The Big Man is a Big Hit
By by Jim Newsom
Jazz on Granby
Roper Performing Arts Center
It was a busy night in Norfolk town: Bruce Springsteen at the Ted, Romeo & Juliet at the Harrison, The Admirals at Scope, an all-star Veteran's Day benefit at the Granby. But the best entertainment value of the evening was probably Kevin Mahogany's performance at the Roper.
The premiere male jazz singer of the baby boom generation, Mahogany is a big man with a big voice. Decked out in a double-breasted burnt orange suit with brown shirt and tie, Mahogany wrapped his rich, distinctive voice around a set of standards that ran from the obvious to the obscure. With the bare bones accompaniment of pianist Doug Bickel and acoustic bassist Chuck Bergeron, he reached deep into the setlist's melodies to mine new gold from old veins.
Even without a drummer, the music swung all night long. Kicking off with the classic Nature Boy, Mahogany and crew moved nimbly through the tune most associated with Nat King Cole. Promising to cover familiar territory, he did just that with the swingingest version I've heard of I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, before bluesin up Don't Get Around Much Anymore. Bickel, a former Virginia Tech music prof who currently teaches at the University of New Orleans, threw touches of barrelhouse, ragtime and de blues into his piano solos, while his comping flourishes and chord choices were creative and on-target.
Mahogany acknowledged the influence of the late Johnny Hartman on his style, repertoire and even his instrumental lineup, noting that a hard-to-find Japanese recording by Hartman, Summertime Club, was the inspiration for choosing a piano/bass duo backing. He subsequently dove into the beautiful but little known ballad, If I'm Lucky, a hit for Perry Como in the 40s that was recorded by Hartman in 1963. Mahogany's intimate embrace of the song made the case for its elevation to standard status. Then the trio drove down Route 66 in a casual blues groove as the folks in the audience snapped their fingers and bobbed their heads. The singer's scat solo whipped the crowd of 400 into a frenzy of shouts and applause.
Another seldom heard Hartman chestnut, Kiss and Run, kept the mood upbeat. Bergeron shone on a totally acoustic All Blues, just voice and bass, before Bickel reappeared for a gorgeous Lush Life.
Pointing out that he was from Kansas City, where state law required him to sing at least two blues songs each night, Mahogany launched into Centerpiece, a joyful blues composed by Harry Sweets Edison and Jon Hendricks. There was ample room for all three to stretch out, including the singer himself with a cleverly conceived mouth drum solo. The well-worn Secret Love, a Latin-tinged My Shining Hour and an achingly beautiful For All We Know closed out the evening in superb style.
This was Kevin Mahogany's third visit to Norfolk, and he remembered his first two---a 1995 Town Point Jazz Festival gig opening for Yellowjackets and Earl Klugh, where he said he was the only acoustic act on the bill; and a visit to ODU last fall to play with John Toomey. Each time he's been terrific---humorous, personable and incomparable in his vocalizing. Veteran's Night at the Roper was no exception.
In its fifth season, Jazz on Granby is off to one of its best starts yet. With Mahogany's show and the October opener starring Grady Tate, former baseball executive-turned-jazz impresario Blake Cullen has hit back-to-back home runs.