The Somers Point Jazz Society
threw a first album release party for the newly-formed Jost Project at Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro
this fall. Can't Find My Way Home
, the CD is titled. The venue offers a seaside bar on one side and its opposite on the other, a rentable banquet room with brocade upholstered chairs.
The quartet was finishing dinner in the big, dimly lit room in a kind of pre-game huddle. When they broke, bassist Kevin MacConnell
finished his soup standing up. Anwar Marshall made micro-adjustments to his drum set. Vocalist Paul Jost
sought privacy to take a last-minute call. Vibraphonist Tony Miceli
, last to leave the table, wandered off into the space where musicians go just before they go on.
Michael and I ordered dinner. I was curious what the soup of the day, "Vegetarian Lambo," might be. Our waiter assured me there it had no lamb bone in it. We all laughed when the soup arrived and I spelled "lentil" for him. We chose two of the many varieties of burgers from a largely seafood menu. They were big and plump and served with kettle chips.
The 70 seats soon were filled, and activity began to whirl around the stage as the musicians took their places. Joe Donofrio, the SPJS artistic director, introduced the band, which whisked us back to the sixties and seventies. Let the record show, however, that this was no nostalgia junket by a "cover" band. And unlike tribute groups that play the most familiar versions of old songs for a senior audience, The Jost Project translates early classic rock into straight-ahead jazz language, hoping to attract a new audience of jazz fans in the bargain. The arrangements always honor the melody and the lyrics. What happens on top is a mix of inspired improvisation and joyful exploration by four gifted musicians who infuse each other like garlic in olive oil.
Popular rock tunes by, for instance, the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, have been seeping into the jazz songbook for years. Tony Miceli and Kevin MacConnell set out a couple of decades ago to translate the music of their youth into jazz. In 2003 they recorded an all-instrumental album that included not only Monk tunes, but good ones by Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin. When the pair met Vineland, NJ native Jost at Philadelphia's University of the Arts where they all teach, they'd found the vocalist who would animate their idea. "The 'project,'" said Miceli, "was getting Jost to sign on." Charlie Patierno played drums on the CD but was unable to make the gig. Jost, Miceli and MacConnell remembered Marshall from his undergrad days at UArts where teachers were in awe of his talent. They were happy to have him in the driver's seat.
The band played all the tunes on their record plus others, opening with "Sunshine Superman," the 1966 Donovan hit. Paul Jost's vocals and scat and Miceli's vibes solo put a nice easy swing on it. They played pieces by Aerosmith, Lennon and McCartney, with Marshall light on the cymbals and brushes, and an Ashford and Simpson tune with Jost using slap-hands as another percussion instrument. A mysterious "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" rolled like a train, building to a crescendo that oh so gradually faded into Jost's soft whistle.
Other endings were just as creative. In "Can't Find My Way Home," the CD title track by Stevie Winwood, Jost played harmonica, scatted his way through the tune and reached a high point of panting as if out of breath, and a well-earned "phew," possibly the first time a song ever chased itself to the end.
A high point was Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." Kevin MacConnell, who plays bass like a lead instrument from somewhere inside the tune, and whose solos often define it, lay down a deep intro to the familiar riff, all the while the supple-wristed Miceli, who can do no wrong on vibes, floated in, out and over with drummer Marshall matching Miceli's energy. Jost's scatting reached an intensity so movingmaybe like where the tormented Job asks God why he was bornthat you realize this singer draws from a very deep well. Only better lighting could have improved the performance.
The final mystery songpurposely not announcedsent a ripple of surprise through the audience. "In A Gadda Da Vida" is the most unlikely candidate for a jazz interpretation there ever was. You have to hear it to believe it. In Jost's other arrangements the tempos have been slowed, accentuating the lyrics, as in the wrenching encore of the country tune,"Tennessee Waltz."
The Jost Project's musical journey is, as we used to say in the sixties, "outtasight."