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Pete Malinverni Trio Celebrating Leonard Bernstein at Chris’ Jazz Café

Pete Malinverni Trio Celebrating Leonard Bernstein at Chris’ Jazz Café

Courtesy Victor L. Schermer

Pete Malinverni Trio
Celebrating Leonard Bernstein
Chris' Jazz Café
Philadelphia, PA
May 18, 2024

In 2022, pianist Pete Malinverni released a trio recording, On the Town: Pete Malinverni Plays Leonard Bernstein (Planet Arts Recordings). Just last year, Bradley Cooper's biopic about Leonard Bernstein, Maestro (Netflix, 2023), made quite a splash and got several Oscar nominations and other accolades, but Malinverni's recording was released prior to and is unrelated to the film. Malinverni explained that many years ago he had a personal encounter with Bernstein that always stayed with him and served as an inspiration. "I was playing a party for the opening night of the Franco Zeffirelli production of Tosca at the Met, and Bernstein was there... (and) the thing that stays with me the most is the fact that, in a room full of starry people, from Placido Domingo and Hildegard Behrens to Richard Gere and Susan Anton, he chose to hang out with me, the pianist! He was, at bottom, a passionate musician, and we were the people he loved most." That magical encounter occurred in March, 1985, and stayed with Malinverni for a few decades, but the pianist did not say why it took so long to express himself about it in a recording, especially because it's unlikely that Bernstein would have sat down with him unless he was impressed with his playing.

Recently, Malinverni has become a favorite of the crowds at Chris' Jazz Café, and he welcomed an opportunity to perform with his trio some Bernstein songs from the album along with a couple of non-Bernstein jazz standards and an original of his own. It's hard to know why he selected the tunes that he did for this set, but one of the most striking things about the performance was the relentless intensity that Malinverni and his cohorts, Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Aaron Seeber on drums, brought to the playing. The same relentless tempo is present in Cooper's film, and in both cases it may reflect the furious empowerment that Bernstein brought to everything he did, as well as the immense passion in some of his compositions and his conducting.

The action started with Bernstein's "New York, New York," the '40s song from the musical Wonderful Town, not to be confused with the Frank Sinatra hit from many years later. The tune was done straight ahead, but what gave it its energy was the "Broadway musical opening night" feeling and the way the group captured the memorable choreographed dance element that wowed the audience and no doubt inspired Bernstein.

It was weird to then hear "Star Eyes," a tune that Charlie Parker loved that has nothing to do with Bernstein except that it was contemporary with the time that Wonderful Town hit the stage. The dance energy continued with the rhythmic pulse of the rhumba behind the mainstream improvising on the ballad. Then the group broke out into some serious improvising when the rhythm shifted to straight ahead 4/4.

Again, a non-Bernstein standard, the Gershwin brothers' "Embraceable You," was given with the melody stated simply on solo piano with well-improvised and articulate fugal counterpoint a la Bach in the left hand. Then Okegwo improvised around the melody re-stated by the piano. Okegwo and Seeber are a rhythm section that Malinverni and any other musicians can take for granted they will deliver whatever is needed. They were solid and strong throughout.

"Cool" (the Sharks' song from West Side Story) is, of course, all about hip. When you hear it once, you never forget it. You're immediately there on the street. It was part of Bernstein's compositional genius that, like Beethoven, he could use basic rhythms and melodic motifs to remarkable effect. And here drummer Seeber used it as a great opportunity for a stunning drum solo.

For a completely surprising treat, Malinverni brought on board the outstanding violinist Juliet Kurtzman, a top classical musician who is also a fine crossover player in the jazz idiom. The tune they chose was Bernstein's "Lonely Town," which called for and received very soulful playing appropriate to the song. Kurtzman also gave it a Roma flavor maybe gleaned from Stephane Grappelli's time with Django Reinhardt. Bernstein would have loved this rendition which seamlessly integrated several genres .

The final number was a piano-focused composition called "The Tempest.." It reflected Malinverni's classical bent, and to at least one listener, it sounded like Franz Liszt all over again. In any case, it ended the set at the peak of intensity that the great Mr. Bernstein gave to his entire life and music.

Set List

New York, New York (Bernstein/Comden/Green); Star Eyes (De Paul/Raye); Embraceable You (George and Ira Gershwin); Cool (Bernstein/ Sondheim); Lonely Town (Bernstein/Comden/Green); The Tempest (Malinverni).

Personnel

Pete Malinverni, leader, piano; Ugonna Okegwo, bass; Aaron Seeber, drums; Juliet Kurtzman, violin, on "Lonely Town."

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