The Charles Lewis Quintet Featuring Alice Tatum

The Charles Lewis Quintet Featuring Alice Tatum

Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts Jazz Lounge, Scottsdale, AZ

March 6, 2022

Reviewed by Lynn Timmons Edwards

Charles Lewis &
Alice Tatum

The Scottsdale Center has a lovely concert hall, but the Jazz Lounge offers a much more intimate experience and a room in which the audience can interact with the talent on stage.

The Charles Lewis Quintet stars the octogenarian Lewis on keyboard, Lloyd Moffatt on electric bass, Frank Smith on saxophone and flute, Steve Banks on percussion, and Danny Tomlinson on drums. These guys have played together for decades, though in some cases, they had not seen each other for many years. Alice Tatum provides the vocal magic, and they were all out to meet and greet the audience prior to the show.

I go back to the 1980s with Lewis who was one of our touring artists when I ran a program called Art in Arizona Towns for the Arizona State Arts Commission. His appearance defies his age. He’s always smiling as his fingers glide across the keys with grace and finesse, making each performance a unique experience. He confided to me that the cracks between the keys seem to be getting bigger, but I think he has aged like a fine wine. After two long instrumentals. “Alone Together” (Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz) and Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low,” Tatum graced the stage opening with “All Blues” (Miles Davis/Oscar Brown Jr.) and “Bye Bye Blackbird” (Ray Henderson/Mort Dixon). She can belt out a song and, as with her musicians on stage, age has not diminished her ability to entertain. This was jazz, with each player taking turns improvising on the melody and playing off each other as the spirit moved them. Tatum made plenty of room in every song for the instrumental choruses, either taking a stool or gliding across the stage to bring attention to a particular musician.

Banks was set up center stage with bongos, chimes, and two tables of no less than a dozen handheld rhythm instruments. An extroverted master of his craft and clearly excited to be back on stage, he is almost a show in himself. During the instrumentals his visual comedy worked, but at times he was over the top, drawing attention away from the singer or the soloists.

Tatum shared a story of her first gig at the Center opening for Kenny Rankin and wearing a borrowed dress that she can’t quite remember whether she ever returned. She took a Latin turn on Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” Smith, who was tearing it up on sax, proved to be just as skillful on flute for the Porter number. Next, she took her stool center stage and dedicated “Over the Rainbow” to the late Margo Reed, the first lady of jazz singers in Arizona. She made the familiar song her own with an original interpretation and phrasing, taking some variations with the rhythm and melody. Smith’s flute provided perfect accompaniment. The Nat King Cole classic “L.O.V.E.” (Bert Kaempfert/Milt Gabler) seemed to channel Margo Reed with even more brass and belt than Tatum had shown previously. In a step away from the Great American Songbook, Tatum sang John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” as a dedication to her mother who was born in Alabama and, according to Tatum, was “poor as dirt.” It was my favorite song, perhaps because I had not heard it before, and it showcased both her range and her ability to infuse a song with personal feeling. She tried twice to get the band to lower their volume, once by a signal that they ignored and once by saying into the mic “take it down, band!” They needed to listen to her for the song to have its full effect and to create the Baptist revival feeling she was going for. 

After another instrumental, Tatum returned to the stage and introduced each band member. She reminisced that she had met Tomlinson when he was right out of high school. Banks was a former drum major at Arizona State University. Moffatt had been in her original band and had flown to Scottsdale from Los Angeles to reunite for this afternoon’s cabaret. She recalled that Smith had red hair when she met him, but it is now all white. She talked a bit about the world situation and how good it felt to be back on stage. Before she knew it, she told us all she was performing with her new knee. It was charming, and we all felt like friends. For her, people reign over politics, so she chose “People Make the World Go Round” (Linda Creed/Thom Bell). It has a driving rhythm and lyrics that make you pay attention, such as “Wall Street losing dough on every share.” Unfortunately, the band was again a little overpowering.

She closed with a breathy rendition of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” a song she previously recorded with Lewis, here with perfect piano and flute accompaniment. The percussion was too busy for the song. For some in the audience, the afternoon transported them back to nights in local jazz clubs such as Chuy’s that have long since passed into the history books. For others, it was a chance to see top-notch musicians still in their prime, alive and live with talent, taste, and the tenacity to keep their music playing.

Lynn Timmons Edwards

Lynn writes and performs themed cabaret shows based on the songs of the Great American Songbook throughout Arizona. She has had three short plays produced in the Theatre Artists Studio Festival of Summer Shorts and is working on a full length play, "Fairy," based on the life of Mary Russell Ferrell Colton, a founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona. In addition to writing and singing, Lynn plays bridge and tennis and enjoys traveling with her husband and artistic companion, Bob. Born in Ohio, Lynn is a graduate of Denison University (BA), Arizona State University (MPA) and has lived in Arizona since 1977.