By John Lawrence
A rare night out on the town took Judy and me to San Diego’s premier jazz supper club, Croce’s Park West, at 2760 5th Avenue, to hear Los Angeles pianist Josh Nelson and his trio for a tribute to the great American composers – Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and the Gershwins.
Arriving there we decided to use the valet parking since Judy is ambulatorily challenged. For $5 it was cheaper than a lot and within 10 steps of the door. What a deal! Croce’s has a music room separate from the noisiness of the bar area, full of comfortable seating, warm ambiance and great sight lines. The non-amplified music was gentle on our ears.
Josh was running a little late having had a harrowing day. His car carrying himself and drummer Dan Schnelle had broken down in Long Beach. Fortunately for him and for us, there was a rental agency nearby. It was a miracle that he made the gig at all.
Judy and I settled into our seats and ordered off the prix fixemenu for $35. The ala carte menu was a little more expensive. The food consisting of salad, entrée and dessert did Chef Russell Rummer proud and was more than we could eat. The low, low cover charge of $10 per person compares favorably with the $35. cover at the Blue Note, Iridium or Village Vanguard in New York City.
After a warm-up tune, the group launched into Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” one of my favorite Porter tunes. During ubiquitous and staunch bassist Rob Thorsen’s solo, I found myself thinking “he’s just doing too much rollicking for this tune.” “So in Love” is intensely emotional music and one must almost channel Cole Porter to elucidate the nuances thereof. The musician should be thinking the words and melody and forgetting the harmonic structure. Thorsen, however, seemed to be wailing on the changes.
“So in Love” is painfully poignant with an undercurrent of mystery like a lot of Porter tunes. Is it about unrequited love? Is it about his inability as a closeted gay man to be comfortable with the role he set for himself of hiding behind a sham marriage? Is it about the shame he felt in not being able to fulfill his wife’s desires?
Perhaps it was the ache he felt for someone he loved and hated the thought of possibly losing. He was genuinely devoted to his wife, Linda, on an emotional level and they remained married for 35 years until her death in 1954. “I’m yours till I die. So in love. So in love. So in love with you am I.”
For an emotion laden jazz performance of this genre, check out Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “If I Loved You,” a show tune by Rodgers and Hammerstein written for the musical Carousel. Rahsaan’s passion is unmistakable and evidentiary.
Next up was the composer of “Over the Rainbow” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Harold Arlen. Arlen, composer of over 500 songs, was a veritable contributor to the Great American Songbook. “Out of This World,” with words by Johnny Mercer, one of Arlen’s more obscure works, was nicely done showing off the great musicianship of all concerned.
Resurrecting great tunes like this is a way of testifying to the timelessness of the great American composers while ignoring the fads that are such an inherent part of “popular” music.
The classic “Embraceable You” by George and Ira Gershwin came next. You can hardly go wrong with tune selections like this.
The trio’s interpretation, especially Josh’s out of tempo solo on the last chorus, was sensitively carried out. Next Josh, a very personable fellow, expounded on his interest in space travel with a monologue about the Mars Rover, the inspiration for his own composition, “Spirit,” which is on his latest album due out February 15 entitled Discovering Mars.
I thought “Oh, no. This is going to be some sort of techno punk stuff,” but was I surprised. This was the sleeper of the set, a beautifully crafted tune that was Judy’s favorite of the night. They finished off the set with Porter’s “In the Still of the Night,” the definitive version of which in my opinion is on Frank Sinatra’s 1961 Ring-a-Ding Ding album.
I wasn’t familiar with Josh Nelson before the night began, but I’m glad I came and am the better for having experienced his music. He seems like such a young guy, but yet he’s been on the music scene for 17 years and presently tours as part of Natalie Cole’s band among other things. He has some impressive credentials like winner of the Louis Armstrong Award and finalist in the Thelonius Monk competition. I wish him well. Check him out at his website.
Jazz on the first Thursdays of the month is presented at Croce’s by jazz impresario and master flutist, Holly Hofmann, San Diego’s only acknowledged down beat magazine poll participant. Having garnered 100 votes in down beat’s “Rising Star” category, Holly remarked, “It makes me smile that I can be a “Rising Star” in midlife and with thirteen recordings as a leader.”
Equally important is Holly’s dedicated role keeping jazz alive in San Diego which she’s been doing for more than 25 years while at the same time performing around the globe. If Holly is the presenter, you know the music is going to be good. Her latest album Low Life, rated 4 stars in down beat, is one of my favorites, so much so that I have sent copies to my friends. Alto great Phil Woods said of Holly “Along with Hubert Laws, Holly is frankly the best jazz flute player today.”
Croce’s reminds me of the sophisticated supper clubs that stars such as Peggy Lee used to perform in. Having just finished reading James Gavin’s biography of her, Is That All There Is?, I was taken back to the 1950s and 60s when Lee performed at such clubs as Basin Street East and the Copacabana, making as much as $12,500 a week. Of course this was nothing compared to the remuneration at later Las Vegas gigs.
Since Little Italy’s Anthology closed, Croce’s Park West is one of the few remaining places where high quality music and comestibles in a sophisticated atmosphere are extant.
Judy and I attended the 6 PM dinner show, which was just right for aging hipsters who don’t like to stay out too late. There was another show at 8PM. We were home in our pajamas by 8:15 PM having enjoyed an infrequent night out on the town. We’re already looking forward to the first Thursday in March and taking our friends with us on a return trip to Croce’s Park West.