Founded by Molly Ryan and Bria Skonberg in 2015, The NY Hot Jazz Camp, held not in tents or bunks, but at Greenwich House Music School, presents an opportunity for both young people and adults (separately) to learn from some of the best artists in the community, to meet like-minded musicians, and to be broadly exposed to a genre epitomized by such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton. This year’s session ends with a knock-out two hour concert at Birdland. If you want to feel better about the world, listen to these performers. (Personnel below)
“Royal Garden Blues” (Spencer Williams) sounds like anything but. Jesse Gelber’s stylish piano has clarity and clout, surprising power in curved fingering; Jim Fryer bends forward from the knees, back from the waist, then swivels (like the music), his trombone an extra limb; Randy Reinhart takes curves on cornet like a luge; Nick Russo’s guitar is layered, resonant; Jared Engel almost lays his head on the cherished bass communing; Dan Levinson’s clarinet gleefully gambles; on drums, Kevin Dorn is upright, deadpan, arms with a life of their own…
Molly Ryan and the Band-Bria Skonberg trumpet
Portions of the band have played together for 28 years, but until tonight have never all shared a stage and are we lucky! There isn’t a weak link. Mutual admiration is palpable, symbiosis exuberant.
“What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry?” (Walter Donaldson/Abe Lyman) arrives not with regret, but rather a shrug and an amble to the next adventure. Levinson’s sax is smoooth, Russo pats, plucks and strokes guitar, Engel’s bass and Fryer’s trombone converse, Reinhart’s sound zig-zags.
Vocalist Queen Esther offers Alberta Hunter’s lively “My Castle’s Rockin” and a honeyed “Your Jelly Roll is Good” …but it ain’t as good as mine…like a true storyteller with unerring attitude and silent film eyes. Later, Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot” (the lady should do a Smith show) and a bottle of beer…sashays in with sinuous clarinet, rear wiggling banjo, chortling trombone, and the singer’s use of subtle wrist and hip action. Her alto is clear and strapping. Fryer’s trombone makes sarcastic comments. It’s perceptibly a voice.
Queen Esther and the Band
We’re treated to an early Tin Pan Alley number vocalist Molly Ryan calls her current mantra. “Save Your Sorrow” for tomorrow/Smile awhile today…(Buddy De Silva/Al Sherman) is the single ballad in the show. Ryan’s creamy phrasing leaves understated, vibrating trails that disappear down her throat. She makes it look effortless. Gelber’s piano scintillates with companionable appreciation.
Bria Skonberg replaces Reinhart on trumpet for Leo Wood’s “Somebody Stole My Gal.” The foot tapping, head bobbing rendition isn’t at all mournful. Skonberg’s contribution is bright, lucid and wide-stroked. Denouement is sweet, exit emphatic. “I’m going to play second trumpet to my King Oliver, she then announces referring to Oliver’s mentoring of Louis Armstrong. Face to face, or rather horn to horn, Skonberg and Reinhart joyously play (think jungle gym, seesaw, and slides) Lew Pollack’s “That’s A Plenty”. Horns are sassy, banjo stunt skates, bass draws rhythm like breath.
The evening closes with “Blues My Naughty Sweetie” featuring the mastery of nimble-fingered Levinson (also our appealingly wry MC) and Dorn’s impressive drum turn during which both Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich must be smiling. (Dorn never does.)
These consummate musicians make me want more hot jazz in my life. The audience leaves energized, beaming. What more could one ask?
Guest Banjo: Cynthia Sayers
“Our goal is to provide instruction to musicians of all skill levels, who want to further their knowledge in the styles of traditional/classic jazz in a positive and supportive environment. The curriculum pulls from jazz’s inception in New Orleans through its journey to New York and Chicago in the 1920s and ’30s and subsequent West Coast stylings.”
Opening: The Band
NY Hot Jazz Camp
May 21, 2017
315 West 44th Street
We open with an infectious rendition of “Roll Jordan Roll” rousing the club like fireworks. This is one fabulous band. If they came together only for the gig, these musicians might consider repeating a clearly winning combination. Angels One and Two, author/performer Trent Armand Kendall and Natasha Yvette Williams, excavate the heart and gut of gospel.
Premise: Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) and Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), arguably two of the most influential musicians in our American pantheon (and repeated collaborators) are wandering around Heaven with amnesia. Louis wants to see what his legacy will be, while Ella has unaddressed regrets. Both need to resolve issues before passing into the light. Angels will assume the artist’s forms. “Tonight we’re gonna do our best to offer some closure, so the souls can cross over…”
Memory comes back gradually. When the old friends meet, they don’t recognize each other. Louis is a cocky flirt. Ella backs away wary and proper. Perhaps alluding to a fugue state, he sings “St. James Infirmary” with engaging, short/long phrasing and enthusiastic stomps. She, ostensibly clinging to her Bible, offers a bouncy, resonant “I Shall Not Be Moved.” “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” and “Cheek to Cheek” follow (to show that the pair realize they’re in Heaven) as Louis comes onto her. “I ain’t lookin’ for trouble, just a friend,” he assures Ella, at last getting her to take a few turns around the celestial dance floor.
Lack of logic next presents Ella’s terrific version of a silken “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and then a duet of “I Won’t Dance.” Sometimes song choices make sense, at others they appear arbitrary. As Act II is a concert to The Almighty, numbers don’t need intros, yet the sequence could be better considered. Occasional banter is rather sweet and evocative. Exposition, on the other hand, often seems crammed in without ballast in the way of related lyrics. A librettist would help. He might at the least jettison the laxative commercial. (No kidding.)
About half way through Act I, Ella and Louis realize with whom they’re singing duets. “Louis?” “Ella?!” “Do you feel like you just woke up from a dream?” Still, she protests, “No monkey business, no jazz” in order to get into the ambrosial fields. (?!) Ella’s “Sentimental Journey” is sheer velvet. “Ba ba ba bome,” Louis comes in from a stage right stool. A well integrated parenthesis talks about life partners and her beloved mama. Next comes “Our Love is Here to Stay” and a gleeful “When You’re Smiling.” It’s a mutual admiration society.
As in actual later life, Ella no longer yearns for the spotlight, while Louis can’t get enough. She has to be talked into doing a show for “The King of Kings.” A lush, soulful “Something to Live For” embraces the audience. Williams looks into our eyes. We believe every word. It’s thrilling. “You sure know how to make an old man smile,” Louis comments speaking for the audience.
The show is overstuffed. Act II contains in part, several Cole Porter choices, some audience interaction (we scat), and cute direction on “Can’t We Be Friends.” Louis’ “The Home Fire” is lovely and mellow, almost an old fashioned soft shoe. Ella’s famous “A Tisket, A Tasket” with nifty band call-outs and a mute-horn-like “Skylark” are a pleasure. The pair remember their respective passing and are ready to move on.
Kendall is all energy. Though he moves appealingly, affects convincing period/genre gestures, and definitely sings well, anyone familiar with Armstrong would know Satchmo never acted like this. For one thing, Pops busied himself with a trumpet, minimizing the physical. That Kendall cannot – the script says Louis ruined his lip, is uncomfortable. Simply holding the instrument becomes an irritating tease after awhile. Only once does the actor mime playing – Ella pushes him into it – while to his left we watch Gabriel (the very fine Eli Asher) actually making music. (Admittedly those unacquainted with the icon will not feel cheated.)
The performer might also take it down a notch vocally. Too many of his numbers are too big. Armstrong was skillful at the unfussy and modulated with his sandpapery vocal and easy laugh. Imitating is not suggested, but channeling a bit more carefully…
Williams is marvelous. Her Ella is at first proud and decorous, then warm, but never over a ladylike line. Exuberance is visceral, Blues sound experienced. The actress puts herself into lyrics. Vocals are low or bright, sculpt octaves like ready clay, and scat with mastery. (An expertise of Ella.) Intimacy with the audience is palpable. She emulates the honoree without parroting.
The piece offers a tandem ending of “Smile”/”What a Wonderful World” and “Swing Low”/”When the Saints Go Marching In.” One or the other, please.
Both artists are talented. Though Louis and Ella has much to offer in the way of entertainment, a piece with dialogue and story has demands not met here.
Director/Choreographer Jeff Whiting uses his space well, onstage and off.
This is a good idea but, to me, only part way there.
Louis and Ella!
A new Jazzical by Trent Armand Kendall
Trent Armand Kendall and Natasha Yvette Williams
Mark Berman- MD/Piano, Eli Asher-Angel Gabriel/Trumpet, Belden Bullock-Bass,
Brian Floody-Drums, Sean Nowell-Sax
The Cutting Room
44 East 32nd Street
March 5, 2017