I returned to Calgary recently after a three year hiatus and discovered that the once bastion for country music bars has given wings to blues and jazz venues of the highest quality. On Friday October 6, 2006 I had an opportunity to take in a splendid jazz performance by two of Canada’s premier instrumentalists/vocalists Joe Sealy and George Koller and featuring singer Cindy Church. The trio performed two sets with the theme The Nearness of You a tribute to great American songwriter Hoagy Carmichael.
Church who in the past had garnered a reputation as an outstanding country vocalist turned to jazz several years ago and has proven to be equally proficient in this genre.
Church’s vocals are smooth and effortless and Koller is an outstanding bass player with great pipes. On this evening however the highlight for me was Sealy’s reading of Carmichael’s "Memphis in June". The tremendous timbre of Sealy’s voice served as the brush strokes and Carmichael’s lyrics made up the palette of colors. The song illustrates just how proficient Carmichael was at painting word pictures and Sealy brought those images to life. "Sweet oleander blowing perfume in the air everywhere/Up jumps the moon to make is so much grander."
It is not by accident that Sealy’s resume includes an award for the Toronto stage production of Ain’t Misbehavin, an appearance in the movie I’ll Take Manhattan and performances with Sammy Davis Jr. and the Blood Sweat and Tears.
The first set opened appropriately enough with "The Nearness of You" and was followed by Church reading the first of what were to be several recollections from the memoirs and biographies of Hoagy Carmichael’s life. The year was 1899 and a new age in music was ushered in. It was the year that both Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael were born. It was also the year that Scott Joplin published Maple Leaf Rag.
George Koller’s rich baritone timbre fronted the sanguine "Ole’ Buttermilk Sky". The song earned an Academy Award nomination for Carmichael as it was featured in the movie Canyon Passage.
Church’s breathtaking vocal performance of "Georgia On My Mind" was worth the price of admission. As she cooed, "Other arms reach out to me/Other eyes smile tenderly/Still in peaceful dreams I see/the road leads back to you," and Georgian would have been proud. The singer’s rendition ranks right up there with many of the great interpretations that you have heard for this song over the years.
Other tunes included the romantic reminder "A Woman Likes To Be Told" (sung by Church), the languid "Lazy Bones" and the allegro "Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love".
It was like being swept back into another day and time as the dim chandelier lighting and intimate setting of Club Paradiso presented a comfortable ambiance for Carmichael’s music. Koller in a vintage fedora, Prussian blue shirt, indigo necktie and grey suit jacket cast ghost like images of Hoagy’s presence
"Rockin’ Chair", "Washboard Blues" and "Lazy River" dotted the landscape of this revue. Koller and Church’s duet "Two Sleepy People" was amazing. There was the humorous song "Small Fry" with lines like, "Yes, small fry, you kissed the neighbor’s daughter/Small fry shoulda’ stay in shallow water/ Seems I should take you ‘cross my knee/you ain’t the biggest catfish in the sea."
As Sealy recalls Carmichael’s words, ‘It was a hot night with the death of summer and the sweet hint of fall,’ one wonders if Carmichael had not turned his attention to music would he have been a great 20th century novelist. There never was a doubt however as to the great songwriter’s career. The audience was reminded through Carmichael’s eyes that he was saturated in music from the very beginning. His mother was an accomplished pianist and performed at the local ‘silver screen’ in the days of silent films. Carmichael considered himself to be the luckiest kid in Indiana to get into the movies free.
There were several reasons why this was one of the best musical performances I have attended. Sealy’s chops, Koller’s deep bass grooves and the smooth unblemished vocals of Church and her male companions made this an evening to remember.
Quoting Hoagy Carmichael Church said, "You don’t write songs, you find them." If that is true we are certainly grateful that Carmichael found so many good songs.
I would highly recommend taking in the trio’s presentation "The Nearness of You".