by Andrew Poretz . . .

Gabrielle Stravelli is always a delight. She performs with a twinkle in her eyes, radiating joy as she masterfully sings and swings.  A favorite at Birdland, Stravelli delivers songs from the American Songbook as well as works by contemporary artists as varied as Willie Nelson, Chick Corea and John Fogerty, and is a songwriter herself.  You can expect the unexpected with Gabrielle Stravelli, and November 21 was no exception.  Backed by the Tim Armacost Quintet, with exciting arrangements by musical director and accompanist Pat O’Leary, Stravelli delivered an excellent performance of 11 diverse songs in her second of two sets.

Tim Armacost is a big man with a big sax sound and a lot of power, a formidable player.  In his 40 years of experience on the international jazz scene, he has recorded with many of the finest musicians in jazz today.  The Quintet (four instrumentalists and Stravelli) has performed together for several years.

Gabrielle Stravelli – Tim Armacost

Stravelli opened with a piece called “Images,” based on the free-jazz musician Sun Ra’s work, to which she and Jason Robinson supplied lyrics. The warm, romantic Ellington ballad, “Warm Valley,” was a lovely contrast.

The innovative “So What Boy” managed to mash up Miles Davis’s “So What” and Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy” (Bill Tilghman and Norman Petty), playing off Davis’s famous vamp and borrowing lyrics from the Holly tune.  It was an opportunity for fine solos from Pat O’Leary and Art Hirahara.  Stravelli’s voice stood in for Davis’s trumpet.  This was the most hardcore jazz piece in the set.

A pair of New York-centric songs made a case for Brooklyn over Manhattan.  “Brooklyn Express,” with music by accompanist Art Hirahara and humorous lyrics by Stravelli and Robinson, was a love song to Brooklyn that celebrated those things that non-New Yorkers might detest about this town.

How I love that melody

Clanging through the streets

Played in every dive

I love the dirt and the grime

Stinking in summertime

Freezing in the winter

Coupled with “Who Needs Manhattan?” (Bob Williams), Stravelli makes a compelling case for taking Brooklyn over Manhattan.

Stravelli deviated from the set list, deciding on the spot to add Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” with Armacost’s sax solo reminiscent of a Boots Randolph piece.

Art Hirahara

A wonderful medley that has become a signature tune for Stravelli, the pairing of “Pure Imagination” (Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) and “Imagine” (John Lennon) deftly weaves the wistful Willy Wonka imagery with Lennon’s fanciful imagination of a world without conflict, “above us only sky.”

One challenge with jazz shows that have brass and reed instruments backing a singer at Birdland Theater, an intimate room best suited for cabaret and traditional jazz combos (piano/guitar, bass and drums), is the tendency for the vocalist’s sound to get lost in this very “live” room, particularly female voices above an alto.  A tenor sax player with a big sound like Tim Armacost can overwhelm even a well-amplified voice.  The lyrical beauty of Stravelli’s supple voice was sometimes no match for this dynamic.  For comparison, as noted in our review of Clint Holmes’ September show in the much larger Birdland Jazz room upstairs in which Stravelli sang the “Imagination” medley with trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, the same piece was positively enchanting. 

Gabrielle Stravelli and the Tim Armacost Quintet will return to Birdland Theater on Sunday, November 28, 2021, for two sets.

Photos: Andrew Poretz

Art Hirahara – piano

Pat O’Leary – bass, musical director and arrangements

Eric Halvorson – drums

Tim Armacost – tenor saxophone

Birdland Theater

344 West 44th Street

New York, New York