copyright © 2004 Sy Johnson
LE JAZZ AU BAR seems as though it had existed, underground, preserved with ghosts of gangsters and Park Avenue swells alike, swilling bootleg gin during Prohibition. It has been resurrected as a jazz club, with a spendor unheard of in these television times. Seating is generous, with good sound and sightlines from everywhere except the bar and some corners where cozy is primary.
Andy Bey would seem a good fit in such a room. And his choice of standard American song fare would seem to suit that rich bass-baritone presence he has always brought to his performances.
Andy has always been about more than a voice, however. His piano and arranging, for himself (and before that, for Andy and the Bey Sisters) has been an essential part of his identity. His time (jazz-time) has always been the primary agent, coloring what happens above, timbre, choice of chords, notes, material, phrasing. He can maintain a slower tempo than anyone excepting Shirley Horn without a hint of unease. He is confident enough to back-phrase fearlessly. The only rhythmic unease displayed were in the few single line solos he took at the keyboard, where his fingers betrayed his lack of "blowing" chops.
Andy Bey has actually three voices. One is that bass-baritone voice that comes naturally to some of us who grew up in the Mr. B. era. The most beautiful is a soft falsetto, especially when accompanied by only his own piano, as it was in his last encore, Big Bill Broonzy's "Feelin' Lowdown" - simple, blue to the core, an arrangement pared to the essence.
The third is up an octave from his normal voice, still in chest, used for excitement, second chorus variety, punching up the performance. I like it least, because it frequently strays over the line that he can control. He uses it in his scatting as well and in "Night in Tunisia," accompanied by strolling bass and drums, it was as effective as scatting gets these days.
This engagement was in support of a new C.D., American Song, on Savoy.Jazz, which features arrangements for a small ensemble by Geri Allen, condensed to three horns for this gig by John Schneider, the group's trumpet player. Steve Davis on trombone and a very effective Gary Bartz on soprano and alto augmented the rhythm section, Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass, Mark McLean, drums, and Paul Meyers on guitar. The full complement appeared on the third tune, "Never Let Me Go," with cluster footballs from horns strainng to not overpower the vocal, and a dark vamp interlude and ending featuring Bartz on soprano. "Speak Low" was threaded through by an ascending ostinato spoken initially by bass and guitar, and thickened by trombone as it evolved. Again, Bartz was effective, but I was amazed that Andy could sing in the confusing harmonic and melodic climate of the arrangement. "Midnight Sun" was in long meter, with a hint of bossa. Again, a strong sense of dislocation prevailed, but Andy remained centered, and Meyers' guitar was fluid and supporting, as Andy left the piano to sing.
"Paper Moon" and "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" opened the set with trio support, with Andy taking the first chorus in his natural register, up the octave for the second chorus. Both had rhythmic feels of great charm and interest, and both featured vamps that went on too long.
"Satin Doll" in an easy, confident tempo kept Gary Bartz on the bandstand after the ensemble left. And finally, two encores, "Someone to Watch Over Me," Andy alone at the piano sustaining a very slow tempo, and the absolutely classic blues performance of "Feelin' Lowdown" left a responsive audience on its feet.
The set had a slightly ramshackle quality, the opposite of "slick." Andy is a shy man, and apparently uncomfortable in direct proportion to the number of players on the bandstand. And a coy set of vocal mannerisms sometimes undermined the genuine musicality above it. He seems determined, in his quiet way, to forge his own path with the American Songbook, reinventing and reinvigorating material too often burdened with familiarity and nostalgia.
Yet, the most effective piece in the set, "Feelin' Lowdown," was a simple, heartfelt reflection of the 1930's, just Andy and his piano and the blues.Sy Johnson was commissioned to write this review by Jazzhouse.org.
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