo of the night, a Louis Armstrong-like take on "Pennies From Heaven." His Satchmo-like singing voice is uncanny, delivered in a reverential style that triggered much applause when he was done.

The quintet closed on another instrumental high note, roaring through "After You've Gone," a 1918 popular song whose early hit performers included Armstrong, Guy Lombardo and Rudy Vallee. While more than a century old, it still finds its way onto new recordings by young jazz musicians. A staple for sure. And still a crowd pleaser.

The CCJS concert was at the Military Heritage Museum's Gulf Theater.

Jeff Phillips, Paul Midiri, Jay Mueller, Joe Midiri, Patricia Dean