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Hilary Gardner and Ehud Asherie at Caffè Vivaldi

Dan Bilawsky By

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Hilary Gardner and Ehud Asherie
Caffè Vivaldi
New York, NY
October 1, 2016

Visitors, curious natives, and jazz neophytes will often ask the same question when they come looking for the music in New York: Where's the best place to see and hear jazz? The answer, of course, is not so simple. One line of responses might simply involve playing favorites or citing specific acts to check out; another might point toward soft and hard data—a club's booking policy and stylistic trends, associated cover charge and drink minimum, location, set times and length, and more of the same; and yet a third may simply bend toward history or attachment for those on the recommending end. The bottom line is that there is no right answer to that question. The best place to experience jazz in New York City is simply wherever it belongs and feels at home. That truth was never more apparent than it was while taking in the sounds of vocalist Hilary Gardner and pianist Ehud Asherie at Caffè Vivaldi on a damp Saturday evening at the dawning of October.

Having just witnessed an electric set of music at one of New York's pack-them-in-like-sardines and push-the-high-priced-menu venues, the difference in attitude and atmosphere at Caffè Vivaldi was more than a little refreshing. The sound of Chick Corea's "Armando's Rhumba" could be heard from down the street as you approached circa 9:10pm. A drummer-fronted piano trio was giving its all on the catchy tune while remaining cognizant of the volume, several patrons sipped wine or cappuccino while listening intently, and others chatted away without causing harm to the music. The whole scene was a reminder of the virtues of informality, and that easygoing vibe fit Gardner and Asherie like a glove. Shortly after the appointed 9:30 set time, that pair took to the vacated music post—no stage, just a piano in the northwest nook of the room and an adjacent high-visibility spot for a vocalist—and uncorked the old-world charisma.

Gardner and Asherie have both built impressive reputations atop their skills at interpreting days-gone-by gems—Great American Songbook fare, should-be-standards, complete obscurities known only to the jazz cognoscenti—and their renown proved completely warranted throughout this breezy set. A song-by-song selection, rather than a fixed playlist, resulted in the creation of a Rodgers and Hart mini-set at the top of the program. A comfortably paced "Little Girl Blue" got things rolling, serving as a warm-up of sorts for a medium-up "Mountain Greenery" that found Asherie in dazzling form during his solo. The final number in that triptych—"It's Easy To Remember (And So Hard To Forget)"—proved to be the emotional high water mark of the show. Gardner's poise and heart provided one of those lump-in-your-throat listening experiences that manage to take you to another place for a short spell.

The remainder of the set wasn't tied to any specific theme or composer-lyricist couple. Gardner and Asherie just delivered one great song after another without a hint of pretense or posturing. "After You've Gone" took things in an upbeat musical direction as Asherie worked a Willie "The Lion" Smith-worthy solo into the song. You simply couldn't argue with Gardner's claim that "the happiest sound in the world is Ehud Asherie playing stride piano." From there it was off to Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Meditation," a number which found Gardner moving from arresting Portuguese to English, and over to "Make Someone Happy."

As the set neared its end, Gardner and Asherie referenced their recording partnership on two different albums. First came Teddy Wilson's infrequently covered "Little Things That Mean So Much" from Gems By The Piano Giants (Self Produced, 2016)—an under-the-radar recording where Gardner appears as Asherie and clarinetist Evan Christopher's guest. Then, after a penultimately-placed "Everything I've Got Belongs To You," they closed with a seasonally-appropriate "Autumn In New York," nodding to Gardner's lone solo album—The Great City (Anzic Records, 2014). It was the perfect finish for a set that was high on charm.

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