Monday, March 29, 2010

Cougar Jazz: Carol Welsman with Peter Appleyard at the Markham Theatre

Two weeks ago, I wrote how Jamie Cullum had a huge set of cojones by letting the very talented Imelda May open for him. He trusted his abilities enough to let a very talented unknown wow his audience before he hit the stage. Last Friday, jazz singer/pianist Carol Welsman did a variation on the theme. She wisely invited the brilliant veteran jazz vibraphonist, Peter Appleyard to not open for her, but play with her as her 'special guest'. Somebody had to come on and wake things up.

Before inviting Appleyard on stage, Welsman ran through three or four songs supported by a trio of very talented musicians: Jake Langley on guitar, Mark Rogers on double bass and bass and Jimmy Branly on drums and cajón (essentially a wooden box that Branly massaged magic out of). The songs she picked (from her new tribute album to Peggy Lee, I Like Men) were fine, but the problem on this night was Welsman herself. I'd heard her on record, and she was a credible singer and pianist, but on stage she was well, frankly, dull. Her playing was ordinary, her singing was just okay. And her dancing? The less said about that the better. In fact, the title of this piece came to me during the sleepy portion of first act before Appleyard came on. As Welsman noodled through these first few songs, she reminded me of a cougar who enjoys this type of smooth jazz as she sits at a jazz lounge sipping a martini or two. Harsh, perhaps, but that was the vibe (pun intended) she was putting out. I thought I was on an ocean liner watching the jazz act go through the motions, albeit a jazz act with talented musicians but saddled with an uninspired leader. And then a tidal wave hit the stage and his name was Peter Appleyard.

He's 81 years old and all I can say is I hope I can move like that at 81. I've never been a fan on record of the vibraphone, but after seeing Appleyard play live I now get the appeal of the instrument. Appleyard walked on stage and basically took over, and Welsman let him. He turned to the musicians, including Welsman, counted into his first song and went to work. With the vibraphone right at the front of the stage, Appleyard worked the vibraphone sticks, sustain pedal and bars like a man on a mission (on this night to save Welsman's concert). He hammered, pushed and pulled sounds out of his vibraphone like a man caressing a beautiful woman. Sometimes he was fast, sometimes he was slow, but whatever he did it was mostly done just right. Sure, there were a few missed notes, but my God, he's 81!

Welsman, I think, happily became Appleyard's pianist and 'girl singer' during the latter half of the act. After the break, Welsman came on again alone with her band. Perhaps what Appleyard had done woke her up, or maybe he gave a pep talk 'between innings', but whatever it was her opening material in the second act was still a little dull, but a vast improvement from act one. And one song, Peggy Lee's little-known Johnny Guitar (Welsman on vocals and piano and Langley on guitar) was outstanding. When Appleyard came back on, at least it was like Welsman and he were equals. Probably one of the most profound moments of the night was when Appleyard introduced a song he plays only when he hears about another musician friend passing away. On this night, he played "Django" for saxophonist Eugene Amaro who had died the three nights before. You can only imagine what must have been going through his head as he played the song, undoubtedly yet again, for a contemporary who had passed on.

The second set continued to get stronger and stronger, and then we got to Sweet Georgia Brown. It started simply enough, with Appleyard and the band building and extrapolating on the themes of the song. Then he did something unexpected. He put his mallets down, walked over to Welsman on piano, eased her over and, using two fingers, played elaborate variations on the song as Welsman took the rhythm line. As he ended it, he practically nudged Welsman off her piano bench. Next, he pointed at Branly (Appleyard was originally trained as a drummer), walked over to his drum kit and took it on. Branly beat out a rhythm, Appleyard copied it and expanded upon it. Branly beat out a different rhythm; Appleyard copied and expanded again. Branly beat a very complex pattern using everything, including his elbows. Appleyard? "I can't do that," he said to laughter by the audience and the musicians. The evening ended shortly after that with a well-deserved standing ovation for Appleyard and, yes, for Welsman too for being brave enough to let the veteran on stage and show her how it should be done.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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