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Roberta Gambarini Dazzles, Jordan Family Inspires in Saratoga Springs, NY

R.J. DeLuke By

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She has undeniable presence on stage and uses her enviable vocal instrument better than ever. —She not only knows what she wants to convey with each tune but does it.
Roberta Gambarini, The Jordan Family
Saratoga Springs Arts Center, Spa Little Theater
Saratoga Springs, New York
May 31 (Gambarini), May 29 (Jordan Family)

One would think it would be difficult to do anything much less than give a vocal concert if it involved flying from Russia to New York City on one day, then soon after (jet lag be damned!) making a five- hour car trip (which should be three hours, except for the brutal traffic) to upstate New York for a performance before an expectant audience.

That's exactly what singer Roberta Gambarini had to do for her performance in Saratoga Springs on May 31 at the Spa Little Theater. The concert was part of a season-opening series at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center that also featured—two nights earlier—a performance by the Jordan Family from New Orleans.

Gambarini, who half-joked afterward that she didn't even have time to do her hair properly (there was no reason to fret, as she was stunning in her deep blue suit), certainly appeared no worse for wear when it came showtime. In fact, she dazzled, leading a superb trio—Mulgrew Miller on piano, George Mraz on bass and Victor Lewis on drums—through a long set that covered ballads, blues, bebop, swing and even a touch of gospel.

Gambarini has been busy since the release of her Grammy-nominated album, Easy to Love, and the experience is showing in her performances, each more polished than the last. She has undeniable presence on stage and uses her enviable vocal instrument better than ever. She not only knows what she wants to convey with each tune but does it. Always the complete musician, Gambarini is clearly growing as an artist, and there are great things to come, including an album of duets with piano great, Hank Jones (already released in Europe and Japan and expected to be available in the U.S. this summer).

After opening with Benny Carter's "When Lights are Low" Gambarini showed her ballad artistry on Strayhorn's "Something to Live For." Her rich and powerful voice is one thing, but her phrasing and the way she can manipulate her instrument are something special. There's emotion and nuance—and just plain beauty. Another compelling ballad on the program was Strayhorn's "Lush Life," with its dark lyric expertly unveiled. Yet another highlight was a duet with Miller on Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You," on which the support and delicate voicings of the pianist were as sweet and sanguine as the singer's—simply an exquisite match. And who can get more out of a Gershwin medley of "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Loves You Porgy" than Gambarini? She packed in emotion that made the pairing more irresistible than ever.

She's thoroughly at home with bebop numbers and standards like Jimmy McHugh's "Sunny Side of the Street," Jobim's "No More Blues," Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me" and Harold Arlen's "That Old Black Magic." Her phrasing twists are sublime, even better than her scatting, which—like Ella's and Sarah's—is music, not gimmickry. Johnny Griffin's "The Jamfs Are Coming" was a hip and funny blues, demonstrating that Gambarini can bring it down home, with lyrics that included a knife-twisting final castigation of a misbehaving lover: "I changed the locks and set you free." Miller was again remarkable on piano, pounding out block chords, lashing out with single-note runs that bled the blues.

Next came a gospel touch: Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday," which he recorded with Mahalia Jackson (Black, Brown and Beige, Columbia, 1958). Gambarini was at her expressive best, her notes full, forceful and with a dash of pathos. And Miller schooled us all, reaching into a combination of gospel and funky blues, getting out of the ivories some preaching that would take a blind man out of the bordello and into church... and maybe back to bordello again.

Gambarini had little time to rest, having to catch a plane early the next morning to get to the Heineken Jazz Festival in San Juan, Puerto Rico to play with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, with which she tours frequently. Jazz fans can count their blessings that she squeezed in the upstate stop.

Two nights earlier, the Jordan Family—Kent on flute, Marlon on trumpet, Stephanie on vocals and Rachel on violin—logged a solid set of music at the same venue. It's refreshing to see musicians like these—their lives blistered by Hurricane Katrina and the resulting havoc ("It is not a natural disaster" several musicians from the Crescent City have told me. Hint-hint)—play with such freedom and joy. And fine musicianship. Marlon, the daring and dashing trumpeter of the group, was the star of the show, peppering each tune with the brash and braying, Buddy Bolden trumpet sounds that New Orleans is known for—intense on the up-tempo numbers and expressive on ballads.

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