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Stateside with Rosalea: Botti, Benson and Godinez

Stateside with Rosalea

Botti, Benson and Godinez

Friday night I set out for a dinner in Oakland - the city that has the temerity to take out full-page ads in the San Francisco papers saying things like: June 21 Beginning of summer in Oakland, Beginning of winter in San Francisco. The campaign is being done for free by ad agency Young and Rubicam as part of Mayor Jerry Brown's effort to attract people and money to a city that has half the population of SF on twice the land area. It's also a Wellington vs Auckland thing, you know!

The dinner was not to be. Steppin' out of the 19th St. BART station I was led astray by the grand marquee of the Paramount Theatre of the Arts in the next block, fizzing with neon and announcing that George Benson and Chris Botti were playing there that night. A street scalper obligingly sold me what turned out to be a brilliant seat for less than what I would have paid if I'd stood in line, and I swung through those doors into what must be the awfulest grand lobby in the world.

Well, look, I'm sorry. I know that many people and organisations have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore the Paramount to its full Art Deco glory but I'm simply not a fan of Art Deco. A couple of those thousands of dollars could have been better spent by adding a few stalls to the restrooms, by the way, though I guess it's part of the Paramount experience to wait in a line that goes from the bar area (where people are waiting in line for drinks) through the restroom lobby, then through the mirrored dressing room with its chintz chairs, and finally into the mauve restroom. There I saw a word I thought had long since left the building - Modess. Loathe to lose my place in line I didn't get to investigate whether this dispenser of sanitary doo-dads was part of the decorations or fully functioning.

The decorations in the auditorium are much better than the ones in the lobby, although that might merely be a consequence of their not having to argue with acres of busy carpet. The walls are panelled with bas reliefs of naked ladies and leaves and various deco themes, and above the proscenium arch are flying fishes, horses, eagles, naked men and a male angel flying vigorously out above the audience. All in shades of pewter and bronze, so you have the feeling of being contained in a vessel. The air - of which there was plenty because the space is huge - was cool and slightly scented. For musicians it's a good room to play because it has great acoustics, which is the main thing, after all!

If you haven't heard of Chris Botti and you like jazz, then shame on you!! He was described by Rex Reed as "the sexiest jazz trumpeter since Chet Baker", and was the featured soloist on Sting's 'Brand New Day' tour. He'll have a limited edition vinyl release of 'Night Session' on September 25 (CD on October 30), and he played some of the tracks from that album, as well as those from an earlier release. Along with two guitarists, the Botti Band included Londoner Harvey Jones on keyboard and an Israeli drummer whose name I couldn't find on the web and I don't want to misspell it, but she was fantastic.

They played a cover of Blue Nile's 'Easter parade', poignant in its clarity and warmth. Botti prefaced 'Alone in the City', which will be on the new album, with an explanation of its creation. It was written during a two-day snowstorm in New York, during which people had been told not to leave their homes, as he sat looking out his apartment's window at the Empire State Building. His girlfriend had broken up with him the day before the snowstorm, so he was "feeling a little Gothic, as they say." The slight, fair-haired Botti went down into the audience to play the tune, choosing a couple of ladies in the front rows to serenade, and getting a good laugh from the audience when the 6 foot 5 inch boyfriend of one of them arrived to sit by her side.

As for the headliner, what can you say about George Benson that hasn't already been said? Eight-time Grammy Award winner, just back from a tour of Europe, ever-generous to young talent, he was featuring Botti because the boy's just so damned good. I was prepared to be bored by Benson, despite liking his music for its easy listening qualities, but he is a consummate performer, and to hear him sing 'Greatest Love of All' in Oakland - a city extremely conscious of the effort it has to make to turn its youth away from gangs and drugs - is to understand what the word "heartfelt" means. Benson and his band played for two hours, seeming to leave earlier but coming back to the calls for encores to play for another half an hour, ending with just their truck-driver-from-LA drummer - Rhythm Logic's Michael White - on stage doing his solo, which precluded any further calls for encores.

The lighting was great. The use of simple twists of white material against a black background gave the impression of a 1950s table lamp - setting the scene for easy-listening music but also enriching the colours of the light because each change would be soaked up by the white fabric. Nonetheless, my favourite effect was just white spots on the stage pointed upwards so that it looked like the band was in a rehearsal hall - bare boards below and bare lightbulb overhead as the light reflected back down on them. There were eye-catching effects like when the hot orange lighting for 'On Broadway' snapped to a single tight white spot on Benson for the words "I won't quit till I'm a star" and he raised his right arm in the air, pausing just long enough to burn the snapshot of him and his guitar into the audience's memory of the evening. The Paramount is on Broadway, after all!

But the big discovery of the evening for me was Esther Godinez, a percussionist and vocalist who has travelled all over the world from her native Oakland, perfecting her own brand of Brazilian jazz. She currently lives in Minnesota and was nominated for best local singer in the Twin Cities last year. Looking to me like a glam 1950s housewife in her perfect kitchen - surrounded on three sides by everything within arms reach - Godinez played congas and chimes and even the humble triangle, among other things, with the enthusiasm and abandon of a child let loose in a pot cupboard.

But her music is no childish cacophony. She started her first salsa band back in 1979 in Amsterdam and after living in Europe spent some years in Maui playing in a band called 'Passion and Grace', where the "Chet Baker-like phrasing" of her vocals caught one reviewer's attention. With Benson, she was singing backup but also came downstage and did a quick duet with him on one song. I thought she had trouble with the top note of that, but then Benson also seemed to have trouble with either the mike or the notes on an earlier song - too crickly in the high registers.

It was a fantastic show - going on so long it felt like a lazy summer afternoon getting warmer and more relaxed as the sun sank, or like a hot summer night getting hotter and more thrilling as the love maestro took you through every mood and move. But just in case you were going to exit in a cloud of mellow, the music playing as we left the auditorium was an old blues song "Ain't nobody here but us chickens". Is that a sense of humour I detect, Mr Benson? - Lea Barker


Sunday, August 12 2001

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