The band-plus-strings formula has appealed to many a trumpet hotshot since Clifford Brown sweetened up 50 years ago. What distinguished Jeremy Pelt’s attempt, the 2003 Max Jazz album Close to My Heart, was that it came so early in his solo career. Pelt, who’s earned accolades in the past couple years, is destined for marquee status. Taking the Jazz Standard spotlight in a white scarf, black dinner jacket, and wraparound shades, he seemed already primed for the role.
Pelt’s double quartet opened with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the first of several chestnuts in a Christmas-week set. Pianist Eric Reed’s arrangement deployed a minor-key shuffle that Pelt embellished sparingly with sonorous long tones and tart interjections. It wasn’t until after Reed’s double-time solo that the Sirius String Quartet made its presence felt, worrying the melody in rounds. The strings were more effectively integrated on a brightly swinging “White Christmas” arranged by David O’Rourke, who conducted at the foot of the stage. Pelt phrased the melody jauntily, and then delivered a Harmon-muted solo that risked little but suffered no resulting shortage of holiday cheer. This élan survived even the lugubrious string parts during Peter Washington’s bass solo, which led to a legato all-hands flourish.
Speaking his native hard bop in the middle of the set, Pelt upped the ante with mixed results. He furnished an easygoing “This Is the Moment” with stock phrases that never came fully together. His version of “Take Me in Your Arms” had the advantage of some well-placed dissonance, along with a mettle-testing tempo and the anxious precision of drummer Willie Jones III. During both tunes, which appear on Close to My Heart without orchestration, the strings supplied nothing more than intro filigree. O’Rourke and Sirius, who imbued the album with a smartly modern shimmer, ended this set with his leaden chart of “The Christmas Song” and their desultory ramble through a minor blues. Pelt was dapper on both, but his announcement that the strings would “express themselves” on the latter only underlined what had been missing from the show.
An unofficial Fred Astaire festival keeps things debonair
For a hoofer, Fred Astaire introduced an astonishing number of crucial popular songs. Almost any time current cabaret performers sing Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, or Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, they honor the dancing man. Nevertheless, recent weeks have amounted to an unofficial Fred Astaire festival. Making big deal about a fellow often called “debonair” are explicit tributes from Andrea Marcovicci at the Algonquin’s Oak Room and Steve Ross at the 59E59 Theaters as well as Eric Comstock, Hilary Kole, and Christopher Gines sharing Birdland’s “Singing Astaire” presentation.
Invoked today, “debonair” is usually considered out of sync with contemporary life. But in its heyday, the adjective not only conjured Astaire, it summarized the songs he crooned and swayed to. Once dismissed by a Paramount executive as “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little,” Astaire defied the assessment. Enhancing his gossamer-thin voice with immaculate phrasing, he tossed off songs with the same apparent ease with which he tossed off taps. So, knowing he was an ideal spokesperson, those tailoring theater and movie material to him indulged their penchant for sophistication, wit, savvy. And Astaire remained lighthearted throughout a few decades when lighthearted songs too often served to distract from heavyhearted realities.
Commemorating Astaire and swimming merrily against time’s tides, festival celebrants have indulged disparate approaches. Ross, dapper in his own right, hews to his predecessor’s spirit. Even plumbing the depths of the moody “Dancing in the Dark,” he retains an unadulterated insouciance. Expert actress Marcovicci approaches the songs as scripts, so that “One for My Baby” becomes a one-act play. Eric Comstock, recognizing Astaire’s affinity for swing, plays and warbles accordingly even if his colleagues affect too much faux hip to tag along.
Though Astaire died in 1987, we should be glad that in this heavyhearted era artists are still keeping his spirit alive. Viva Astaire! DAVID FINKLE