The Catskill Jazz Factory has delivered some fabulous concerts in the Hudson Valley over the past few years, yet the six talented performers last night at the historic Woodstock Playhouse were beyond special in a program entitled "Ladies of the Blues." Dominick Farinacci on trumpet was full-tilt and suave, Patrick Bartley on alto sax and clarinet was awesome, and vocalist Shenel Johns was in top form with her own distinctive tender and gritty appeal. Dan Kaufman offered bounce, edge, and inspiration while Jonathan Michel on bass ruled the roost with compelling solos. Marion Felder performed drums to enhance rather than showboat (as is sometimes the case).
The quintet opened with a version of Cannonball Adderly’s 1960 classic “Work Song” from his Them Dirty Blues album. This classic be-bop tune has an infectious and satisfying rhythm. This new extended arrangement permitted more room for exciting individual solos. Johns sang an amusing double-entendre dirty blues song that Dinah Washington made famous, “Long John Blues,” a song purportedly about her “dentist.”
They ended the first short set with a marvelous version of “I Put a Spell on You,” a Screaming Jay Hawkins rock hit from 1956. The theatrical Hawkins was nearly as theatrical off-stage and I recall being invited to a wild party that got out of hand after one of his concerts. I still recall in detail the cold, sad February day in 2000 when I was filling my gas tank with the radio on and the news of his death was announced. Johns performed the song with a voodoo fierceness as she flailed her arms. The version Johns offered delivered realism, jealousy, and convincing obsession, as compared to the more hyped version by Hawkins or the more sentimental version by Nina Simone. The version by Johns deserves recording.
Opening the second set with a new arrangement of Cole Porter’s “It’s Alright with Me,” allowed trumpeter Farinacci and sax player Bartley to heft commanding be-bop solos, which was certainly thrilling, and certainly all right with me. Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” offered new variations of a classic mellow favorite and allowed Bartley to showcase his cool.
“Strange Fruit,” a Nina Simone hit after Billie Holliday made it famous, was likewise less melodramatic and more satisfyingly mysterious and horrific than Simone’s version. They performed a new, powerful song about veterans of the Afghanistan war and segued into a version of “Crazy” made famous by Gnarls Barkley, yet once again there was a contemporary, gritty, disorientating realism to Johns’ performance and the band’s new, innovative arrangement, which had deep feminine appeal.
Several other songs and instrumentals were performed and I’ve merely highlighted the numbers that most impress me. The concert presented a fine mix of instrumental and vocal numbers that centered on classics re-imagined for the present with highly satisfying results, especially the immediacy of the dueling horns of Farinacci and Bartley and subtle piano riffs by Dan Kaufman. Underlying it all was the unerring beat laid down by Jonathan Michel. Johns delivered an eclectic mix of style yet she made traditional songs new with her own personal stamp.