BWW Reviews: Erudite Jon Weber Dazzles on the Keyboard While Exploring the Evolution of Piano Jazz at the Metropolitan Room
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth--say, in the early 1960s--one of the most fascinating shows ever created for television would pop up on CBS three-to-five times a year. The program was not only immensely entertaining, it was enchantingly educational, and though the show was geared to children, it had immense appeal whether you were eight or 80. Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, broadcast live in front of an audience (first at Carnegie Hall, then at Lincoln Center), introduced the Baby Boom Generation to the mysteries of music in all its forms. Launched in January 1958 with a show titled, "What Does Music Mean?" (See video, below), the Young People's Concerts were riveting TV thanks to the intellect, passion, and charismatic personality of its host, who just two weeks prior to the inaugural show had become the first American-born Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic, and who just four months before had opened his greatest work for the Broadway musical theater, West Side Story. During 53 performances over 14 years of these televised concerts/lectures (they were more like musical bedtimes stories), Bernstein was clear, concise, never condescending, and always illuminating in explaining where music came from, how it worked, how it evolved, and why the best music has always touched the human soul.
I was thinking back to when I was eight years old and being totally engrossed in Professor Bernstein's musical lessons as last Wednesday night--about 50 years later--another charismatic musician/teacher was enhancing my knowledge and capturing my imagination with his compelling cabaret musical documentary for old people (I know, speak for myself), From Joplin to Jarrett: 115 Years of Piano Jazz. Musical Director and pianist extraordinaire Jon Weber can play every imaginable musical style and for a wide variety of cabaret and concert singers, but this superlative keyboardist is really a jazz man at heart (which he sensitively taps whenever he is moved to give or receive audience love). Like Bernstein, Weber knows that the intricacies of certain music languages--whether classical or jazz--can be frustratingly elusive, so he's made it his mission to educate the masses, or in this case a few hundred people who after this Tuesday night at 7 pm will have attended one of his four entertaining classroom sessions at the Metropolitan Room (two in May and two in July). And when some of the students in the audience are among the most accomplished instrumentalists in New York, you realize that your teacher is a virtuoso.
Weber is also an accomplished musical historian with an innate sense of cabaret show rhythms and who can weave a good story, the latter a skill obviously honed during his time hosting the NPR radio show, Piano Jazz. In about 75 minutes, the erudite pianist explored songs that were rags, blues, stomps, and shouts, sailing seamlessly through the century-long evolution of jazz piano music. Although chronologically Weber's history lesson begins in 1899 with Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" (the rag time number the host said, "went viral" for its time, was a "game-changer," and "the single most important American instrumental piece ever composed"), he astutely opened the show with a later Joplin tune with which his audience (especially a jazz illiterate like me) would be well familiar, "The Entertainer," the theme music for the 1973 Academy Award winning film, The Sting. From the opening bars of both Joplin riffs, Weber's digits glided enthusiastically yet effortlessly across the keyboard. When he then transitioned into the "fast and furious" pace of Memphis-style ragtime on Al Morton's "Fuzzy Wuzzy Rag/Blues (introduced by W.C. Handy's Band in 1915), Weber's fingers moved so quickly you almost thought he could play and pick up a cocktail at the same time.
Whether he was adroitly using his right hand to simulate horn sections on Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp," frantically pounding away on the stride piano style of James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout," evoking the sounds of mid-20th century "cool jazz" through songs such as George Shearing's "Lullabye of Birdland" and Earl Zindars' "How My Heart Sings" (popularized by "the epitome of the cool jazz sound, pianist Bill Evans), or exploring the "guitaristic approach" of jazz piano with Nat King Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right," Weber's piano playing was dazzling in its impeccability. His explanations of the different styles within the genre (including Erroll Garner's Blues, Chick Correa's Latin sounds, and Keith Jarrett's "Jazz Fusion") were smooth and accessible, and he even poked fun at himself for his fixation on the birthdates of his piano jazz heroes.
If there was anything lacking in this near-perfect show, it was Weber not having the time to flesh out his jazzy journey even more. When he talked about cool jazz compositions like "Lullabye of Birdland" as "finally something vocalists could sing," it might have been a charming touch to hear one of Weber's cool cabaret jazz singer friends knock out a number or two to enhance the concept. But even the greatest teachers don't get everything in before the bell rings or the semester ends. Whether it's Leonard Bernstein or Jon Weber imparting the knowledge, we should just be thankful for anything we can absorb from their exceedingly evolved musical minds.
Photos by Stephen Sorokoff