In an era when division along political and social lines trumps sociability, it was refreshing to hear some live jazz by The Larry Ham Trio at Lyall Federated Church this past Sunday afternoon. Historically speaking, jazz has always brought disparate groups of people together to celebrate the blending of various strands of popular and aesthetically innovative boundaries. This genial event combined jazz standards over the past seventy years with original work by local globe-trotting legend, Larry Ham.
Dan Koch, Director of Music at Lyall, welcomed the robust crowd at Lyall. Larry Ham, who currently teaches jazz piano at Bard College, SUNY New Paltz, and Dutchess Community College, was accompanied by Australian Nicki Parrott on bass and vocal, and Tom Melito, drummer for Etta Jones, who currently plays with Mike’s Trio and teaches at Central Connecticut University, offered sidebar commentary with his sticks.
The Trio opened with “Just You, Just Me,” which offered dialogue between middle and treble keys on piano with the lower register of the bass. With a woman playing what is usually the male bass, this version turned this standard on its head. Melito on drums offered copacetic encouragement to the flirtation between piano and bass. As a drummer, Melito supplies a more melodic and subtle texture with an innovative panorama of mellow background soundscape.
Nicki, who has a lovely soft and mellow mezzo-soprano voice, tackled Frank Sinatra’s “You Made Me Feel So Young” with mixed results. To compete with Frank on this number was daring and somewhat-self-defeating, yet her finale voice notes supplied such redolent sunset joy in high register that I succumbed to her attempt. In the middle Larry delivered a delicious piano solo variation.
Nicki next sang Blossom Dearie’s great hit “Let Me Love You” from her 1958 Give Him the Ooh-La-La album. This cover was really a triumph with delicate, emotional, voice-shading textures. They changed pace, reverting back to an instrumental track from Larry Ham’s Just You, Just Me album (2008) with “Don’t Mess with Nobody But Me,” a calypso number. While Calypso usually travels in the pop genre, Larry elevated this number to an innovative aesthetic level. His left hand played so well that I momentarily misconceived Larry to be left-handed.
“Darling, if it takes forever, I will wait for you” from the 1964 Marcel Pagnol-inspired film musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg followed with Nicki singing most charmingly. Here the sexual-inversion role sounded so natural that it only became apparent upon later reflection. An instrumental version of Gershwin’s “Heaven, I’m in Heaven” followed as a donation plate was passed. “Dancing Cheek-to-Cheek” began with the piano leading and breaking into smart solo, yet midway the lead switched to the bass with drums smoothly laying the floor for this “dance.”
After a break, they played an original by Larry composed in Brazil; “Brazilian Coffee” offered caffeinated rhythms from varied Brazilian musical styles backed by bass and drums. Parrot then sang Louis Armstrong’s “Give Me a Kiss to Build a Dream On” in a much higher register than Armstrong with mixed results, as if Nicki was a countertenor. Nicki had spent ten years singing with legendary guitarist Les Paul at the Iridium Jazz Club (Hell’s Kitchen area) in Manhattan; I conjecture she learned the art of presenting new conceptual versions of jazz standards from Paul and has run ever since with fresh perspectives on standards. "Dee's Dream" by Larry from his 2016 album laid down some difficult harmonic challenges for Nicki's bass, yet her spontaneous delivery was exuberant.
Nicki sang Bobby Darin’s biggest early hit “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” with velvety romance, which was one of the special highlights of the afternoon. “These Dreams,” a 1968 pop-rock hit by the band Heart offered complex challenges for chord changes on Nicki’s bass as she followed Larry’s piano lead in this effervescent romp as Melito laid down sophisticated yet light drumming that I thought remarkable. "I Will Wait for You" by recently deceased composer Michel Legrand unearthed composed and patient seduction.
Singing “Hernando’s Hide-a-way,” written by Jerry Ross and Richard Adler for the musical Pajama Game and published in 1954, Nicki delivered a Doris Day cover version sung with good Spanish accent. (This was also a big hit for dancer and singer Desi Arnaz.) Nicki sang a cover of Bing Crosby’s 1931 hit “Just One More Chance.” Once more the sexual reversion of a woman covering a famous male hit was accomplished with invisible finesse that challenged the original.
“It’s You or No One for Me” was a Doris Day hit and Nicki delivered a successfully competing challenge to the Doris Day version. “The Rainbow Connection” provided the emotional roller coaster that summed up the ups and downs of the program. Nicki was more introverted and intimate here.
The unstated program of this concert was rooted in tradition, yet that tradition was about re-inventing and updating that tradition with the voices of the current players on the stage. The result was new wine poured into old casks and pop hit elevated to a more sophisticated artistic platform. This concert was a special treat and retrospective on nearly a hundred years of cabaret at its best.