Review of Johnny Summers – Piano Sessions Vol. 1 CD Release Concert

Calgary multi-instrumentalist Johnny Summers and friends delivered an intimate and passionate performance on Saturday, March 16, 2013 at the University of Calgary's Rozsa Centre. The event was a CD Release Party to introduce Summers’ third jazz album, Piano Sessions Vol. 1.

The Calgary event also featured Chris Andrew on piano, Al Muirhead on trumpet, Jason Valleau on bass and vocals, Sheldon Valleau on ukulele and vocals and finally, Shane Statz on tenor sax. Johnny Summers performed on vocals, trumpet and flugelhorn.

Johnny Summers: Piano Sessions, Vol. One

Swing, Ballads and Blues Featured in Johnny Summers' Piano Sessions Vol. 1

The concert opened with "She Thinks that I Still Care". Unlike with George Jones' original country stylings, this interpretation was injected with a "hot summer's day in New Orleans" feel.

The dramatic pauses at the ends of key phrases set a playful tone to the number. The trumpet and piano solos were longer than they were on the album, giving Johnny Summers and Chris Andrew an opportunity to really expand on their ideas.

Between numbers, Johnny explained some of his inspirations for recording this jazz album.  Listening to great crooners such as Harry Connick Jr. and Tony Bennett, as well as instrumentalists Bill Evans, Chet Baker and Paul Blaine instilled the idea of an album featuring piano and voice. "That's beautiful to me," he said.

"You're extremely exposed," he divulged. Johnny added, "You have to have a good sense of time."

During the recording sessions, four additional songs were recorded, which didn't make it onto the album: "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland", "Look for the Silver Lining" and "Mood Indigo." The classic Christmas songs were bundled together in Winter Wonderland.  The other two made it onto Saturday's programme.

Jerome Kern & B.G. DeSylva's "Look for the Silver Lining" was made famous by Chet Baker. This medium swing song had a light, breezy feel to it.

Chris' solo was peppered with syncopated rhythms and impressive runs. In contrast, Johnny's solo on his brand new Yamaha flugelhorn was tender and warm, gradually blossoming into each a high point. Partway through, the groove became more animated and the two traded 4's.

The ballad "Maybe This Time" has been recorded by many artists, including crooner Tony Bennett. Johnny shared some of his memories of hearing Bennett sing live in concert. "He walks on stage...and you feel the electricity...When he sings, he fills you."

Johnny's interpretation was soulful and wistful, with an unhurried tempo throughout. That made the climax more impassioned. The piano shakes were performed in a dreamy fashion.

Jason and Sheldon Valleau of the band, The Polyjesters, lent their talents to "My Baby Just Cares for Me". This jazz standard by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn has been considered the signature piece of Nina Simone.

This medium swing number featured a soft, easygoing piano solo by Chris. The crescendo towards a soft, fermata in Johnny's trumpet solo was a short reprieve before the melody shot up to the instrument's upper register. The lyrics were delivered with a cheeky and humourous flair. The impromptu "doo-doo-doo" at the end of the tag was by Sheldon was a nice touch.

Variety, Extended Solos and Delightful Surprises at Johnny Summers CD Release Concert

One of the highlights in the second set was Nat King Cole's "I'm an Errand Boy for Rhythm". After a slow introduction on voice and piano, the mood shifted to a lively upswing. The interlude featured a rhythmic piano solo, followed by Al's elegantly shaped phrases. In contrast, Johnny's trumpet solo weaved and raced to the top with rapid runs. The trumpet dialogue between Al and Johnny was playful. At times, it sounded just like scatting. Other times, it sounded like a car race.

This interpretation of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" had shades of Nina Simone. It featured solos by Shane Statz on tenor sax, Johnny on trumpet and Chris on piano.

The final song of the evening was a rousing performance of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues". One of the most delightful things about music is that you never hear the same performance twice. This was especially true in this case.

The piano intro was extended for the live performance, gathering momentum just as a train does when it pulls out. The sax solo was grittier, exploring the lower range of the instrument. In contrast, Al's solo was lighter and higher, much like birds chirping. Chris' solo featured a  healthy dose of "crunchy" chords and driving rhythms, while Johnny's trumpet solo spun and shot up - higher - and higher.

Jason performed a percussion solo on his bass before Johnny and Jason scatted. Jason's surprise trumpet-like squeal led to various instruments being imitated.

The entire audience rose quickly to give everyone a standing ovation. The ensemble performed one encore, "St. James Infirmary."

Six more songs were performed at the Piano Sessions Vol. 1 CD Release. Four more other songs were performed in the first set: "Dream a Little Dream of Me", "You Don't Know Me", "Going Home" and "Exactly Like You". The second half also featured "I Wonder, I Wonder" and "Simple Song".

Piano Sessions Vol. 1 Concert Review

From the opening line, the balance between the voice and piano and later, the remaining instruments, was nothing short of perfect. The ensemble made full use of the acoustics that the Rozsa Centre offers, delivering a crisp and clear sound. They definitively demonstrated that the album's Global Music Awards for Best Listener Impact and Best Male Vocalist are well deserved.

Technical proficiency, when coupled with artistry, is a winning combination. What more could a performer or listener ask for? Well, perhaps for the lead vocalist to not have strep throat, perhaps.

The live performance offered listeners different type of performance. Feeding off the energy from the audience and the ensemble can push a musician to new heights of artistry. This manifested on Saturday into spontaneous moments of brilliance that lead to new directions for improvisation. Yes, live was slightly different from the album, but just as beautiful in its own right.

About Johnny Summers

Johnny Summers is a Calgary-based multi-instrumentalist who performs jazz, soul, gospel, blues and almost everything in between. He's a singer and songwriter, as well as a trumpet and flugelhorn player. As the director of the Calgary Jazz Orchestra, he serves as composer, arranger and band leader.

Piano Sessions Vol. 1 is currently available on CD Baby and iTunes on March 16, 2013. Click here to read my album review.

Johnny Summers: Piano Sessions, Vol. One