New year, new goal. This year (2015), and for the foreseeable future, I’m going to L.A. area Jam sessions looking for a star! The ‘Best of the Night’! Who stood out the most? Who had the best overall performance? Who gave the crowd a real show? That’s my criteria and I’m sticking to it. Performers, you’ve been informed (warned). Rest easy players, these eyes and ears will only be on singers.
This change in format was brought on by one thing – boredom. If you’ve followed this blog, you know I’ve reviewed dozens of jam sessions, pointing out the highs and lows, the good and bad. But, eventually I was just running into the same people, doing, for the most part, the same tunes. Now, it’s all about finding the one. Call it a traveling Jazz Idol of sorts with no age limit and absolutely no prize money.
The journey begins at Colombo’s:
For more than 60 years, this family-owned Italian steakhouse (1833 Colorado Blvd in Eagle Rock) has been a neighborhood favorite. For the last dozen or so, Jazz open mic has been the crowd’s favorite night. Led by the swinging, playful, boyish and charming Erik Ekstrand (the hard swinging Leslie Baker on bass (and tasty piano chops); Tsugumi Shikano on drums), this Jam will have all levels of singers feeling welcome. Don’t expect Anita O’Day kind of scatting or Betty Carter level experimenting… but that’s just fine here.
It’s All About The Fun – Right?
So, first, let’s deal with the ‘here-for-the-fun-of-it’ crowd. (Like last year, I’ll keep the names to first names only. But they know who there are). The ‘fun’ singer of the night was, no doubt, ‘Rob’. This is a guy who truly believes he can sing Jazz… and sometimes, that’s all it takes. Needless to say, he can’t. But, he had a hell of a lot of fun. Singing ‘Just In Time’ (Jule Styne) and ‘New York State of Mind’ (Billy Joel), Rob had a Neil Diamond meets Kevin Davitian (Borat) kind of vibe working. Think playboy of the resident retirement home. At times, nice tone and power. However, pitch – fuhgetaboutit! But, so what, right? We’re having fun! What’s unforgivable is singing the wrong lyrics. ‘Just In Time’ has been around forever. Rob, though, repeated the first verse, eliminating the haunting ‘I was lost’… verse. Also, Rob talked over parts of the solo break, wrecking any chance of enjoying Ekstrand’s work. That, Rob, is Vegas. Vegas Jazz is different. You know the saying – What happens in Vegas…. (applies here, too). Still, I enjoyed his performance for his sheer confidence – inspiring to curious Jazz performers looking to jump into the game.
Other ‘fun-of-it’ performers included Joellen, who did a sweet, but amateur’s-best job at ‘All Of Me’ (Gerald Marks). Atsushi’s nice tone on ‘East Of the Sun…’ (Brooks Bowman) and ‘Speak Low ‘(Kurt Weill) couldn’t overcome his uninspired and downright boring performance. Finally, ‘Harry’ (a great bass player) showed us he should stick to bass after a well-intended, yet borderline embarrassing, stab at ‘Ordinary People’ and ‘Stella By Starlight’. But, at least they had fun.
The honorable mentions are the singers who know Jazz music and how to sing it. Not that they were great singers, but they respect the art form and come out for more than just ‘the-fun-of-it’.
Top of this mountain was the singer, ‘Jackie’. Singing the not-heard-enough ‘House of Blue Lights’ (Don Raye) and the old standby ‘What A Difference A Day Made’ (Maria Grever), Jackie was clearly comfortable with the material but seemed oddly uncomfortable on stage. Apparently, she’s a favorite here that audience members look forward to hear. But, in an almost nervous fashion, she practically shied away from the crowd at times, tucked into a nook between the bass and grand piano. Why? Orson Wells once spoke about the importance of different approaches to an audience: charming them, beating them down, guiding them, etc. But, running from the audience takes away from the performance, no matter how good the voice.
Other Honorable Mentions include “Daniel”, who’s solid first tenor voice gave new life to the standard ‘Only A Paper Moon’ (Harold Arlen). Showing a nice range and dashes of soul, Daniel was in the running for star! But, the robotic movement and strange starring was a bit unsettling. ‘Yolanda’ did a sexy version of Mercer’s/Mancini’s ‘Days of Wine and Roses’. Performed in a sultry bossa, ‘Yolanda’s’ primary flaw was that she didn’t the face crowd – not once during the performance. Singer ‘Ada’ made this section, not because of her voice, but because of her style. ‘You Go To My Head’ (J. Fred Coots) is not a song for bad breathers – in other words, not for Ada. Yet, her roaring 20’s look and smoky tone was more than entertaining. Finally, 91-year-old jazz singer ‘Helen’ made everybody’s night. ‘How High the Moon’ and ‘Lover Man’ had the crowd in check, in spite of the shaky start with the band.
Swing On A Star!
At last, we get to the star! First, what is the star? The star is the best on this night (1/12/15). That doesn’t mean they’re the best singer or performer. It just means nobody else brought it like them. On this night, the star was clearly the best in both categories – Cheryl Conley.
Singing ‘Just Because You Can’ (Russell) and ‘Nature Boy’ (Eben Ahbez), Conley is clearly a veteran. Great tone, power, style and confidence, it was a real treat to hear her sing. Sadly, she led off the night and it was all down hill from there. It was a joy, nonetheless. Still, some issues can be dealt with. Posture is one of them. Is there anything more glorious than a Jazz chanteuse standing stall as an ambassador for the art? Conley’s voice had the magic, but the slightly hunched stance takes away from the overall aesthetic. This is a school of thought debate – only the music matters most or the music and presentation of the show matters most? To this blogger, the appearance, and primarily music, of the show is critical to the overall success of it. Still, Conley’s steamy version of ‘Nature Boy’ negated any of the small problems and set off the night quite nicely! I’d gladly pay good money to hear Conley do a complete show. Keep shining!