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Jackie Ryan and the Larry McKenna Quartet at Chris’ Jazz Café

Jackie Ryan and the Larry McKenna Quartet at Chris’ Jazz Café
Victor L. Schermer By

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Jackie Ryan and the Larry McKenna Quartet
Chris' Jazz Café
Philadelphia, PA
April 23, 2016

Jackie Ryan is acquiring a reputation as a "must hear" vocalist. When this reviewer heard DJ Bob Perkins ("BP with the GM") praise her singing on WRTI, he decided to attend her show at Chris' Jazz Café to see what she could do in person, the true test of a singer's ability. Then, to increase the anticipation, the band members for the gig were four top musicians with whom Philly jazz fans are well acquainted: Larry McKenna on tenor saxophone, Tom Lawton on piano, Lee Smith on bass, and Dan Monaghan on drums. Indeed, the guys proved to be a perfect match for her. Ryan brought out the best in them and vice-versa in songs that were carefully guided by Ryan in ways that flattered all of them and made for a perfect evening.

The set was a tribute to Duke Ellington, including songs with his imprimatur. (It's well known that Billy Strayhorn and other of his cohorts wrote some of those with his name on them.) Charles Mingus and Juan Tizol were the other composers on the list. The set began with McKenna's quartet doing an upbeat version of Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays." Then Ryan joined the group, spoke briefly of Ellington's contribution to jazz, and came on with a strong vocal version of "Duke's Place," which today is more commonly done as an instrumental. The lyrics, probably those composed by Ella Fitzgerald, were trite, but Ryan used her voice inflections and her big dynamic and vocal range to make the tune shake out like a throwback to the Cotton Club.

This was followed by "Kissing Bug," an infrequently heard number that was recorded in the 1940s by Ellington with vocalist Joya Sherill, who, as Ryan noted, wrote the lyrics. (Sherill also wrote the lyrics to Strayhorn's "A Train," thus being one of the many heroes in the magnificent fifty year history of that band.) Ryan again went for the 1930s-40s era style of singing on this one.

But it was on the ballads that Ryan showed how exceptionally well she can craft a song in her own unique and modern way. Judy Garland did, however, come to mind as she sung a medley of "Sophisticated Lady" and "Lush Life," milking all the blues-tinged emotions while at the same time achieving just the right phrasings that give these songs their deep impact.

Overall, Ryan worked in synch with the group exceptionally well, interacting with the musicians in a lively, involved manner. She exuded unaffected joy and rhythmic sensibility that seemed to make the band happy to be working with her and the audience glad to be there. In addition, she held back the tempos just enough to capture all the nuances, and when her cohorts took solos, they had an opportunity to use their intuition and not just reel off strings of notes.

She followed up with a rarely heard Ellington tune, "You Better Know," and a subtly conceived evocation of "The Feeling of Jazz" from the iconic recording, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (Impulse, 1963). As the set proceeded, the audience showed genuine appreciation of McKenna's and Lawton's improvisations, which were so cohesive that they felt like collector's items. Both of these revered musicians have an instantly recognizable style and an artisan's ability to create a sensibility akin to a vintage wine. Ryan gave them plenty of room to get the taste and aroma just right.

You're rarely going to hear a version of "Mood Indigo" as good as that which Ryan pulled off here. She genuinely conveyed what the color indigo looks like, a darker kind of blue with brown and violet mixed in. Hearing colors is called synesthesia, and some musicians associate colors with each note. Ryan and the group painted colors, exactly as called for by this song. Pianist Lawton's inner voicing of the chords was especially fine at capturing the intent of the song's harmonic structure.

"Satin Doll" is an Ellington/Strayhorn standard that for this reviewer's money was best arranged by Sammy Nestico. This evening's rendition was notable for a stunning bass solo by Smith, who went along with the Nestico rhythm and then inserted a rapid fire baroque variation that was like Bach on methamphetamines. When this reviewer talked to Smith about it afterwards, he didn't even remember it, but he did say he'd been working on the post- Bach Friedrich Dotzauer cello Etudes as a way of honing his skills, which may have influenced his improvisation. In any case, his prestidigitation gave the performance a novel twist that triggered a startle response in a tune which is usually done in a very predictable way.

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