Matt Baker: A Rhapsody of Gershwin

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Matt Baker

A Rhapsody of Gershwin

Birdland Theater, NYC, October 22, 2019

Reviewed by Marilyn Lester for Cabaret Scenes

Matt Baker

When versatile and talented pianist Matt Baker emigrated from his native Australia nearly a decade ago, New York City definitely gained a star in the jazz universe. Baker is multitalented (he’s also a photographer, filmmaker, vocal coach, music director, and more) and he preternaturally excels at everything he undertakes. His A Rhapsody of Gershwin was a rapture of Baker’s talent as a musician and arranger.

First came a taste of his piano prowess with a solo turn at “Someone to Watch Over Me.” It was a melodic, balladic approach to the standard, filled with creative ideas, phrasings, and chord changes. With his band—Endea Owens on double bass, Curtis Nowosad on drums, Alex Wintz on guitar, and special guest Jonathan Dely on trumpet—an outstanding bop-influenced “A Foggy Day in London Town” was the precursor to the entrance of the superbly talented jazz singer, Nicole Zuraitis.
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Her smoky vocal tone has a clarity that combines with her  heartfelt understanding of the lyric.
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These attributes she applied to a torchy interpretation of “The Man I Love,” with segments in which Dely’s trumpet played a duet in superb harmony. In some phrasing she abandoned lyric for harmonic vocables (the type most notably typified by Adelaide Hall’s vocalizations to Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call”). Zuraitis slid into a sultry “Summertime” so haunting and alluring that you could feel the atmosphere and imagine Spanish moss dripping from the trees. Meanwhile, Dely’s trumpet became a character in the summertime tale, his imaginative voicings going into inventive post-bop stylings.

It’s in two of George Gershwin’s classical compositions that Baker’s creativity moved into high gear. With “Concerto in F” he took several segments and arranged them into songs, with Zuraitis transformed into a vocal instrument. With scat and vocables she demonstrated her range and vocal flexibility. Baker’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “I’ve Got Rhythm” featured Zuraitis similarly, with all members of the band handling the inventive riffs and bop turns in these pieces with ease and energy. Baker’s early promise of Gershwin as you’ve never heard him before was not only fulfilled, but his intention of bringing the composer fully into the jazz world was a stunning success. Bravo to Baker, Zuraitis, and the cats.

Marilyn Lester

Marilyn Lester left journalism and commercial writing behind nearly two decades ago to write plays. That branch in the road led to screenwriting, script-doctoring, dramaturgy and producing for the stage. Marilyn has also co-authored, as well as edited, books. It seemed the only world of words she hadn’t conquered was criticism, an opportunity that presented itself via Theater Pizzazz. Marilyn has since sought to widen her scope in this form of writing she especially relishes. Marilyn is a member of the Authors Guild, Dramatists Guild, Women in the Arts and Media and The League of Professional Theater Women.