Half a Loaf Is Still Delicious: Notes From Jeff and Joel’s House Party

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House Party co-host Jeff Barnhart and pianist Dalton Ridenhour give the Yamaha a delirious four-handed stride workout. (photo by Eric Devine)

One of the lines attributed to Mae West is “Too much of a good thing . . . can be wonderful.” I agree with this, but I wonder what Miss West would say about the following report I am turning in, incomplete but enthusiastic, from “Jeff and Joel’s House Party,” with Jeff being pianist/ singer/raconteur Barnhart and Joel being banjoist/ singer/master of ceremonies Schiavone. The party took place this preceding weekend at the Elks in Branford, Connecticut. (I can check my GPS for the exact address on South Montowese Street if you need to know.)

The Gang’s all here: the performers who entertained at Jeff and Joel’s 2017 House Party in Branford, CT. Top row, from left: Vince Giordano, Noel Kaletsky, Fred Vigorito, Kevin Dorn, Frank Tate, and Jim Fryer; bottom row, from left: Joel Schiavone, Dalton Ridenhour, Banu Gibson, Jeff Barnhart, Mike Davis, Tom Palinko, Tom Boates, and Dan Levinson. (photo by Eric Devine; www.cinedevine.com)

The Line Up

Aside from Jeff and Joel, the participants were Banu Gibson, vocal and stories; Vince Giordano, tuba, bass sax, string bass, vocal; Dan Levinson, clarinet and tenor; Noel Kaletsky, clarinet and soprano; Kevin Dorn, drums; Frank Tate, string bass; Fred Vigorito, trumpet; Mike Davis, cornet and vocal; Jim Fryer, trombone, vocal, and trumpet; Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Tom Boates, trombone and vocal; Tom Palinko, drums. (There were also many lovely people who didn’t sing or play instruments who made the Party even better than simply having musicians perform in a room.)

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If you missed this one, the next JJHP is October 12-14, 2018. Mark it down.

History and Details

Some details about the Party, for those unfamiliar. This one was the eighth, spread over seven years. (It was the third I’ve attended.) And there are four sessions: Friday night, Saturday afternoon and evening, and Sunday afternoon. Food and drink are also available—ample varied food and a well-stocked bar, included. (I thought it a lovely sign on Saturday afternoon that the bartender had nothing to do: people were preferring to listen rather than drink.)

Incidentally, if you are wondering, “Was any of this recorded?” the answer is YES—by my very amiable and technologically-wise friend Eric Devine (getting moral support from the splendid hiker Sherral Devine)—so that there will be some videos of performances the musicians approve. This, of course, left me free to roam around, purple notebook in hand, like a free person, so I enjoyed the out-of-doors now and again and for once was not in a monogamous relationship with my tripod.

Friday Night

Traditionally, Friday night at the Party has been a concert of sorts—two sets by one band or group. Last year it was Paris Washboard, and I hear they will be back in 2018. At this Party, Friday night was given over to Banu Gibson, the one, the only, and a nice small band of Jeff on piano, Vince on everything he’d brought plus vocals, Dan Levinson on reeds, and Tom Palinko on drums.

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Banu is not only a wonderful singer and story-teller (more about that later) but an engaging informal scholar, whose introductions are conversational but always erudite. She’s done her homework and more, and whatever she says comes out of her deep love of the songs, their creators, and their singers.

She’s also devilishly quick-witted, so that even if her ad-libs are familiar bits of material, they never seem defrosted and microwaved. I arrived on Friday in the middle of a brisk run-through, and in between songs Banu turned to us, half-affectionate, half-naughty schoolmarm, to say, “Now don’t you make any mistakes, you folks who are here early.” In her third tune, “Doin’ the Uptown Lowdown,” after Jeff Barnhart had rippled through something delightful, she turned to him and said fervently, “God! How I’ve missed you!”

House Party co-host and raconteur Joel Schiavone entertains the guests. (photo by Eric Devine)

But her program was far more than comedy. She gave us dear vibrant performances of songs with verses: Berlin’s “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” Fats’ “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” Hoagy’s “Moon Country” and a quicker-than-plausible “The Monkey Song,” “Ain’t Got a Dime To My Name” from one of the Road pictures, the melancholy “You Let Me Down” from her most recent CD (which is a wonder), and a rollicking “Just In Time.” For variety’s sake, Vince sang and played “Ida” and “If I Had You”—reminding us of his many talents. Dan summoned up middle-period BG on clarinet and perhaps Eddie Miller on tenor; Tom Palinko kept to brushes and swung quietly. In the second set, Banu showed off even more of her versatility, moving easily from “Lulu’s Back In Town” to the Gershwins’ “I Was Doing All Right” to the ancient “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go (WITH Friday On Saturday Night)” which had several choruses of vaudeville joy. For “Do Something,” Banu became Helen Kane, for “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” she led quite a successful sing-along. Vince charmed us again with “I Would Do Anything For You” and “Dinah”—so nice to see him in this setting—and then Banu told at length the sad story of Johnny Mercer, Judy Garland, and Ginger Mercer, leading into a touching rendition of “I Remember You.” She ended her concert with three more tart offerings: the revenge ballad “I Wanna Be Around,” Porter’s “Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please,” and “This Can’t Be Love.” Everyone looked elated and fulfilled, and we promised to regroup Saturday morning.

Saturday

Saturday began with what Jeff called The New York Invasion—a band made up of musicians based in Manhattan, approximately—Mike Davis, Jim Fryer, Dan Levinson, Dalton Ridenhour, Vince Giordano, and Kevin Dorn—who summoned up Condon’s 1956 band with “That’s A Plenty” and a Teagardenish “A Hundred Years From Today” with a sweet Fryer vocal.

Because the Party is not run on “jazz party” principles—no forty-minute showcases for one group at a time—the next group, dubbed The Suburban Response by Jeff, was completely different: Fred Vigorito, Noel Kaletsky, Tom Boates, Jeff himself, Frank Tate, Tom Palinko, Joel Schiavone—and it had a distinctly “New Orleans” cast with a very fast “Bogalusa Strut” and the nice homage to Bix in “I’ll Be A Friend With Pleasure” (although it was more “Condon” out of Bixieland than the 1930 Victor notion).

Banu returned with Mike, Dan, Kevin, Vince, and Jeff for her ebullient “I’ve Got A Heart Full Of Rhythm” (which should be her official theme song), “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” with the rarely-heard verse, and “Feelin’ High and Happy.” In the interests of full disclosure, she told us that it was too early to make jokes about that title.

Jazz Notes

My notes are slightly congested from this point, since I began to actually have conversations with people while standing outside and hearing the music. I recall Dalton’s beautiful solo verse to I’ve Got a Feelin’ I’m Falling, and later Saturday he performed a gorgeous “Love Will Find a Way”—with Jeff watching him intently—and a shake-the-building reading of James P.’s “Jingles.”

Dan Levinson assembled his Original Dixieland Jazz Band centennial edition, Mike, Jim, Kevin, Jeff, and himself, and they made the Victors come alive—“Livery Stable Blues” and “Palesteena.”

Joel had a feature on a slow-drag “Last Night On the Back Porch,” which moved some of the audience to get misty over shared Your Father’s Mustache experiences.

Banu and Dalton did some touching duets, but their sweet quality is mostly obliterated in my recollection by Banu’s story of being a young performer working with a Your Father’s Mustache bill—and on that bill was a man whose act was called Ham and Eggs because it featured a piglet and a chicken. The piece de resistance, Banu told us, was his feature on “Tiger Rag,” where he made the piglet squeal in place of the tiger roaring. If you need more details, you should ask Banu herself: her version was politely graphic, but I wasn’t the only man wincing.

Vince Giordano, leader of the Nighthawks, veers from his usual trio of bass instruments to accompany Banu Gibson on banjo. (photo by Eric Devine; www.cinedevine.com)

A band devoted to “West Coast style,” which means to this crowd Lu Watters rather than Gerry Mulligan, assembled: Fred, Jeff, Jim Fryer on second trumpet, superbly, Vince, Noel, Tom Boates, Kevin, Joel, for Maceo Pinkard’s “Storyville Blues” and a lengthy romp on “Canal Street Blues,” featuring two-trumpet fisticuffs, as requested by Jeff. Later, a two-trombone conversation on “Rosetta,” Noel and Dan on “I’m Sorry I Made You Cry,” and a very sweet “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” for two trumpets, with young Mike getting in some lyrical Butterfieldiana.

Banu offered both story and song of “Blue Skies,” Hoagy’s “Memphis in June,” and the Gershwins’ “Nice Work If You Can Get It”; Joel followed with an extended “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me.”

Levinson’s ODJB reassembled for Berlin’s “I Lost My Heart In Dixieland” and a truly splendid “Alice Blue Gown” that began as a sedate 3/4 and ended up with a Chicagoan fervor that reminded me so much of the jam sessions at Squirrel Ashcraft’s house in the Thirties. In between, something even more wonderful. Dan told the audience about “rag-a-jazz,” and then said that this group was so well versed in the style that he sometimes asked for requests from the audience for jazz material out and away from that era. Someone called out “Limehouse Blues,” and Dan vetoed that as too familiar, since it was written in 1922, but a more daring listener suggested “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and they played it splendidly: one could hear its lines and contours powerfully, but its heart was in 1920. It was a remarkable performance, and in its way, it captured the flexible, imaginative heart of this party. A few other songs followed, but I was still hearing that “Train” in my mind.

Various circumstances, all unexpected, made me miss the second half of the Party, which I regret. But if this doesn’t seem like hugely pleasing musical plenitude, I don’t know what more I can say. I will enjoy videos when Eric creates and shares them . . . . but they aren’t the real thing.

As I wrote above, the next JJHP is October 12-14, 2018. Why miss out on the fun?


Michael Steinman has been published in many jazz periodicals, has written the liner notes for dozens of CDs, and was the New York correspondent for The Mississippi Rag. Since 1982, Michael has been Professor of English at Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York. This review was originally published on Michael’s excellent blog site Jazz Lives on October 16, 2017, and is used here by permission. Visit Jazz Lives online at jazzlives.wordpress.com. Write Michael at swingyoucats@gmail.com. May your happiness increase! 

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