Singers and Saxophones

All That Jazz: Mar., 2011

Photo courtesy of C4 Records

Grim, grey February, a world torn by wars and revolution, feckless leaders and a flaccid economy – at this time of year even the optimists doubt that dawn lies beyond the dark. A cold winters night, jazz lovers may choose to stay inside with his books, dusty LPs, possibly finding refuge listening to decades old recordings, welcome for their familiarity. In Vienna, however, the wise ones know to find the warmth of jazz – hot and cool:

A week into the grey, on a Wednesday night, Porgy & Bess, Reimergasse 11, played host to the Phil Woods & Grace Kelly Generation Project. Kelly, a teenaged second generation Korean-American alto saxophone prodigy has taken a giant step forward, teaming with a revered veteran, 79-year-old alto saxophonist Phil Woods, in a project certain to raise her profile among jazz aficionados. The roots of this alliance date to a college residency in California four years ago when Woods saw Kelly perform; he asked her to join him onstage in western Massachusetts – there and then the bebop master capped young Kelly with his trademark hat.

Timed with the release of their new album, Man With the Hat, the two are touring with a quintet which includes Doug Johnson on piano, Evan Gregor on bass, and Jordan Perlson on the drum kit. Touching down in Vienna, Kelly shared the spotlight on sax with the formidable Woods, while showcasing her skills as a singer and songwriter.

Along with the album’s title tune, a tribute to Woods, called by Kelly one of her “heroes”, Kelly contributed an original tune, “Gone”, a jilted lover’s plaint. Sung with such raw emotion, one felt taken into a confidence almost by accident. Balance was returned shifting to the familiar emotional territory of several welcome standards, including Woods’s “Love Song” and a reading of “The Way You Look Tonight” with Jason Palmer on trumpet. A standout was Kelly’s singing a newly penned lyric by Deborah Pearl to accompany Benny Carter’s “(In) People Time.”

At the tender age of 19, Kelly struggles vocally to put over tunes heard in so many settings before, but as an instrumentalist, her mastery is unquestionable. Ben Webster, one of the mid-century saxophone giants against whom others are measured, frequently talks about the importance of lyrics, known for his ability to “vocalize” pure emotion, communicating meaning wordlessly with his subtly beautiful horn. In Vienna, Kelly shared a sensitivity, and a jazz sensibility, which combined with her facility should give us fine jazz evenings for years to come.

The ebullience of Carole Alston’s recent 2-night stand at Jazzland, Franz Josefs-Kai 29, deep in Winter gave fans much to celebrate. Alston, American by birth and an echte Wienerin by choice, is well known as a vibrant voice of the local jazz scene. Performing with “Sax-Altmeister” Hans Salomon, she was on this occasion joined by Herbert Swoboda on piano, Martin Treml on bass, and Walther Großrubatscher on drums.

For Valentine’s weekend, Alston chose a program of love songs from her rich inventory of classic tunes of blues, swing, and be-bop provenance, steeped in powerful emotion.

Jazzland impressario Axel Melhardt introduced Carole Alston as she stood leaning on the bar, waiting her turn as the band played its intro tune: “Speak Low” by Kurt Weil, eyes shut, keeping the beat with her head. Dressed in black with a shirt-jacket in patchwork silk, gold pinstripes and red ocher wrinkle pleats glowing against the deep tones of her skin, she looks over her song list nodding to the beat.

“Sie kann alles!” gushes the inimitable Melhardt, as he lists the highlights of her polymath career. She smiles and cringes a little, walking out on stage. “They’re writing songs of love, ‘But not for me,’” she sings, launching her set with Gershwin.  With the vocal varnish of a Dinah Washington, Alston never touched the ground.

Next she soared through Duke Ellington’s challenging “Just Squeeze Me” with sublime skill, digging deep for the rumbling lows and stretching easily for the highs in what Alston called her warm Viennese Style. “It’s not the technical singing of it, it’s the anticipation that makes the song,” she reflected between sets. “The melody is beautiful, but you’ve got to put 2 and 2 together,” letting “the words define the tune.”

Ably supporting Alston throughout with a rich power, the 78-year old Salomon joined Alston as a second voice on Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” exploiting the song’s lyric divide, swinging with the Bossa rhythm, classic and contemporary in the same breath. The two voices conspired in a very danceable “Cheek to Cheek,” winding in and out of a molten interface with Swoboda on tenor. A well-practiced team, Carole sings a phrase in answer and then in counterpoint, 3rds and 6ths, meandering around, playing off the shape of the melody in turns and ornaments, dissonance and resolution, the mellow voice of the horn embracing the rich tones reverberating from the jazz singer.

It was an evening of riches with tunes including the über-Romantic “My Foolish Heart” after which the scene really seemed “set for dreaming” but then, we’ve been fooled before…Not a moment too soon, though as it was time to “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” By then you could hardly be blamed for being inspired to “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” it was all too enjoyable to stay inside for the “Lullaby of Birdland,” altogether a master class in the art of jazz singing.

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