Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks, is sparse, filled with empty spaces. Yet it eloquently speaks its thousand words. The songs Ken Greves has chosen here are similarly sparse, the music soft, the lyrics as much about the words between the lines as those heard. It is vividly apparent that the music on Night People speaks of lost love and missed opportunities. Yet it is not pessimistic music; indeed, it is filled with many bright moments of optimism.
Darkness imbues many of Fran Landesman’s lyrics, yet in “Night People” her wit and intelligence shine through. Written with composer Tommy Wolf, the dark undertones of “Night People” give considerable strength to the song. Ken Greves finds these strengths, avoids the always-present possibility of slipping into the gloom, and delivers a wholly admirable performance. Landesman was introduced by Wolf to another composer, Bob Dorough who brings a pleasing touch of wry humor to much of his work. Landesman picks up on this in “Small Day Tomorrow” and Ken finds that same touch to illuminate the intrinsic humor of the song’s understated optimism. Frank Ponzio inserts a deft solo here, kicking up the tempo an appropriate notch as he does so. Wit and intelligence are also hallmarks of Dorothy Parker, although she usually applied this with an often devastating bite. In one of her few song lyrics, the bite is replaced by a caress that makes “I Wished On The Moon” a gentle love song. Composed by Ralph Rainger, the song has attracted jazz musicians ever since Bing Crosby sang it in The Big Broadcast Of 1936, although Billie Holiday recorded it a little earlier. The reason for the song’s appeal to jazzmen is especially apparent as Frank, Pete Donovan, and Vito Lesczak provide a lithely swinging Latin background while Ken again finds that light touch of understated optimism.
Optimism is an appropriate word for the lyrics Harry Woods wrote for “What A Little Moonlight Can Do”. Introduced in 1934’s Road House. The song was recorded by Billie Holiday the following year, a performance that is a timeless classic, which might explain why this delightful song has not been overdone. Creditably, Ken approaches the song in a very different way and with pulsating urging from Pete, finds the right touch of humor, which is skillfully echoed by Frank’s crisp solo. “Street Of Dreams”, by Victor Young and Sam F. Lewis has become a much-loved pop and jazz standard with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald among many who have recorded it, although it was Young’s lover, Lee Wiley, who delivered the benchmark interpretation. Lionel Hampton’s original improvisation, “Midnight Sun”, polished by Sonny Burke, has a magical lyric by Johnny Mercer. More than anyone, Mercer made brilliant use of colloquial language; yet here, he adopts a completely different approach. The language of this lyric is rich and evocative, and Ken revels in these riches while Frank leads the trio into the music’s jazz origins. Another master of language is Alec Wilder, although for “Moon And Sand”, which he co-composed with Morty Palitz, the lyric is the work of William Engvick. Performed by Xavier Cugat’s orchestra in 1941’s Ma Ma Maria, the song’s lyrics, like the film, have faded into obscurity, most recordings being instrumentals. Fortunately, though, Ken has given the rarely heard lyrics a finely wrought outing.
On one of his most enduring compositions, “The Night We Called It A Day”, Matt Dennis collaborated with lyricist Tom Adair. As Ken demonstrates here, the lyric’s somber theme echoes lost love and lost opportunities. Like Hopper’s Nighthawks, there is more here than the first encounter suggests, and the listener can build a personal back story upon the explicit images. Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh co-wrote many songs and although “Let Me Down Easy” is not one that has found favor with many singers, Ken shows it has considerable merit. Wry humor is evident here, too, as the tale-teller tries and almost succeeds in glossing over the pain of a departed lover. Pete is prominent here, with a fine bass solo. Another Matt Dennis collaborator was Earl Brent, their work beautifully exemplified with “Angel Eyes”. There is about this song an exquisite tenderness that pleads for similarly gentle attention and this is what it is given by Ken who is aware that the lyric’s fragility could be carelessly bruised. Frank, Pete, and Vito are clearly conscious of the song’s rich use of harmonic changes, an attribute that has helped make “Angel Eyes” popular with jazzmen.
Ken’s choice of songs here has a powerful undercurrent of nostalgic regret, a quality intrinsic in “I Keep Going Back To Joe’s”. By Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal, the song has a familiar setting: a bar much like Phillie's diner in Hopper’s Nighthawks, to which the customer returns in the hope that, against all odds, lost love will be re-discovered. Perhaps the most amazing of the many wonderful things about “Lush Life” is that when he wrote it composer-lyricist Billy Strayhorn was still a teenager and might well have been still unsure of, or at least uncomfortable with, the nature of his sexuality. Even so, this poetic and deeply insightful lyric is probably autobiographical. The extent of its personalization is such that even in the early 1960s, with several well-known recordings already made, Strayhorn would declare that no one had got it right. In his version, Ken drifts elegantly over the complex material, leaving the listener free to imagine what the true meaning might be and this is surely the most satisfactory way to approach “Lush Life”.
Another lonely barroom song is “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”, composed by Harold Arlen with Johnny Mercer’s lyric. This time, Mercer is in his more familiar role as a vernacular poet, smoothly allowing the singer’s story to run along with the unconventional structure of the song. Here, Frank and Pete set the scene against which Ken tells the bartender his sad tale. The four o’clock-in-the-morning melancholy that imbues this album, ends with the appropriate coupling of “Early Morning Blues”, by Cy Coleman and Joseph Allen McCarthy, which segues into the soulfulness of Joe Greene’s “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying”. Best known from Ray Charles’s performance, the inherent power of the bluesy gospel current that flows through the song is kept subtly under wraps by Ken, who chooses to reveal its atmospheric brave-faced melancholy.
July 2, 2015
Frank Ponzio is a jazz pianist, composer, and arranger, who has worked with a broad array of artists. He is also Music Director with Jacques d’Amboise’s National Dance Institute and has been a vocal coach at the New School’s Actors Studio for three years as well as the William Riley Vocal Studio. Composer of original scores for the films A Level Field and The Silver Swing, and for David Mamet’s radio play The Water Engine, Frank currently teaches piano, theory, songwriting, and arranging. See: www.frankponzio.com/
A graduate of Juilliard, who also studied jazz composition with Mike Longo, bassist Pete Donovan shares his considerable talent with numerous artists from many areas of music, classical to jazz by way of several branches of pop. He has played with the New York Philharmonic, Wynton Marsalis, Barbara Cook, and Liza Minelli. He has also played on film soundtracks and on Broadway, and he can be heard on numerous cast recordings. See: www.reverbnation.com/petedonovan
In New York City since the early 1990s, drummer Vito Lesczak graduated from the University of Music and Arts in Graz, Austria. He is a familiar and welcome presence on numerous record dates, at many international jazz festivals, and at key New York venues. In addition to leading his own groups, he has also played with Clark Terry, Ernie Wilkins, Mark Murphy, and Eric Comstock and for some 15 years has been with Andy Bey.
Classically trained as a dancer, Ken Greves has also appeared as an actor and has sung from early childhood. A passionate interpreter of the Great American Songbook, Ken first performed as a solo singer in 2000. Since then has played many clubs and cabarets, bridging Broadway and Hollywood, by way of jazz and Tin Pan Alley. In particular, he has chosen to explore the similarly bridging talent of songwriter Harold Arlen. Ken’s previous album, 2009’s The Face Of My Love, won appropriately high praise from critics and fans alike. See: www.kengreves.com/