Saturday, October 18, 2008

Letter from Manhattan: Come Taste the Wine, Come Hear the Band….

In this installment, transplanted Oregonian Mark Dundas Wood gives us a taste of the nightlife on his street in the Big Apple, yet reveals that his ears never stray far from his roots in Oregon.

I live a block west of what is known as Manhattan's "restaurant row"—a strip between 8th and 9th Avenues, on 46th Street. An alternative name for this block might be "cabaret row," as it's traditionally been one of the places to go to hear live music in the city.

That may be changing a bit. Don’t Tell Mama (photo, above) one of the favorite "niteries" in the city, is still going strong. But, a year or so ago, Danny's Starlight Room—across the street from DTM—closed. It reopened several months later as the Bourbon Street Bar and Grille, a Big Easy "theme" restaurant with sports-bar TV screens—in lieu, alas, of the inimitable song stylings of Blossom Dearie. I was hoping there'd maybe be some live Dixieland jazz at the new place, but it hasn’t seemed to materialize yet. And though the statue near the front door, depicting a plump alligator dressed as a waiter, has its own kind of Disneyish charm, I’ve yet to be lured in to try the Cajun cuisine.

While New York has traditionally been cabaret capital of the nation, Portland is no slouch when it comes to performers mining the Great American Songbook tradition. Take for instance, the fantastic Susannah Mars, warm, poised and lilting. And, in a somewhat different vein, there’s of course Thomas Lauderdale and China Forbes and their hip, eclectic now-global phenomenon, Pink Martini—blending World Music and retro pop in a whirling pastel pinwheel of fun. (Does anybody besides me recall pianist Lauderdale playing solo at the Hobo's piano bar several years ago, puckishly running piano improvisations on the theme from I Dream of Jeanie?)

On a visit back to Portland late last spring, at the Pine Street Bistro, I was lucky enough to catch what is probably my all-time-favorite Portland-based act: vocalist Rebecca Kilgore and pianist Dave Frishberg. Both are world-class jazz musicians who just happen to live in Portland. I had not heard them live since their long stint at the Heathman Hotel ended several years ago. But I listen to their recordings over and over. Now they have a new CD, Why Fight the Feeling?, a collection of songs by the great Frank Loesser from Arbors Records.

Kilgore's reliable, buoyant voice has been compared to Doris Day's, but when Kilgore teams with the droll Frishberg—whose wit and ingenuity never flag—her own vocal logo gets stamped on a song. The two performers know each other so well that they complete each other’s musical sentences...and what a conversation ensues! Plus there’s plenty of lesser-known material beside the Loesser-known (Kilgore loves to uncover musical rarities). Though "What a Rumba Does to Romance" ventures into Latin American territory, we don’t get the treat here of listening to Kilgore sing in Portuguese, as she does on Brazil-based tracks on other albums with Frishberg. My wish is that the next album this duo records together will be all-Brazil, all the time. Muito linda!

Top photo by Shanna Ravindra for New York Magazine. Susannan Mars from Rebecca Kilgore from The Mainstay.

No comments: