Singer brings sounds of surprise to Mercato

By Jack McCray
Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Some years ago, the Jazz and Standards section of the Night Life listings in The New Yorker contained a very interesting, and relevant, disclaimer.

The simple, but meaningful, paragraph appeared at the head of the schedule. It read something like: “Jazz musicians and jazz club owners lead very complicated lives. Call before going.”


To the magazine’s credit, it showed that the editors had insight into the jazz life and are respectful of its readers to the extent that they attempt to give us, with regard to jazz, the unvarnished truth.

And it speaks volumes of how the jazz world sees itself. Even at the risk of embarrassment, that world and the people in it are honest, straight ahead and open about its idiosyncrasies, of which there are as many as in any other art form.

What the old New Yorker caveat was saying is that jazz people openly acknowledge that stuff happens. Schedules change. Repertoire is sometimes altered between show announcement and performance.

And, from time to time and for all sorts of reasons, personnel changes happen.

Such a warning is mostly for the uninitiated. Hard-core fans know these things. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t a part of the mystique that surrounds jazz. The thrill of anticipation often outweighs the comfort of predictability. Serious fans know and trust that whatever a worthwhile bandleader puts on the stage will be worthy of our attention.

The late Whitney Balliett, a role model of mine and jazz critic for The New Yorker from 1954 to 2001, defined jazz as the sound of surprise. It’s the characterization I subscribe to. It’s all about improvisation: planning and execution in real time.

With the grace of the jazz gods, the results can be exhilarating.

And that’s exactly what happened to me at Mercato a couple of weeks ago.

I went in one Monday night to catch singer Leah Suarez’ trio. Her act has become a staple at the Italian eatery and always good for some outstanding Brazilian bossa and jazz standards.

This night, her regular band was not there. Pianist Gerald Gregory and drummer Ron Wiltrout were on the road.

You might think that with two-thirds of a longstanding band missing, the performance would drop off. Not so then.

Bandleader Suarez reached into her bag of I-know-many-good-musicians tricks and pulled out a killer ensemble that was one of the best programs I’ve seen around here in a while.

Joining her were Charlton Singleton on piano and Reggie Sullivan from Columbia on bass. Sullivan was in town working on Singleton’s upcoming CD and he’s been working with drummer David Patterson at Mercato on Fridays. The two of them, along with pianist Tommy Gill, rehearsed at the headquarters of Jazz Artists of Charleston on Cannon Street and recorded at Jeff Hodge’s state-of-the-art studios in Mount Pleasant.

While never having played together before, the band was amazing. Just about perfectly in sync.

Suarez’s lilting melodies and Singleton’s sparing but beautiful piano play were pitched just right and spot-on, bringing a breezy, summer feel to the room. Sullivan played drums and guitar on the acoustic bass, providing a root for his bandmates and conservatively showing off his melodic chops.

The harmonics were rich and resonant, almost floating between the lush lyricism and rock steady rhythms. Tension and release were resolved organically, as if the band had been playing together for years.

Hats off to Jacob Fuhr, Mercato’s general manager. There must have been trust in Suarez as a bandleader, and he let her run without interference in her attempt to keep the live entertainment ball rolling at the restaurant. And it worked. Magnificently.

As it does for a good jazz musician, life’s other endeavors involve knowing what notes to play and what notes not to play.

In the jazz business, a good relationship between talent and management is the key to success.

The more of this, the better. It’s a key block in the building of our scene here in the Lowcountry.

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