Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mel's SOLD OUT performance at Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, February 2009

Mel's Sold Out Performance at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival

Read on to find out what preparation went into it and more details...

Last year, I approached Nitzan Kremer, jazz guru and organizer of international jazz festivals around the world. I wanted to know how one moves up the ladder from being a jazz entertainer to a jazz musician. Three times in the past he had invited me to perform at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival in the foyer, between the main shows. Playing in the foyer is somewhat an honor in and of itself, as few bands are selected to perform each year.

My first time, back in 1993, I performed with the great singer Dalia Spiegel, the second time with the lovely Marion Ross, and last year, with a hot club trio. These were all challenging performances and lots of fun, but nobody needed to purchase a ticket to hear us play. The big step up for me would be performing at a main event in front of a paying audience.

This year, my trio and I were indeed chosen to play the festival, this time inside an auditorium. The theme was a tribute to Chet Baker, iconic trumpeter and singer revered by many jazz fans for over half a century. I have been mad about Chet ever since my friend Eli Marcus introduced me to his music over twenty years ago.

To do a proper Chet Baker evening, you need that cool trumpet. Two years ago, I was introduced to and teamed up with the amazing trumpet player, Evgeny Verisotsky who is also mad about Chet. Evgeny also shines on my recent CD ("The Essential Mel").

The next step was choosing the song list. Nitzan helped me sort through over one hundred standards that Chet had made his own. Chet Baker had an amazing knack for choosing the very best songs of the era. As proof, witness how many of his choices are still jazz favorites today. Several of my favorite tunes didn't make the final cut. The song Chet is most associated with, "My Funny Valentine", was also excluded from the program. I didn't feel that we could do justice to it.

Two years ago I decided to return to play my first instrument, the piano. So naturally, I opted to play half the numbers in the show on the piano ("It Could Happen to You, Imagination, My One and Only Love, My Heart Stood Still and Everything Happens to Me"). This way, Evgeny would be center stage with his horn and I could join him with the sax later on in the show. The main problem for me was singing and playing piano at the same time (not all of us are Diana Krall or Nat King Cole). I boned up by going back to take piano lessons with the splendid teacher, Ittai Rosenbaum. I also spent a long time listening carefully to Russ Freeman, one of Chet's early (and best) pianists. For three of the numbers in the show I enlisted the excellent pianist Tamir Miller who I have worked with over the past decade. I also invited the amazing guitarist Ran Shinahr (who also fronts on my recent album) to join us for "Tenderly" and "I Remember You". Ran also joined in for the final number, so we had all six of us on stage for "There will never be another you". The band was rounded out by Oren Sagi, a great bass player, and Roy Oliel, who is not only a fine drummer, but an all round musician who directed the musical arrangements (how many drummers do you know who can play competent piano by ear?). Both Roy and Oren participated in the abovementioned CD.

Our Chet tribute sold out a week before the festival, in itself an auspicious sign. The night before our performance I went to hear a young talented singer, Yaala Balin, perform in the same hall. The venue was great, a compact auditorium which enables the intimacy that is almost impossible in a large hall. I rested the morning of the day of the show itself. In the afternoon, I had to take one of the saxes for a last minute repair.

I was plenty nervous before the performance. We had eight rehearsals under our belt, but I was still worried that I would lose my poise, my nerve, make mistakes on the piano, go flat on the sax or singing. There are enough things that can go wrong. Also, it being a jazz festival, I knew that there would be some critics and 'jazz police' in the audience. Did we have the 'right stuff'? My mind wandered back half a century to the piano concerts I participated in as a child. Those performances had me apoplectic with fear for months in advance. Indeed at the beginning of the show I was just a bit hesitant, especially on piano. But as the set progressed, the band loosened up, and we started achieving the kind of intimacy with the audience that was Chet's hallmark. On one of his albums, Chet had sung a favorite Rogers and Hart standard, "Blue Room", a capella. The song was not officially on the program, but I had planned to sing it solo like Chet if I felt up to it. I did. After the first barof the song, the sound man caught on and turned up the reverb. It went over well, and for me was one of the highlights of the show.

Nitzan was very satisfied with the performance, and except for a couple of minor glitches (coming in together with Ran on the solo), we were happy campers as well. The reviews and feedback from the audience and organizers was positive. Where do we go from here? Hopefully we will be able to take the Chet tribute to other venues. I may go back to appearing with a female vocalist. How about some jazz for kids? Maybe even a tribute to the phenomenal Duke Ellington? In the meantime, to quote Ira Gershwin, I'm biding my time.
Photos taken by Daniel F. Andresen

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