Melby Joyce & Sheila Cooper

All That Jazz: July / August 2011

Columns | Philip Ellison | July / August 2011

When cabin fever strikes in Vienna, it’s blessedly easy to get out of the house. Two such occasions recently found me enjoying contrasting jazz performances that helped restore my faith in the future of jazz.

Long a believer in live jazz as a tonic to the routine, the temptation to access the music libraries of the world, all waiting to be plucked from the iCloud, and played in brilliant "surround" sound , begs the question why one would leave the comforts of the living room. The alternatives – both audio and visual – threaten the audience-performer transaction. Today, one can navigate the frets of Al DiMeola’s guitar and eavesdrop on Diana Krall as she checks her lyrics sheet from the comfort of the Barcalounger.

And then there’s "performance fatigue," the syndrome that finds too many performers viewing the jazz canon like a Chinese menu: "one from Column A, one from Column B…" relying on well-worn charts and rarely straying off the beaten path. If the performer is lazy, the audience learns to be undemanding… or elsewhere.

Live jazz, with the potential, the anticipation, of surprise is exciting. The challenge of improvisation is for creative minds to create anew, injecting fresh ideas into venerable tunes, making them meaningful for a new generation. That is the basic concept of the jazz repertory, a body of work comprising both its history and its future. The jazz artist is not a juke box but a powerful force, responsible for handling this musical legacy with the skill of a sculptor, shaping it, molding it, and pushing it forward.

For the generation that grew up in the era of the "singer-songwriter," the rote presentation of well-known tunes is no longer enough; performers are expected to share something of themselves. While the switch to a concert format from the convivial confines of a club may require audiences to be more attentive, few will sit still for performers unwilling to reach into themselves and out into to the room around them.

What a delight then, given this skepticism, to catch Melba Joyce and her Quartet at Porgy & Bess (1., Riemergasse 11, Vienna) in mid-June. With Melba on vocals, the quartet includes Donald Smith on piano, Essiet Essiet on bass, and Ronnie Burrage on drums. A veteran of the (post-Basie) Count Basie Big Band, Joyce respects jazz traditions, with an instantly familiar sound and repertoire that celebrates both continuity and change.

The set opened with the three instrumentalists warming-up with their version of Juan Tizol’s "Caravan", a song regarded as perhaps the first "Latin Jazz" tune and made popular by Duke Ellington. The fun began with Nigerian bassist Essiet playing a very percussive solo, tapping out a "bossa beat" but providing what Joyce later termed, warmly, a "bush" twist, adding another continent to this beloved standard.

Following this jaunty opener, Melba Joyce took the stage with a sweet clear scat on "Lover, Come Back to Me" tuning her instrument, clearing her throat like the nightingale, and again, making it personal. Joyce then sang "Upside Down" by Jobim (originally "Triste") but with such verve it didn’t sound so sad after all. Next, a flood of tunes, many from the Great American Songbook, all done with skill and a sense of fun. Joy and great enthusiasm – driving great skill – closed the sale. The band had an infectious good time, making it impossible for the audience not to "get it." Here creativity was expressed in the "how" as much as in the "what" going down.

The highlight of the set was Joyce’s take on "Body and Soul", a favorite of generations of jazz artists, recorded by many. Written in 1930, it is a rich source of invention with complex chord progressions, key and tempo changes. What Joyce did with it lyrically was extraordinary. The song’s ‘come hither’ lyrics have always been controversial, but with a singer’s art. they can be freely adapted, stretched and contracted as needed. Joyce’s opening stanza was as beautiful as it was rare:

"Life’s dreary for me. Days seem to be as long as years. I look for the sun but I see none through my tears. Your heart must be like a stone, to leave me here all alone…when you could make my life worth living, possibly taking what I‘m set on giving…"

Ten nights later, Porgy & Bess showcased two reasons why jazz lovers feel  quite at home in Vienna, with saxophonist-singer Sheila Cooper who calls this city home,  working with The Fritz Pauer Trio, featuring Robert Jukic on bass and Christian Salfellner on drums.

A couple of years ago Pauer and Cooper recorded "Tales of Love and Longing" (Candid), a stellar CD which coincidentally includes a gorgeous "Body and Soul" enriched by Cooper’s full-throated other voice, her horn. Their appearance at Porgy & Bess, though, proved a revelation about live jazz and these artists specifically.

Through the night’s program of originals and a few well-chosen standards, including Cooper’s meditative "Big Heart", the ensemble delivered, toeing to the high standard one might expect from an outfit bold enough to trade chops with Austrian jazz legend Fritz Pauer. While the duo record offers a strong take, intensely felt, on 9 standards (of the 10 tracks) and the sound of two virtuosi working their magic, the live set compared favorably in its breadth of material and its ebullience. The inclusion of the rhythm section here provided valuable propulsion, even hopefulness, complementing everything from the utterly romantic to the soul-funk of Percy Mayfield and a couple of Cooper’s own quirky tunes, bringing a Blossom Dearie sensibility into the 21st Century.

From the first note, Sheila Cooper was in the driver’s seat, launching into "Close Your Eyes" and moving from vocals to horn with dazzling dexterity. The tune brought out a bittersweet, Carmen McRae-like quality in her voice that contrasted with the plaint of the saxophone. This startling duality, if nothing else, told listeners they’d better pay attention: this would be a many-faceted evening.

With tunes chosen from sources including Stevie Wonder and Duke Ellington, Cooper’s demanding set list elicited both instrumental mastery and some vocal shape-shifting. Cole Porter’s urbane "I Get a Kick Out of You" was blown open with Cooper’s fast-paced, Coltranesque attack. The Cooper original "Black Sheep" showcased Fritz Pauer, delightful with his deep bag of improvisational tricks, proving the perfect partner, and quoting from "I’m Beginning to See the Light" as he soloed.

On this night, one simply lost track of the solos. Let me explain: the carousel of these four people and five instruments, working closely together, made distinctions between singer, soloists, and song seem like the individual frames in a motion picture. Taken together, we saw musicians at work, sound driven by intelligence and emotion. Sheila Cooper, a compelling singer, an even better horn player, and a fascinating songwriter, and colleagues demonstrated why performance requires an audience.

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