Matt Baker: A Rhapsody of Gershwin

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Matt Baker

A Rhapsody of Gershwin

Birdland, NYC, February 28, 2020

Reviewed by Bart Greenberg

Australian-born, New Yorker-by-choice Matt Baker brought an unusual program to Birdland that was devoted to the great American composer George Gershwin. Rather than a traditional cabaret evening built around a songwriter or even a straightforward jazz concert (although elements of both were present), what occurred was effectively an original concerto with musical themes interwoven and returned to, tossed from one instrument to another, with the recurrent “Rhapsody in Blue” tying it all together. A triumphant venture it was indeed.

In the opening moments of the show, Baker, on piano, began as a solo artist offering up the main themes of the “Rhapsody,” gently but passionately. Soon the other instrumentalists (Max Light on guitar, Kevin Hailey on double bass, Curtis Norwood on drums) snuck in, raising the energy and tempo into a swing version of the composition. Then, Benny Benack III on trumpet took charge, ramping the pizzazz even higher as the music effortlessly slid into the Gershwin classic “A Foggy Day,” lushly performed with some surprising Latin rhythms. Such melodic surprises dotted the evening.

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After delivering a charming and succinct verbal introduction to the show, Baker brought on the fluid-voiced Nicole Zuraitis to thrill the audience with a soulful rendition of “I Loves You Porgy,” that fully explored the emotional content of both the music and the lyrics. She later joined Benack for a lovely duet on “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” At other times, she used her voice to blend in with the band, contributing a hypnotic element to the selections, such as the blending of three themes of the “Concerto in F” to create a film-noirish mood.

Surprises abounded throughout the evening, including a wild medley of “I Got Rhythm” and “Fascinating Rhythm” that threatened to bring the walls down with an unbridled drum solo that clearly thrilled the packed room. Another delight was a number that combined the main theme of “An American in Paris” with clever lyrics by Michael Feinstein to create a song entitled “Home Blues.” Thanks to Baker, the entire show brimmed over with invention, humor, and a passion for the genius of George Gershwin.

Bart Greenberg

Bart Greenberg first discovered cabaret a few weeks after arriving in New York City by seeing Julie Wilson and William Roy performing Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter outdoors at Rockefeller Center. It was instant love for both Ms. Wilson and the art form. Some years later, he was given the opportunity to create his own series of cabaret shows while working at Tower Records. "Any Wednesday" was born, a weekly half-hour performance by a singer promoting a new CD release. Ann Hampton Callaway launched the series. When Tower shut down, Bart was lucky to move the program across the street to Barnes & Noble, where it thrived under the generous support of the company. The series received both The MAC Board of Directors Award and The Bistro Award. Some of the performers who took part in "Any Wednesday" include Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock, Tony Desare, Andrea Marcovicci, Carole Bufford, the Karens, Akers, Mason and Oberlin, and Julie Wilson. Privately, Greenberg is happily married to writer/photographer Mark Wallis, who as a performance artist in his native England gathered a major following as "I Am Cereal Killer."