On a cold Wednesday night in New York City I ventured into the mecca of jazz to have dinner with a friend in from Atlanta. Trying to kill two birds with one stone I convinced him to join me after dinner and make our way to the Kitano hotel where the jazz singer Giacomo Gates and his trio were performing. Weekday treks into the city are not regular events for me as my day job has me up at the crack of dawn, but when I make the effort I am usually pleasantly rewarded. So was the case on this evening.
I confess to being a fan of Mr. Gates, who I have seen before and who sings and talks in a warm baritone that belies a genuine hipster sensibility. There is no affectation here, he is the real deal. With his craggy looks and his command of the hipster vernacular, he is the consummate entertainer. He is a singer who has studied the quirky side of the American songbook. He has an astounding command of his voice and is a storyteller par excellence who can enthrall his audience.
The Kitano is a first rate hotel on Park Ave at 38th Street and they have been featuring top notch jazz shows in their lounge for some time now. A short few steps up from the elegant lobby, the comfortable lounge seats about thirty with a large bar area. It offers as intimate and comfortable a setting as any jazz venue in New York.
John DiMartino and the bassist Neal Miner. Both musicians have extensive experience backing vocalists. Mr. Di Martino has worked with the late Billy Eckstine, Freddy Cole and Diane Schuur and Mr. Minor with Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross and Jane Monheit. Needless to say they worked superbly with Mr. Gates.
Mr. Di Martino and Mr. Miner started the set off with the standard "Yesterdays" where Mr. Di Martino's superb touch and inventive creativity started the evening on a immediate high note. The duo demonstrated a fluidity and grace that was masterful.
Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson's composition "Four",. where the singer's breathy delivery was complimented by his deft use of modulating his sound by varying the positioning of his microphone. Mr. DiMartino is a particularly complimentary accompanist who seems to have a sixth sense of what to play and when to play it.
Miles Davis' modal masterpiece "Milestones" is a Gates staple that the singer has written lyrics for and which showcases his formidable vocal fluidity . Mr. DiMartino is well versed with the jazz tradition and his playing echoed some sounds from Gil Evans at times. Mr. Gates and Mr. DiMartino's rapport on this number was especially in sync.
On "Lady Be Good" Mr. Gates mimics both a walking bass (which at first somewhat confounded Mr. Miner) and vocalizes a quick paced improvisation that he transposed, note for note, from a Charlie Parker solo. Mr. Gates is at his best as a storyteller, like on his wonderfully jocular take on Bobby Troup's "I'm a Hungry Man", where he has the audience wrapped around his finger as he tells of the gastronomical adventures of the song's protagonist. He was also engaging on the raucous Oscar Brown Jr. tune "Hazel's Hips".
Mr. Gates has recently been in the studio on a project that involves the music of Gil Scott Heron. On this night he gave us a taste of what to expect when he did a masterful version of the poet/singer's song
"Show Business" . Mr. Gates doesn't try to imitate Mr. Heron but sings it with his own sense of grit and savvy. It was good to hear someone bravely tackle Mr. Heron's music which deserves wider recognition.
Mr. Gates and his trio ended the set with the Charlie Parker tune "Buzzin'" where Gates can scat with the best of them and the Gershwin classic "Summertime", both done in Mr. Gates inimitable style, ending a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Mr. Gates is a class act not to be missed. My friend from Atlanta, who is not particularly a jazz fan, was a convert to Mr. Gates and his music by the end of the evening. I found myself happily discovering the Kitano as yet another fine venue for top notch jazz in New York City.