By Melissa Griegel . . .
If you have not seen Ari Axelrod live, what are you waiting for? His solo show “Ari’s Arias” at Birdland Jazz Club on December 12th was more than just a show; it was an experience, and an emotional journey into Ari’s life, loves, and music. For Ari, the word aria means more than “a long song accompanying a solo voice”. For him, he says it is “expressing a moment musically where words fail to fully convey the emotions. Whether happy or sad, real or fictional, past or present, or a wish for the future, it is my way to convey life’s most sparkling moments.”
There were many sparkling moments during the evening. Without directly saying so, much of the evening was a beautiful tribute to the late Stephen Sondheim. With the lights dimmed low, Ari began humming softly over a lit yartzeit candle and hauntingly and soulfully sang Sara Bareilles’ song “Once Upon Another Time” which includes the line “Sondheim on the radio.” He ended with the same melodic humming and blew out the candle. You could feel the deep breathe everyone took in as the room went dark. He then followed it with Sondheim’s “love song to New York”, “Another Hundred People”.
Continuing on with Sondheim’s music, Ari told the attentive audience that West Side Story is the “eighth wonder of the world and Bernstein and Sondheim are the ninth and tenth.” With that, he took off his jacket and sat down at the bongos to sing “Cool” with his percussion adding the staccato needed to fill in the dance steps we all associate with the song. Later on in the evening, he sang three other Sondheim songs: a rousing rendition of “Everybody Says Don’t”, “Not While I’m Around” (his dog’s favorite—more on that later), and “Being Alive”, a song that was particularly relevant after hearing about Ari’s brain surgery as a twenty-year-old.
Ari shared with us the story of having extreme vertigo in college and his left arm and side of his body going numb. He was eventually diagnosed with Arnold Chiari Malformation, a malformation of the brain stem that required extensive surgery. The surgery was a success and he is now cured, and has a long scar down the back of his skull and neck. Jeff Harnar helped Ari put together a “Surgery Medley” to help put the story to music. “My scar is the greatest gift of my life. It reaffirmed for me to live life to the fullest. Time is our precious gift.”
His dog Leo is a big part of his life and prior to singing “Not While I’m Around”, he said that if Leo could talk, that this is what he would say “because nothing is going to harm you while I am around.” He told an endearing story about how Leo has touched the lives of others, and surprised the audience by bringing Leo out on stage, who then snuggled with Ari and wrapped his paw around his neck touching Ari’s scar. Several people shed tears as they witnessed the moment.
My favorite songs that Ari performed were “Bring Him Home” and “If I Were a Rich Man”. I have seen Les Misérables and Fiddler on the Roof countless times and have seen many people perform these songs as part of cabaret acts. I have never seen either song performed quite like this. “Bring Him Home” was sung half in Hebrew and half in English, and with such emotion and expression, you felt as if Ari was truly in a position where he was begging God to save a loved one’s life. It received a standing ovation from much of the audience. Likewise, “If I Were a Rich Man” felt real, personal, and heartfelt. He said he wanted to breathe life back into Anatekva, and that he did.
His powerful voice, impromptu interactions with the audience, and his humor, added to the evening. He was gorgeously accompanied on piano by music director Lawrence Yurman. It was such a magical evening; I wanted to see it again, but alas, it was a one-night performance. Catch Ari next time he plays at Birdland, Feinstein’s, or other venues near you.
Photos by Melissa Griegel Photography