Michael Shobe, Assistant Program Director, WQXR
Michael Shobe is the assistant program director for New York’s classical music radio station WQXR.
The Harvey Theater in Brooklyn sprang to life last Sunday with the sounds of the great American songbook. More than 700 people were ushered into the theater at BAM for Sunday in New York with Jonathan Schwartz. On the bill were songbook veterans John Pizzarelli, Jessica Molaskey and Tierney Sutton as well as up-and-comers Tony DeSare and Cyrille Aimee. And there was the man everyone in the theater was eager to see, Jonathan Schwartz.
Waiting for the for the show to begin, I struck up a conversation with the man next to me. He had dressed up for the occasion; blue blazer and nice slacks. He admitted that he had been a regular listener to the Jonathan Schwartz radio program for the past 30 years, referring to Jonathan as "something like an old friend." This would be his first time seeing Jonathan Schwartz in person. He was excited. We were excited.
The stage was transformed into a bright and sunny Sheep Meadow in Central Park. A giant, high-def video filled with picnickers and dog-walkers was the backdrop. The John Pizzarelli Quartet opened the show and would serve as the house band for the afternoon. They took the stage, warming up the crowd with “Will You Still Be Mine” by the songwriting duo Thomas Adair and Matt Dennis. As the song ended, Pizzarelli introduced Jonathan and the band began playing the theme song to his radio program. Jonathan casually strolled onto to the stage, taking his seat at a concrete chess table adorned with a Red Sox cap, a pair of headphones and a few books. He introduced vocalist Jessica Molaskey, who gave a cheery performance of "Traffic Jam" with her husband, John Pizzarelli. After the number Jessica, speaking of Jonathan’s long-running show, said, “The fabric of our life in New York City…Welcome to Sunday.”
The band again launched into Jonathan’s theme song, and Pizzarelli encouraged the audience to sing along – which they did. It was an extremely tender start to the show; the crowd serenading Schwartz with his own theme song.
Next up, vocalist Tierney Sutton performed works from her latest Grammy-nominated project, After Blue. She sang the Joni Mitchell song, "Big Yellow Taxi" and stopped the show with her delicate rendition of "April in Paris/Free Man in Paris.” The afternoon's mood was light and easy, the show moved quickly with top-rate performances and a quick wit. Throughout the show, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey casually chatted with Jonathan. The trio told stories and cracked jokes, it was clear that these three have known each other for many years. The audience was always in on the joke and Jonathan eventually sent Pizzarelli into the crowd for an impromptu Q&A session. A woman screamed her question from the balcony, "Jonathan, will you ever come back to Brooklyn?" Jonathan replied, “Right now as I’m speaking to you, I’m making plans to come here, again, and again, and again.” The show was going well.
The second-half of the afternoon showcased two rising stars, both often heard on The Jonathan Channel. First, pianist and vocalist Tony DeSare kept the audience tapping their feet with his swinging rendition of the Cy Coleman tune "Baby Dream Your Dream.” He then stepped away from the piano to sing “Angel Eyes,” accompanied only by the guitarist Eddie Decker.
The final performer of the afternoon was the French vocalist, Cyrille Aimee. Jonathan introduced her, explaining that when he began playing Cyrille's music on his radio show the audience reaction was "Sinatra-like.” As promised, her performance was stunning. For her second number, all the musicians cleared the stage, leaving only Aimee and her looping machine on stage. The audience watched silently as she recorded what she referred to as "layers" into her machine, one vocal track at a time, creating an ethereal cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's, "Fortunate Son.”
Ending the afternoon, John and Jessica brought all the singers back out for a group performance of Paul Simon’s “Gone At Last” featuring dueling scat solos by Tierney Sutton and Cyrille and a virtuosic guitar solo by Pizzarelli. Musically, the afternoon was of the highest standard. The Great American songbook was celebrated. It was exactly what we had hoped for.