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BWW Review: Alex Leonard and His Colleagues Mellow Midtown Saint Peter's Church in Midday Jazz Concert

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Alex Leonard leads a jazzy trio at Saint Peter's Church
with David Kingsnorth on bass and Al Gafa on guitar.

Every time I attend something in jazz pianist Ronny Whyte's estimable weekly series at the welcoming, modern Saint Peter's Church (619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street), I'm glad I came. The place is airy, peaceful, and sunny with spacious pew and tiered seating. Acoustics are splendid. The audience is respectful. And they have Billy Strayhorn's piano.

Yesterday's easy-going hour featured Alex Leonard on piano and vocals (one forgets how fine a vocalist he is), David Kingsnorth on bass, and veteran Al Gafa on guitar. To start, Leonard stands in front of the piano. You're just too marvelous, too marvelous for words . . . he sings quietly, savoring the thought in the Richard Whiting/Johnny Mercer song. Phrasing is conversational, natural. Leonard offers just enough emotion to feel authentic, never pushing.

An instrumental of "John's Bunch" (John Bunch) follows. John Simon called the author "the Fred Astaire of Piano." One can hear why. At one point, Leonard deftly delivers a left-handed cascade, tapping each note twice--a trick of the eye? Kingsnorth leans in, bending his knees. Gafa taps his left crossed foot. Everyone's gently bobbing . . . in the zone.

We're then treated to two of Bunch's arrangements: "Remind Me" practically sighs from the piano. Visions musically billow, seeming to appear and then fade. This nimbly transitions into an elegant rendition of "The Way You Look Tonight" (both Jerome Kern/ Dorothy Fields). Bass and guitar join Leonard's piano and intermittent lyric, rise to dancey mid-tempo, and fade, aria da capo, with a stage whisper. It's like tying the numbers with a bow.

Tunes by Duke Ellington (with Mitchell Parish/Irving Mills), Billy Strayhorn, and Dave Brubeck follow in a seamless medley conjuring cigarette holders, pomaded hair, heavy lidded ladies with sensuous hips, hats and spats . . . we could be at Minton's or Cecil's in Harlem in the day. The Brubeck selection is brighter, insouciant. Leonard seems to be conversing with himself. His jaw moves as if poised to scat. Strains of "Take the A Train" wink in. The uptown joint gets its second wind as players come in from other clubs. Guitar slip/slides with a bit of sass.

Alex Leonard imparting some jazz knowledge.

"Harry Warren also had a relationship with Fred Astaire," Leonard tells us, introducing two of the artist's numbers with a bit of bio. Did you know Warren had more songs than Irving Berlin at the top of the Hit Parade?! "This Heart of Mine" (Harry Warren/Arthur Freed) arrives on caressed guitar embroidering around the melody rather than playing it. "An Affair to Remember" (Harry Warren/Leo McCarey/Harold Adamson), the last song Warren wrote that gained wide recognition, is as delicate as crocheted lace; respectful, sentimental, sad.

The next numbers feature Gafa, whose vast resume includes playing for Johnny Hartman and acting as Musical Director for Carmen McRae. "My Funny Valentine" (Richard Rodgers/ Lorenz Hart) appears to be the flowery declaration of a suitor who might otherwise be speechless. Gafa's own composition, "Samba," is infectiously happy. There's a dance that's filled with magic called the samba/It will make you feel like you can steal the sky . . . all three musicians, don't ask me how, personify fast feet and expressive arms. Sheer seduction.

"If I Should Lose You" (Ralph Rainger/Leo Robin) is delivered with short phrases connected by translucent bridges. Leonard's precise, responsive, fluent right hand might be doing surgery. Outlaw guitar again goes off the path, though keeping it in sight. Piano follows suit. Bass is ballast. "Let There Be Love" (Lionel Rand/Ian Grant) ends the concert with sincerity and tenderness. Leonard knows what he's singing. A cottony high note lingers. We exit smiling.

Midday Jazz Midtown, every Wednesday (except Easter Week) at 1 pm, St. Peter's Church, 54th and Lexington Avenue http://saintpeters.org/events/featured/jazz/. March 30 features Russ Kassoff Big Band

Alex Leonard will be performing A Tribute to Gentleman John Bunch at The Metropolitan Room on June 15: For information and reservations, go to: http://metropolitanroom.com/event.cfm?id=230689&cart


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