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Michael Benedict

Dave Gleason

Mike DelPrete & Julia Donnarumma

Lee Russo

Joe Barna

Julia Donnarumma

Steve Lambert

Lee Russo & Jeff Nania

photos by Rudy Lu

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The Next Phase CD Release Party
Bread & Jam Café
Cohoes, NY
March 1, 2009

by J Hunter

Notes from Michael Benedict Jazz Vibes’ CD release party at the Bread & Jam Café – where, if I were a Cohoes resident, you would find me every afternoon at 5 o’clock. (Kudos to owner Sal Prizio – not just for giving jazz another place to hang in the Capital Region, but also for creating a space that is everything Starbucks isn’t!)
UNPLUGGED, AND (I’M) LOVING IT – Technical issues can easily derail a concert experience; in this case, they added to it. Neither Benedict nor tenorman Lee Russo was miked when Benedict counted the quintet into Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” This was decidedly problematic for Benedict: Not only did he have to fight through amplified bass and piano, but his vibes sat right in front of Joe Barna’s drum set… and one thing the volcanic drummer does not lack is power.
Whether it was survival instinct or the generally aggressive tone of the band, Benedict responded by ferociously attacking his kit, pumping the vibes’ pedal like a street racer revving a Mustang. His passion for his instrument is equal to his passion for his music – the latter of which he gently-but-firmly ramrodded through two outstanding sets featuring music from Jazz Vibes’ two releases, plus a few smile-inducing wild cards.
As for Russo, he should play unmiked all the time! He’s always been a beguiling performer, and this show was no exception. But without amplification, he had to step outside the West Coast box and make his sound louder and broader. Russo’s lines on “Bennie’s Tune” were monumental, and his phrasing on Mongo Santamaria’ “Afro Blue” was bright as the sun. I eat Lee’s stuff up with two spoons, anyway, but he found a new door to open at Bread & Jam.
“WE HOPE YOU LIKE OUR NEW DIRECTION…” The publicized lineup for this show was the same group that appeared on The Next Phase – basically, the Barna/Russo Group with Benedict on vibes. Come Sunday, instead of longtime Barna/Russo member Dave Solazzo, Dave Gleason took the piano chair for the very first time. This could have been a major booby trap, given how Solazzo and Russo complement each other lyrically. However, Gleason’s introduction brought a more forceful vibe to the proceedings. (No pun intended, honestly!)
Piano is technically a percussion instrument, and that’s right in Gleason’s wheelhouse. On Russo’s Miles/Coltrane tribute “The Abenaki”, you got the sense what “So What” would have sounded like if McCoy Tyner had gotten the gig instead of Bill Evans. Gleason can certainly do Lyrical, as he did to club-wide approval on Gershwin’s “Embraceable You”; in the end, though, it was his Latin-influenced punch that made the music bubble and bounce, and what incited Barna to kick his MMA-intense attack up a notch or five.
A SECRET REVEALED – Among the selections from The Next Phase, Benedict showcased the two Gary McFarland-penned vocal selections with help from Julia Donnarumma. I was pleased to see Benedict open up “I Wish that I Were Young Again” to the full band, freeing him up for a well-deserved solo. He stuck with the disc’s duet arrangement of “Sackful of Dreams”, but what sold the song here was Donnarumma’s alluring performance.
A weekly regular on the Café Capriccio stage, the second-generation performer has presence and control most singers her age only read about in books. She and Russo turned “Embraceable” into a wonderful sax/vocal duet reminiscent of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, and she wowed the crowd with a rousing brace of standards during a second set that early-departers should kick themselves for missing. Benedict hailed Donnarumma as “Albany’s best-kept secret… but not for long!” That’s my hope, too.
(DON’T) GET WITH THE PROGRAM – While this was a fine showcase of Jazz Vibes’ work to date, the best moments happened when Benedict departed from the program. This kept his players on their toes (One song change made someone onstage audibly say “Really?”), but it was totally in the moment, and made the music even more exciting. The crowning touch was when Benedict called trumpeter Steve Lambert and tenor player Jeff Nania up for the closer, a jammed-out take on Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy.”
Seeing Lambert play in massive ensembles like Empire Jazz Orchestra and Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble makes you forget what a monster he is, but we all remembered in a big hurry when he laid down his hellacious solo. As for the 23-year old Nania, we may have to amend that list of hot young Capital Region jazz players – you know, the one with Dave Payette and Dylan Canterbury at the top? Nania’s tone is rock-solid, and watching him listen to the pickup septet (let alone hold his own with them) makes me want to hear more from this young man, and very soon.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.