On Tuesday night, September 18, 2001, the opening concert of the recently revived Smedes Parlor Series at St. Mary's School became a serendipitous rally for the spirit of America in light of the tragedies of the previous Tuesday. The program, "A Classical and Jazz Evening," featured well-known area jazz musician Greg Gelb and four others playing works by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein. Goodman's music was synonymous with World War II homeland patriotism and Bernstein's love for America has been expressed in such works as "West Side Story" and "Mass." Although it was not referred to as such, it took only a few minutes for the whole audience to respond to the program as a tribute to the fallen and as a booster for pride in our country.
Planned months in advance, the concert already was a mark of series director Terry Thompson's creative thinking for this year's offerings. The program brought together two categories of music lovers for a evening which emphasized the similarities more than the differences between classical and jazz. This was aided by the confident, heart-felt musicmaking by Gelb and his cohorts.
The first half was devoted to pieces recorded by Benny Goodman. For these Gelb was joined by pianist Ed Paolantonio, bassist Don Gladstone and drummer John Hanks, recreating the instrument mix of a Goodman small-group band. Gelb had transcribed Goodman's clarinet parts, including the solos, from the original small-group recordings, providing additional authenticity, not to mention difficulty. Paolantonio supplied his trademark speed and clarity. Gladstone gave a bouncy physicality to all his solos, which also included his well-known scat singing peppered over the lines, here an nice echo of Slam Stewart, a Goodman's bassist who also sang while he twanged. Hanks, although relegated mostly to supplying the necessary rhythmic underpinning with few drum solos, made a solid contribution and kept the music swinging.
"Seven Come Eleven" immediately established the group's total command and extreme comfort, allowing the listener to concentrate on the magic that jazz can invoke. "Lullaby of the Leaves" perfectly conjured the rolling winds of autumn, Gelb and Paolantonio fused in focused, strong waves of sound. The high held clarinet notes of "Slipped Disc," instantly recognizable as a Goodman signature, added to the "hot" intensity of that number.
Kathy Montgomery Gelb, Greg's wife and noted vocalist on her own, switched the mood with her rendition of "I Thought of You," her soft-grained smoothness and clear diction buoyed by her husband on sax and Gladstone's rich bowing. The instrumentalists finished off the set with the jaunty "Don't Be That Way" and the toe-tapping "Airmail Special," the most upbeat and dance-inducing number of the evening, with dense chording on piano and hot licks on clarinet.
Within the formal setting of the Smedes Parlor and heard under the glittering chandelier, the music had already taken on a more classical feel. For the opening of the second half, the crossover was furthered by the playing of Bernstein's Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, the composer's first published work, completed in 1942. Gelb was joined in this performance by Milton Laufer, a distinguished pianist with a long list of credits, who has just begun a tenure as pianist-in-residence at Peace College (replacing Ray Kilburn). Together, he and Gelb attacked the sonata with ferocity and extreme emotion. Laufer's aggressive posture and keen precision made a big impression in what turns out to be his first public performance in Raleigh. Gelb also impressed with his dexterity in the sharp, pricking melodies and with his deep expression of the yearning in the somber sections. There was some audible air and burble in the quiet passages in the lower register, but otherwise Gelb proved himself an accomplished player in a more structured work. The many conflicting moods of the piece eerily reflected those of the audience in these unsettling times.
Continuing the reflective mood, Kathy Gelb sang Bernstein's "Some Other Time" from the musical "On the Town." With lyrics about missed opportunities and unspoken words, it became a moving anthem for those lost in the terrorist attacks. Here, as in her previous song, Kathy Gelb sang without a microphone, keeping the sound acoustical but requiring her to push the tone to be heard, robbing the voice of some of its velvet.
The jazz quartet finished off the evening with "After You've Gone," full of long-breathed lines and catchy rhythms; "Goodbye," softly nostalgic with lovely rounded tone from Gelb; and "Avalon," in which all four players showed off their soloing skills in a swinging finale.
For so many reasons, this was a wonderful opening for the Parlor's season. If the room was a bit "live" for some of the loudest playing, it was easily forgotten in the joyous and stirring rush of the music.