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A Harpist and a Harpy

Nick Catalano By

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Keely Smith with all of her comic venom has lost none of her sheer vocal magic...
A few years ago, amid the reams of jazz press releases and publicity blurbs that I receive each month, I noticed a piece about South American Roberto Perera who was recording a group which featured his own playing of the Paraguyan harp. Immediately, I sought to discern the principal differences between this instrument and the traditional acoustic concert harps. The characteristics are complex and I’d rather not conduct a music theory class in this column. Suffice it to say that Perera’s playing of the Paraguayan instrument offered a new opportunity to record South American music because this instrument was native.

Through the years I’ve kept listening to his CD’s and been continually intrigued by his constant experimentation with the harp while producing music that is nicely accessible to a growing listenership. In his latest CD Sensual on the Heads Up label, Perera notes carefully that on several selections he is playing a “Paraguayan harp with sharping levers” – essentially a different instrument altogether. And on a gig I caught awhile back at the Hollywood Florida Musicians exchange I found Perera tinkering with yet another harp. This one has sounds that even Maestro Perera has difficulty hearing.

Important plaudits go to Perera who is trying to advance the music and simultaneously keep his band working. His recordings are compelling and the sounds of his various harps will challenge even the most astute cognoscenti.

At seventy-five, Keely Smith feels she can say and do on stage whatever she likes. Recently she teased and coquetted conductor Bob Lappin with such intensity that it had an SRO audience howling. The comedy was, of course, entirely spontaneous and reflected a shrewd show business professionalism honed during the old Vegas days when she and Louis Prima were working the Sahara Lounge doing six shows a night between midnight and 6:00 a.m.

But make no mistake, Keely Smith with all of her comic venom has lost none of her sheer vocal magic and, at her advanced age, this is a bit miraculous. The rangy octave jumping and crisp phrasing that were 1950’s trademarks are still operating at full throttle. Despite a hard working dues paying career, Keely never drank, smoked, or did the other stuff and her present performance power is a testament to this abstemious regime. When she sings the tester “You Go to My Head” (the present arrangement by Dennis Michaels is delicious) the glory days of the great swing chanteuses come instantly to mind. Although Keely quickly runs through the “Prima” hits (“Black Magic”, “Just a Gigolo”, “I Ain’t Got Nobody”, etc.) for the nostalgic audiences, she really displays her works on the challenging ballads (“I Wish You Love” – which sold nine million copies).

Last year she received a grammy nomination for “Keely Sings Sinatra” and at an age when most might prefer smaller venues of cult audiences, Keely Smith is packing them in at 2500 seat houses and shows absolutely no signs of stopping. Keely Smith will be at Feinstein’s for most of May.

Speaking of nostalgia, I was simply knocked out this month by a CD from Mark Winkler who sings the music of Bobby Troup on his latest Rhombus release. Troup was a west coast legend for hipsters a generation ago and his music is an important chapter in the California jazz story. If you’re a new singer looking for material, you’ll be especially moved by the legacy of Bobby Troup.


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