She calls them her ‘Holy Trinity’ of music, and I’m sure Duke Ellington, George Gershwin and Cole Porter would all have enjoyed Astatine‘s excellent concert at Bonn Harmonie on Sunday. Put together some of the best Jazz composers of the 20th Century and a talented band of musicians and you really can’t go wrong. As Mr Gershwin would have observed – “Fascinating Rhythm’!
I remember meeting Ana Maria Leistikow (Astatine) a couple of years ago and saying how, although I enjoyed her 1930’s Bucharest Gypsy, It was always a concert highlight when she slipped a classic like Cole Porter’s ‘Just one of those things’ into her set. Her eyes lit up at the mention of Porter, and talk turned to doing whole sets by Porter and Gershwin. Duke Ellington too. It all sounded mouthwateringly appealing, and so it was when I finally got to hear the result.
The Harmonie was comfortably filled for the evening. Listeners seated at tables lacked only a candle, the attention of black-suited waiters, and thick cigarette smoke, to create a period atmosphere (although admittedly the latter was a welcome omission!). As she took the stage, Astatine herself looked positively radiant in a bright red gown that was guaranteed to melt both frozen faces from the cold evening air, and all male hearts before she even started to sing ‘Nur Das und Nicht Mehr’. Ah… I must admit my heart dropped slightly. This was the German version of Cole Porter’s classic ‘Just one of those things’ as sung by Hildegard Knef. I knew that Knef had actually recorded a whole album of Porter covers in the German language, and I immediately said a quick prayer that this wasn’t going to be an evening of Duke, Cole and George ‘Auf Deutsch’. Thankfully my prayer was answered.
Not being too much of an expert on the music, it was also interesting to hear a little of the background to it. Ellington’s ‘Perdito‘ being written on a train for example. Its composer is another aspect of Jazz classics that I wasn’t too aware of before. The tune is remembered as being a Duke Ellington number because his orchestra recorded the definitive version in 1941. The composer though was actually Ellington’s trombonist Juan Tizol – and that’s before you get into a discussion of the lyrics, which came later by Ervin Drake and Hans Lengsfelder. Tizol was pretty good at composing too – his ‘Caravan’ was also introduced tonight and a perfect springboard for some inventive and enjoyable solo pieces by the excellent band.
If you’re reading this as a Jazz aficionado and thinking ‘Man – is this reviewer uninformed!’ I apologize. You’re right – I should get back to the concert. Ana Maria’s vocal performance was, as always, seamlessly flawless. If she didn’t quite get that little girl lost voice during ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy’ then it wasn’t for want of trying. No one can touch Marilyn on that number for sheer charm anyway. Astatine’s real vocal strength lies in giving the songs a sense of period style and she does that effortlessly.
As mentioned earlier, I’m talking ‘songs’ here, but in Jazz, things don’t always start that way. ‘Perdito‘ is a case in point. It was very often the case of a piece existing purely as music before someone decided it would be nice to add some lyrics too. In short, the tunes are pretty important here, so having a good band to play them is a must. On that basis, Astatine certainly struck gold with the quartet around her. Martin Gjakonovski and Roland Höppner on contra-bass and drums respectively both showed great finger-tip feeling for dynamics. On occasion, they even seemed a little over-exuberant as sheer enjoyment took over. A short lowering of Ana Maria’s hands in their direction brought things back to gentle melody again though, and who wouldn’t get exuberant with Marcus Schinkel’s piano work and the sublimely inventive sax of special guest Nicolas Simon? Seeing Schinkel’s hands fly across the keyboard for ‘Imagine My Frustration’ was a joy, as was Simon’s bluesy sax solo. The latters enthusiasm and ability came shining through when someone’s cellphone began ringing out its tune and, without missing a beat, Simon copied it note perfect to laughter all-round.
I leave mention of Vlad Vashchenko to last only because Astatine fans will all have seen the affable Russian many times in many band constellations. Certainly when I see him, Summer sunshine outside of Sonja’s Jazz Bar in the Old Town comes to mind. Vlad’s nimble note picking is always a joy to hear. A highlight of the evening saw Ana Maria and Vlad taking on ‘In a Sentimental Mood’. It’s never easy to sing songs like these I would think. So often they come with the baggage of legendary performances like Ella Fitzgerald (‘Fascinating Rhythm’ & ‘Let’s call the whole thing off‘), Billie Holiday (‘Sophisticated Lady‘) Sinatra (‘So Nice To Come Home To’). I take my metaphorical hat off to anyone for taking even one of these songs on in an evening, never mind all of them. It says a great deal for her talent and love of the material that Astatine not only takes them on but finishes each one to loud applause.
So there you are. A marvellous evening for great melodies and classic Jazz tunes impeccably sung. Check out Astatine’s homepage for details of where you can enjoy her wonderful voice in the coming months (thanks to the culinary expertise of Astatine’s husband there are house concerts offering to tickle your ears and your taste-buds !). On 31 January Marcus Schinkel will be giving further proof of his musical breadth by introducing ‘A Tribute to Rock keyboard maestro Keith Emerson‘ at The Harmonie, and if you missed that there are also some fine cd’s to track down by Nicolas Simon. Simply put, if you missed the concert, you missed a wealth of Jazz talent!