06/27/02

"Happy Birthday, Gentleman John" - A Birthday Salute to John Bunch

Tribute concerts are often laden with rosters of talented musicians yet turn into all-star clambakes due to any number of glitches from poor pacing to incompatible groupings. Thanks to intelligent planning by producer/bassist Jay Leonhart, this tribute to pianist John Bunch avoided these pitfalls and turned out to be one of the best of its kind in recent memory and beyond.

As might be expected, pianists abounded to pay their respects to Bunch and the age range was altogether inclusive. The bassists were Leonhart (also an exemplary emcee) and Ron Carter; Mickey Roker and Joe Cocuzzo were on drums; guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and Russell Malone were also on hand; and playing horns were Joe Wilder on trumpet and Harry Allen on tenor.

A quintet opened the concert with "Back Home Again in Indiana," a bow to Bunch's home state. The belated-birthday boy (Bunch actually turned 80 last December) introduced the tune briefly at the keyboard, remaining out of tempo as he accompanied Wilder's mellow melody statement. Then Leonhart and Roker set a medium-bounce groove upon which Wilder, Allen and Bunch's improvisations thrived.

Ted Rosenthal was next at the keyboard and, with Carter and Cocuzzo, did an insouciant "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." Rosenthal's solo offering, Bud Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfare," taken at thoroughbred tempo, finished the race but the interior gait felt a millimeter off. When it comes to up, up tempo I'm like the princess of Once Upon a Mattress.

Barbara Carroll, freed from her multi-year gig at the Carlyle Hotel's Bemelman's Bar, has been showing to advantage around town. Her piano, citing verse unaccompanied and chorus backed by Leonhart and Cocuzzo, refurbished "My Funny Valentine"; then she dedicated a vocal version of "As Long As I Live" to Bunch.

A piano-guitar-bass trio of Benny Green, Malone and Carter arrived "East of the Sun," sailing blithely while making the most of the tune's always-piquant changes. Benny's sterling solo effort was "Body and Soul," an evergreen that cropped up a few times during the JVC Festival.

The highlight of the first half of the show (and perhaps the entire evening) was the trio of Pizzarelli, Malone and Cocuzzo, who sat between the guitarists, armed only with his brushes and snare drum. "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" was a conversational romp of sans souci swing throughout. Cocuzzo's "air" brushes, which he used to finish his solos during the exchange choruses, were an added fillip.

Bucky remained on stage to duet with Allen on Strayhorn's "Passion Flower." Allen played in a Ben Webster-like manner and the two engaged in some felicitous counterpoint.

Some flat-out swing ended the first half of the show as Wilder (at first employing a harmon mute), Allen, Bunch, Carter and Roker soared on "It's You Or No One."

Pianos came out front and center in the second set; there were two of them on stage. George Wein, with Leonhart and Roker, limned a lovely "Don't Blame Me" before Wein's Hines-esque stylings were complemented by the more bop-based Carroll as the two collaborated on "Take the 'A' Train."

Bill Charlap showed why he is one of the fastest-rising pianists in the public ear with a most patient, solo probing of "The Nearness of You." When you choose this slow a tempo, the content has to be rich to hold an audience's attention. On this night, the audience's approval was loud and clear. Both Charlap and Rosenthal, each an alumnus of Gerry Mulligan's group, then played a duet on "Curtains," a prime example of Mulligan's tuneful, harmonically rich writing. Both played brilliantly as soloists/accompanists. Gerry must have been beaming somewhere.

Marian McPartland, the grand dame of the pianoforte, was fine wine on Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," in a trio with Carter and Cocuzzo. She recounted getting Bunch the alternate (solo) spot to her trio at the Hickory House back in the '50s when John was new in town. At 82, she called him "kid" before the two of them gave a demonstration of octogenarian vigor and invention on "There'll Never Be Another You."

Bunch stayed on, to be joined by Pizzarelli and Leonhart. As a trio they're known as New York Swing and swing they did, with precision and verve on "Lady Be Good." The celebrated Bunch did some hot celebrating of his own.

A surprise vocalist was announced. I thought it might be Tony Bennett, with whom Bunch spent six years as musical director. Bennett was in the house although I didn't actually see him until after the concert backstage, but the unbilled singer turned out to be Roker, doing Eddie Jefferson's lyric "I Got the Blues," set to James Moody's recording (head and solo) of "Lester Leaps In." Mickey revealed talents hitherto unheard by a wide audience, launching this foray into "I Got Rhythm" that eventually gave everyone in the concert's company a turn at bat. It was a rousing finish to a very happy birthday.

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