by Marilyn Lester
The punning title of Guys and Dolls Play the Greater Loesser was a sure indication of many smiles to come in this warm and reverent tribute to composer and lyricist, Frank Loesser. 92Y’s Jazz in July Artistic Director and pianist, Bill Charlap, was on top of his game as a witty and cheerful host, citing the wonder and talent of Loesser to provide sharp-as-tacks, risk-taking words to his own music as well as the tunes of other composers. No one wrote lyrics like “Ooh, pet me poppa, poppa pet me good“ or “A lady doesn’t wander all over the room, and blow on some other guy’s dice,” he noted. This latter tune, from Guys and Dolls, “Luck Be A Lady,” got a swinging fusion treatment from pianist Renee Rosnes, beginning with a sharp drum solo by Carl Allen, with Sean Smith on upright bass. Rosnes’ arrangement was witty – one of the hallmarks of her style – along with a remarkably ethereal touch on the keys.
Loesser’s 1950 Broadway hit, Guys and Dolls, was amply represented in the program. The title song opened the show, with a driving, dramatic energy and Charlap on piano, backed by Allen and Smith. The Grammy-nominated chanteuse, Jane Monheit, delivered the musical’s lovely “I’ll Know,” with Rosnes and Charlap at the keys, and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” with alto sax player Jon Gordon accenting with confident, articulate solos. Monheit also offered the mournful, “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” (from the film Christmas Holiday), creating a mood evocative of a weary, emptied-out jazz club in the wee hours. In over two decades of performing, Monheit has become very poised and breezy about her repertoire. She’s a technician, but with soul. Her smooth, flexible voice is much influenced in its clipped diction by the guitar, so it’s not surprising to know her father was a guitarist and banjo player. Her jaunty turn on “I Believe in You” from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, featured baritone sax player, Gary Smulyan, one of that small tribe who prove the growly timbre of the instrument makes a worthy contribution to solo performance. It was mostly a cool jazz evening, with some exceptions, such as Smulyan, with Charlap on the eighty eights, smoking on a hard bop “(I’d Like to Get You On a) Slow Boat To China,” Loesser’s 1948 singles hit.
A third soloist, trumpet player Ingrid Jensen, was featured on several full-band tunes, including a swinging, ringing “If I Were a Bell” (Guys and Dolls), and a tune favored by tenor saxophone legend, John Coltrane, “The Inchworm” (from the 1952 film, Hans Christian Anderson), both with Rosnes at the piano. (Loesser’s work, Charlap had pointed out, lends itself to jazz interpretation, and was also favored by trumpet icon Miles Davis). Jensen and Smulyan had great fun with – as Charlap introduced it – “another seduction song,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” a tune Loesser and his wife famously performed at parties before its debut in the 1949 film, Neptune’s Daughter. Jensen, whose touch is simultaneously graceful and powerful, voiced the call and response intricacies of the number with Smulyan’s bari sax, both delivering a humorous, on-the-money interpretation with a “who needs lyrics” precision. The tune ended with a creative and fun touch, with a piano snippet by Charlap and Jensens lingering sigh of a note.
Two piano duets by the real-life married couple of Rosnes and Charlap gave proof to what can happen when two stellar performers work together with synergy. Better yet, the two complement each other with Rosnes’ coolness at the keys in contrast to Charlap’s animation and full-body playing. Charlap is also an empathic performer; he has a great talent for paying attention and attuning with other musicians. Both can be playful, as with “ Never Will I Marry” (Hans Christian Anderson). Their gorgeous arrangement of “No Two People,” from the unsuccessful 1960 Broadway show Greenwillow was enhanced by minimal improvisation on the tune’s flowing melody. Rosnes and Charlap “know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” Closing the evening was a full-cast barn-burner of a tune that Charlap joked is one “every child knows how to play” – “Heart and Soul” (Hoagy Carmichael/Frank Loesser) from the Paramount Studios short subject, A Song Is Born. With Monheit providing vocals, and Rosnes and Charlap adding lighthearted piano ideas, the group swung out with zest, concluding a stirring tribute to the great(er) Frank Loesser.
Jazz in July: Guys and Dolls Play The Greater Loesser, July 20, 2017 at 7:30 PM
The 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, 212-415-5500, www.92Y.org