By Martha Wade Steketee
Monday night at Feinstein’s / 54 Below, David Yazbek’s multi-modal jazz band of extraordinary performers was family welcoming guests stopping by on their night off from The Band’s Visit. Some pals joined the gang on stage, some stayed in the audience, and all added to the charm. Yazbek performed select tunes by others (Waller, the Shermans) yet focused primarily on his own music and lyrics from The Band’s Visit and other shows and recordings, some arranged around the theme of lullabies.
Yazbek’s porkpie hat perfectly reflects his performance persona: funny, warm, quirky, and familiar, a piano player with attitude. His cherubic smile and self-deprecating charm – “that took some unexpected twists” he noted after a bit of improvisational musical making he thought lacking and I thought lovely – led his band through lyrical laughs and dour melodic statements during the evening. A sweet bossa nova often segued into solemn reflection – mid-thought, mid-stream, mid-melody.
“Terrible Thing” from Yazbek’s recording Evil Monkey Man set up the bounce and irreverence of the evening – “ I did something terrible / I did a terrible thing.” Paul Vercesi’s flute and Yazbek’s rolling Fats Waller-ish romping keyboard rhythm set us up to smile. Vercesi spins through the evening’s arrangements on a wide array of instruments, from baritone and alto saxophones to clarinet and flute, with equal skill and thrilling aplomb.
“I Don’t Believe It” and “That Blue” allowed the musicians to flex their rock-and-roll muscles. Long descending jazz chords on piano and saxophone melody in “I Don’t Believe It” stepped into bossa nova and drumstick clicking solos into piano instrumental of “That Blue” and its dreamy and belligerent lyrics “I can’t help the way I dream / I can’t help the way I feel.”
First up in the innovative lullaby set list was the Robert and Richard Sherman charmer “Hushabye Mountain” from the 1968 Disney movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Deeply melodic and melancholy, in the same key as another ballad “Feed the Birds” by the same songwriting team for 1964’s Mary Poppins. Yazbek took the melody, and midstream Vercesi annotated the tune with a marvelous klezmer clarinet riff. “So close your eyes on Hushabye Mountain / Wave goodbye to the cares of the day.”
The silly tune “Jimmy Went Up” skirted humor and melancholy and provided a brief break from lullaby sensibilities. The section was a wild riff with Vercesi’s sax, the drums of Javier Diaz and Dean Sharenow, and string bass charms of Alexandra Eckhardt, the lone female on stage this evening and a Band’s Visit musician.
For the second lullaby, the first of two guest Band’s Visit performers takes the stage. John Cariani, who plays the young Israeli small-town father shared “Itzik’s Lullaby” that his character sings to his young child, capturing the wonders and solemn fears of fatherhood. “Inside the house, there is a room / A baby sleeps, a daddy sings.” To break up the sweet contemplative mood created by the tune, Yazbek shared the response of his pal actor Richard Kind to the show just before its Broadway opening, perfectly capturing the creator’s self-effacing ways. “David, oh my god,” he quoted Kind telling him, “I’m crying, oh my god it’s beautiful, but it’s not for everybody.” (The box office for The Band’s Visit during its sold out Atlantic Theatre Company run and its current popular engagement at Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre tells a different, broadly successful tale.)
Cariani stayed on for a joyous second tune by Fats Waller and Alex Hill, “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby”, which reinforced the great fit between Waller’s stride piano and Yazbek’s mastery of that style. This great musical rush of joy drew out the best jazz instincts of every musician on stage, “I’m crazy about my baby, and my baby’s crazy about me.”
The second Band’s Visit guest, the delectable and dreamy-voiced Ari’el Stachel, first sidled up to a central romantic tune his Chet Baker loving Egyptian character sings, of love he yearns for and the romance all around him, teaching a young Israeli townie about how to pick up girls. “Haled’s Song About Love,” is all swooshing percussion and smooth melodies and gentle full vocal delivery.
Stachel then took on a second tune, “Where is the Sandman?” that Yazbek called “a nightmare Nighthawks kind of lullaby” that depicts emptiness and resignation “No one’s here / there’s nobody here,” the lyrics haunt you, with inspired jams among Yazbek, Stachel, Vercesi on the sax, and a heavy drum solo. “Come to me sandman / take my pain.” Goodness.
A final tune is one of the most raucously romantic in the middle of The Band’s Visit. “Beat of Your Heart” begins with a piano intro that feels like symphonic Gershwin and soon morphs into a musing on love about a girl in a white dress. “I smiled at her, she smiled at me, and the music did the rest.”
With this crew, the music does it all. What treasures.
David Yazbek and guests Ari’el Stachel and John Cariani, was March 12 at 7pm at Feinstein’s 54 Below (254 West 54th Street).