Photo by Jim Eigo
Last Thursday night, the Pizzarelli Quartet opened Jack Kleinsinger’s 34th annual “Highlights in Jazz” series at Tribeca PAC.
By Andrey Henkin
Though jazz has changed substantially in the 34 years since Jack Kleinsinger inaugurated his Highlights in Jazz series in 1972, the opening performance of the 2006 season reflected none of those developments. In fact, the evening’s performance would not have been out of place in 1942. But New York’s longest-running subscription service is bold in its anachronism.
The crowd that attends the concerts is graying but loyal. Jokes about “The Lone Ranger” provoke belly laughs from the audience, and Kleinsinger and the performers make numerous, not-so-subtle allusions to the history of the series. The effect is that of a bubble,
unaffected from jazz’s diminished record sales and concert attendance. At four concerts each fall and spring, jazz in its most basic form is presented to a crowd seeking light entertainment. The programming is interesting in its way and the musicianship is beyond reproach, but the underlying concept is that of jazz as popular music, as once played on radios and in dance halls by good-looking men in suits.
Guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli opened the new season, fronting a quartet of pianist Larry Fuller, brother Martin on bass, and special guest Tony Tedesco on drums, who was introduced as having played with Milton Berle, whose ’50s variety show may be Highlights’ conceptual parent. Pizzarelli was making his 11th appearance in the series and his particular brand of pleasantly swinging trad is a perfect fit. The material, played with compact aplomb and sung by Pizzarelli in ‘aw shucks’ fashion included songs far more RKO than MTV such as “Pick Yourself Up,” “Jamboree Jones,” “Everything Happens To Me,” “If Dreams Come True,” “Baby, Baby All The Time,” and “Oh, Lady Be Good.” These are classic numbers that brook little in the way of creative interpretation, particularly in this setting. Solos were energetic but economical and the rhythm section was metronomic to a fault. Pizzarelli has carved out a successful niche as a pageholder for the Great American Songbook.
The second portion of the first half featured the third appearance of the duo of trombonist Wycliffe Gordon (10th time at Highlights) and bassist/vocalist Jay Leonhart (tied for first place with 28). Promoting a new album, Gordon, of Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra fame, and Leonhart made an unusual pairing a particularly entertaining one. The key to their success is jocularity, whether on a quirky version of the inevitable “Alone Together” or Leonhart’s farcical paean to international animal smuggling, “Why Are You Detaining Me.” The esteemed standard “Lester Leaps In” featured a nifty segment where Gordon and Leonhart scatted in the style of each other’s instruments while Leonhart updated Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” with some rather odd lyrics. A trombone/bass duo presented as high art would have failed. Couched in humor, it became a well-executed and pleasurable novelty.
The final grouping of the evening brought back John Pizzarelli, playing initiate to the master that is his father Bucky, in a duet of seven-string guitarists. The contrast to the first two portions was striking. Pizzarelli the elder is a highly respected jazz player (he is Leonhart’s competition in most Highlights appearances) who actually gave Jack Kleinsinger the initial idea to start the series. He also taught his son the business in a series of trials by fire as recounted by John during the set. The material continued the nostalgic tone of the evening “Stormy Weather,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “In a Mellow Tone,” “Honeysuckle Rose” but was played with seriousness and verve. A surreal moment came when Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” was quoted (for whose benefit is the question, given the audience) during “Honeysuckle Rose.” Oddly enough, Bucky is the more modern of the two in his playing but it was refreshing to see John, sans ham, really embracing complex harmonies and meters with dear old dad. The two have been playing together for 28 years and first appeared at Highlights in the late ‘70s. Between the two of them, they fully represent the purpose of the series: serious fun.
The fall season’s remaining three performances will follow the same model. November’s concert will feature the trios of Mose Allison, Ken Peplowski, and Marty Grosz and Charles McPherson, Ron Matthews, and Ray Drummond. December, titled “Statesmen of Jazz”, will present Buddy DeFranco, Howard Alden, Derek Smith, Randy Sandke, Rufus Reid, and Ed Metz Jr. And the final concert is a tribute to saxophonist Lou Donaldson with his quartet, the Cyrus Chestnut Trio, and Eric Alexander, Joe Farnsworth, Mike LeDonne, and Grant Stewart. One of Highlight’s recurring themes is a special surprise guest but you’ll have to attend to find out who that might be.