By Andrew Poretz . . .
When Jack Kleinsinger produced his first Highlights in Jazz show on February 5, 1973, the then-assistant New York attorney general could not have imagined it would continue for fifty years. On February 23, New York’s longest-running jazz series reached that impressive milestone with its 348th concert. Though billed as the final show, Mr. Kleinsinger announced he would do at least one annually. At 86, he exclaimed, “I’m having too much fun!”
Few words are more overused than “legendary,” but this legendary impresario filled the bill with several performers deserving the moniker: singer Sheila Jordan, still swinging at 94; bassist Jay Leonhart, who has played on more Highlights in Jazz concerts than anyone; and guitarist Gene Bertoncini, who unfortunately was unable to appear.
In homage to the series’ first concert, which opened with a guitar duet by Gene Bertoncini and the late Bucky Pizzarelli, Jack introduced the improbably named Roni Ben-Hur and a surprise guest, Jake Hertzog. These guitar masters, whose styles are quite complementary, traded solos on “Out of Nowhere.” Their jazz medley, based around “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” had Jake start with solo comp runs. He soon displayed great guitar game with ingenious chromatic choices and hammer/pull slides. He played his guitar like a mandolin while Mr. Ben-Hur provided his own brilliant choices on “A Day in the Life of a Fool.” Their seamless playing belied the astonishing fact that these artists had never played together before.
Mr. Ben-Hur remained to play with Sheila Jordan and bassist Harvie S. The two men played an impromptu blues jam before the legend appeared. “I didn’t know it was my turn to sing!” proclaimed Ms. Jordan (a sprightly 44 in 1973). She confessed that a recent Covid bout took its toll on her pipes, but she’s sharp as a tack, making up rhyming lyrics on the spot. She opened her segment with Billy Preston’s “Song of Joy,” a song her daughter introduced to her only a few years after the series’ inception. Singing with just Harvie S on the bass for a chunk of the song invoked the signature technique she pioneered. Sheila had a lot of fun with her “Workshop Blues,” asking the audience to follow her call-and-repeat scat—think Cab Calloway on “Minnie the Moocher.”
Two of her four songs related to her muse, Charlie Parker (“Bird”): “Bird Alone” (Abbey Lincoln) and “The Bird and Confirmation,” which Ms. Jordan wrote to honor Parker. Her conversational vocalese lyrics are well suited to her vocal current limitations. “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” (Jimmy Webb) featured Mr. Ben-Hur’s delicate guitar playing.
After an intermission, trombonist Steve Turre took the stage with Harvie S., surprise guest pianist Michael Wolff, and drummer Danny Gottlieb. Mr. Turre cut quite the hep-cat appearance with his ponytail, a long chin beard, a sharp tan suit with a yellow shirt, and two-tone gold and brown shoes that seemingly accessorized his horn. His metal mute made for an entirely groovy “Green Dolphin Street.” Utilizing Cedar Walton’s unique arrangement of “All the Things You Are,” he seemed to play harmony to Jerome Kern’s familiar, mostly unheard melody, which made only brief appearances. Occasionally, he ferociously tapped his feet in a near-dance, playing the trombone aggressively. Mr. Wolff, with something of an avant-garde professorial vibe, took the piece down another path. Mr. Gottlieb listened intently and openly, his expert drumming always on point.
Mr. Turre found jazz when his parents took him to see Duke Ellington in the fourth grade. For his next number, Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” he used a rubber plunger mute for an altogether different tone. Following excellent solos by all, he finished it off with a breath-defying, long-slide ending note. Finally, he turned to “Ray’s Collard Greens,” a blues piece he wrote for and recorded with Ray Charles. In a jaw-dropping bit of jazz showmanship, he played a set of tuned conch shells, peppering his solo with Duke Ellington riffs.
The fourth segment saw Jay Leonhart with surprise guests, pianist Tomoko Ohno and drummer Vito Lesczak, for two of Mr. Leonhart’s witty originals. He scatted and doubled on “Misery’s Your Mistress” and “Down in the South,” from a poem he wrote in high school in Baltimore, only years later putting it to music. The song’s style and rhythm are reminiscent of “Short’nin’ Bread.”
Guitar great Russell Malone then joined the group. He started solo with a gorgeous piece of virtuosic playing that led to a stunning arrangement of “My Foolish Heart” with a surprise eight-note coda of Nat Cole’s “Pretend.” For the terrific finale, Mr. Ben-Hur returned, with Mr. Leonhart brilliantly leading the band in a tight blues jam on “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” (Dizzy Gillespie).
Mr. Kleinsinger told me afterward, “If this was my last show, I think it was a good one.”
More than 500 hours of these concerts have been preserved for educational use on the University of Florida’s archive, found HERE.
Jack Kleinsinger’s Highlights in Jazz 50th Anniversary took place on February 23 at the BMCC (Borough of Manhattan Community College) Tribeca Performing Arts Center (199 Chambers Street between West Street and Greenwich Street) www.tribecapac.org.
Photos: Jim Eigo
Featured image, l-r: Jack Kleinsinger, Tomoko Ohno, Jay Leonhart, Russell Malone and Roni Ben-Hur