|Jazz singer Roberta Gambarini and James Moody|
Originally, the date was billed as, "Roy Hargrove Quintet Residency, GRAMMY winning trumpeter returns for five nights!" but Hargrove came down with a medical emergency and had to sit out the engagement. However, the show went on, with Gambarini stepping in stylishly to fill the void, and lead this exceptional band through five nights of exquisite, eclectic jazz moments, in the process exhibiting a level of talent that has won over venerated pianist Hank Jones, and impelled him to proclaim her as the "best new jazz vocalist to come along in fifty years."
As happens when the best laid plans go awry, mice and man must improvise. Not surprisingly, this jazz engagement was filled with many bright moments and good swinging jazz. I've had Roberta Gambarini on my radar since I heard her on a local jazz station (KCSM 91.1FM) from the campus of the College of San Mateo, near San Francisco. I caught her doing an uptempo version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's, "No More Blues" and I immediately got a 'jones' for the unpretentious, honest, confident way she sang, and swung.
Roberta Gambarini did some pretty heavy lifting on opening night; a San Francisco Tuesday night that was rainy and blustery. Yet she filled the house with considerable warmth and joy, with her astute selection of ballads, jazz standards, popular songs, and the 'blues.' She became increasingly accessible, and familiar as the night wore on.
Appearing in a simple, yet stunning, white, strapless, form-fitting evening dress, she sang in Portuguese, French, Spanish and English; and she got wonderful support for Hargrove's quartet, with whom she enjoys great rapport. The rhythm section, pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Ameen Saleem, and drummer Quincy Phillips over achieved in power and appropriate nuance, backing up Justin Robinson's fire-breathing alto saxophone, to give Gambarini all she needed to mesmerize, and captivate the crowd like a pied piper. Their up tempo tunes had a funky edge, and an off-the-floor, spontaneous originality that was supernatural, and rare.
Gambarini opened the evening singing (Monk's Prayer) a cappella, a technique at which she is demonstrably adept. In this instance, it served to profile the limpid elegance and commanding vocal range she typifies; and as a preface to a ("Moodys Groove") swinging tribute for the late jazz saxophonist extraordinaire, James Moody who appeared as special guest on her 2006 critically acclaimed CD: "Easy To Love," and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Quickly, she jumped all over Gillespie's arrangement of the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields jazz standard "On The Sunny Side of The Street," taken from Gillespie's1957 album "Sonny Side Up," which featured colossal saxophonists, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy's trade mark trumpet. Gambarini's vocalese chops ignited a lot of excitement when she executed the three classic original horn solos with frightening accuracy.
Gambarini primed a well-balanced performance with music from a variety of the top twentieth-century composers and lyricists of popular music; George & Ira Gershwin; Cole Porter; Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart; Ellington & Strayhorn; Antonio Carlos Jobim; Frank Sinatra and others. She revisited her 2006 CD: Easy To Love for five of the dozen or so, songs she sang. She dusted off, and put her personal interpretation on two Gershwin tunes that have become important works in The Great American Songbook; the ballad (Someone To Watch Over Me), and the popular song (Embraceable You), selflessly sharing the spotlight with pianist Sullivan Fortner, and his keyboard that flowed with brilliant, feather-light touches of elegance; perfectly complementing Gambarini's exquisite reading of the lyric. Fortner's strainless approach to swing seems to parallel the inimitable technique of bebop pianist Sonny Clark in articulation, form and color, but Fortner's touch is understandably more progressive.Gambarini described his pianism as 'incredible.'
Gambarini likes medleys, and she strings them together tastefully, and expertly, as she did with (This Masquerade), Leon Russell's 1972 hit; (The Thrill is Gone) a 'blues' and (I'm a Fool to Want You) a ballad written by Frank Sinatra in 1951...a song not heard much these days. But Gambarini also likes to swing, and knows how, as she dug into her 2006 CD: "Easy to Love" for the title track written by Cole Porter; Antonio Carlos Jobim's (No More Blues/Chega de Saudade) the song that started the bossa nova craze, and (Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)), one of Billie Holiday's staples. She swung them all. Justin Robinson's alto was all grit, edge and speed, clearing out space for the rhythm section of Fortner (piano), Ameen Saleem (bass), and Quincy Phillips (drums) to surround her with a deftly manicured ring of searing rhythmic patterns.
Gambarini comes prepared, not only to sing, but to give something extra to her audience, this makes her concerts memorable and describes the passion she feels for jazz, and those who make jazz what it is. Her knowledge of jazz, and jazz history is encyclopedic. Who else remembers clearly, and bothers to look back earnestly, at one of Duke Ellington's late 50s Newport Jazz Concerts when Ozzie Bailey, a jazz singer who sang ballads as slow "as a drip of pine resin," sang one chorus of Billy Strayhorn's (Rocks In My Bed)...and can reprise it accurately for the audience? Roberta Gambarini...that's who! The room also learned that the tune (Summer/Estate), which she also sang, and that, Joao Gilberto made a world-wide hit, is not Brazilian, but was written by an Italian, Bruno Martino.
Occasionally, during a concert, an artist may be lucky to deliver a 'show stopper'; that sweet moment when all the hearts and breathing in the room stop; and no one knows for sure what the next move should be...there is usually a pregnant pause, followed by patrons 'losing it,' some applaud loudly; raucously; others whistle, scream, and holler; many too overcome to respond, just remain glued and quiet. Gambarini came as close to a 'glued and quiet' show stopper, as was possible, when she put all of her heart and soul into the Benny Carter/Sammy Cahn classic jazz standard (Only Trust Your Heart), another one of the tunes from her 2006 CD "Easy To Love."
It is easy to love Roberta Gambarini, the talented artist and person, and the weight of knowing that this show was nearing it end was palpable . She must have felt the sad vibe in the room, because she reserved Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's (Lover) as her finale. 'Lover' was the hardest swung tune of the night, somewhere in the din, Quincy Phillips got out of his cage, and his drums almost walked off the stage without him. It was enough to stop any rainy night dead in its tracks!
Roberta Gambarini is forever reaching for that artistic brass ring...she seems to get closer with each performance. She specializes in painting beautiful vignettes of color into the introductions to her songs, which she then expands across the tapestry of her music. Roberta Gambarini is a master painter; a striking gorgeous thrush with gilt-edged intonation.
Earlier in the evening, Gambarini had said that Cuban-born, eleven-time GRAMMY winner, multi-instrumentalist, Paquito D'Rivera was flying in from New York the following day (March 27) to join Gambarini and the quintet to complete the engagement.
I knew that I had to return to hear D'Rivera and Gambarini together..!
Next: Pacquito D'Rivera makes the S. F. scene!