Pianist John Ambrosini’s status as one of NYC’s premiere improvisational players has been on the steady rise over the last few years. Killing it at live performances, with the likes of Dan Weiss, Joel Frahm and legendary trumpeter Randy Brecker, is no doubt, the primary reason for the band leader’s increasingly elevated place in the public consciousness. And it is not just the searing technical prowess or the unique eclectic vocabulary that imbue his soloing that make an Ambrosini performance memorable—the gigs are fun.
Yes, there is the hushed anticipation and wide-open-eared enthrallment experienced by audiences at any live jazz performance worthy of a top Manhattan venue on a Saturday night. Of equal import, there is a tastefully-bawdy undercurrent that seems to eliminate the emotionally stultifying wall that usually exists between audience and performers of the higher arts. The pianist, singer and composer is disarming and lighthearted when throwing out timely quips and musings to the tightly assembled public.
The October 28th performance at Michiko Studios was multi-layered and inspired. Ambrosini (piano, vocals), Dan Asher (bass) and Nadav Snir (drums) joined forces to form a combustible trio—agile, melodic and singular in voice. Vocalists Christine Kellar (from the wonderfully unique alt /folk group He-Bird She-Bird) and Alexondra Ambrosini (uber-sultry jazz siren and John’s daughter) made stellar contributions on selected songs. In addition to a set list that seamlessly combined jazz standards with pop tunes, writer and musician Gregory Goings gave an elegant spoken word tribute to the late Walter Becker of Steely Dan, one of Ambrosini’s major influences.
The trio’s refined kinetic energy and almost tangible telepathy were evident from the opening note. Monk’s Straight No Chaser began the set and immediately highlighted all three players seemingly effortless ability to gently spar with spirited exchanges and complimentary solos rich in subtle dynamic control, whimsy and grit. Ambrosini kept the bluesy vamp strong yet inviting, allowing for brilliant feathery brush flourishes by Snir and a mischievous melodic thump of a bass solo by Asher. The set progressed from Monk to McCartney’s Blackbird, a typical stylistic transition for the bandleader. Like Brad Mehldau, Ambrosini can inhabit every yet undiscovered musical tributary hiding in a pop tune and infuse it with luminous bop torrents. The pianist’s soloing filled the tune with imaginative cascades of iridescent notes, the song reimagined yet wholly intact.
A bit later was Going’s well received poignant tribute to Becker, followed by Steely Dan’s Your Gold Teeth II. With his improvisational bona-fides on the ivories freshly crystallized in the audience’s collective imagination, it was almost jarring to hear Ambrosini’s pitch-perfect Donald Fagen-esque vocal carry the song. With Snir adding crisp flowing syncopated fills and Kellar providing lovely backup, the “Dan” classic was one of the evenings many highpoints. While there was the occasional nod to the original’s jazz-rock sensibility, there were none of what Becker called the “ponderous results” of rock-jazz fusion. As with all of the pop interpretations the trio served up, the buoyancy of bop and unbridled free-jazz were the grounding and liberating sensibilities at play.
Other highlights included Neil Young’s Don’t Let it Bring You Down. The bandleader’s introduction of the song alone, which included a reference to the Trump administration, brought guffaws and further consolidated the sense of fellowship between audience and performer. The tune’s hypnotic pulse was punctuated with both bright and melancholic hairpin statements by Ambrosini on piano. Following a brief intermission, the pianist signaled the commencement of the show with an impromptu sing along of Billy Joel’s, New York State of Mind. The second set brought vibrant yet economical versions of Elton John’s Levon and Sonny Rollin’s Oleo. Two notable selections which departed from the strict bop aesthetic were Ambrosini’s, This Candle Burn’s For You, and, I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, by Rogers and Hart. The former, the bandleader’s meditation on the vagaries of relationships, was essentially a duo performance with Ambrosini and Kellar singing the song’s lyrics of resignation and longing in lovely stark unison. The latter found the trio in full flight, with Alexondra Ambrosini bringing an enthralling swing-era lushness to the vocals of the funkified samba.
An Ambrosini gig is the perfect place for both the jazz newbie, otherwise intimidated by the genre’s heady aura, and the well-traveled bop enthusiast looking for novel sounds brought to life by a joyful master of his craft.
By, Michael Block, Long Island Pulse, Block’s Reviews, Freelance
The trio plus guests
John Ambrosini – piano/vocals
Dan Asher – bass
Nadav Snir – drums
Christine Kellar – backing vocals
Alexondra Ambrosini – guest vocalist on “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, and “Bye Bye Blackbird”