February 2007

Kevin Mahogany and the Art of Jazz Orchestra
presented by Art of Jazz
February 8, 2007 Lula Lounge Toronto
by Joyce Corbett with photos by Roger Humbert
Kansas City-born Miami resident Kevin Mahogany is one of a small handful of truly outstanding male vocalists in jazz today. As everyone keeps saying, there seems to be a plethora of female vocalists, some mighty fine ones too, but where are the guys? Kevin Mahogany’s version of “One For My Baby”, which he sang on this night, is right up there with Sinatra’s and some have said he could fill those shoes, in his own way, with his own inimitable voice, of course. He played the part of Big Joe Turner, to whom he has often been compared, in Robert Altman’s Kansas City. Mahogany has toured with Kurt Elling, Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy, performed with female vocalists such as Diana Krall and Nancy King and has done countless shows of his own over the years. With the release of his most recent big band CD, Kevin Mahogany will have put out a dozen excellent recordings, so why isn’t he a household name? It’s a mystery. He may be getting more attention in the U.S. these days and perhaps in Europe, but here in Canada it seems he is not that well-known. If his success at Lula Lounge on this two-night engagement is any indication, that is changing.

Many of those who came out to the show knew Kevin Mahogany’s work and would not have missed this show for the world. Most of those who came on word of mouth or out of curiosity were incredulous at his mastery, his ease and the beauty of his voice. Classified as a baritone, with all the warm, burnished quality of that register, Mahogany’s voice is also comfortable and always under control in the higher part of his range. When he descends to full bottom bass notes, they rumble like a freight train. In “Kansas City”, he builds excitement with suspenseful pauses, then grabs you by the ears for the final sure-footed climb to the summit with “If I have to walk” before breaking out the raspy burr on the bust-out — “I’m going to get there just the same”. What impact. And all that prefaced by saxophone-phrased vocal lines in the first half of the piece, “Parker’s Mood”. That is the power of Kevin Mahogany.

Speaking to that Big Joe Turner comparison, they are both from Kansas City and they are both baritones. They certainly share the ease, the cool and the swing, but the music has advanced since Joe Turner’s time and Kevin Mahogany has moved far beyond the confines of the vocalists of earlier eras, though without dropping the tradition. His recordings encompass a wide variety of material, from the music of Charles Mingus on the largely instrumental Pussy Cat Blues, to the jazz and blues of Another Time, Another Place, to the collection of Motown classics with jazz arrangements on Pride and Joy and his current and soon to be released big band CDs. Live, whatever show he is doing, he will tell you, "I’m from Kansas City, I am required to do a minimum of two blues numbers per show". It should be obligatory, Kevin Mahogany is unparalleled as a blues singer.

On his current North American tour, he is presenting two different shows. This is due at least in part to the prohibitive expense of touring with a big band. In different cities he will be doing either his Tribute to Johnny Hartman with a trio or a Big Band show depending, I would assume, on the availability of a big band and the suitability of the venue.

When Kevin Mahogany was last in Toronto, in 2004, he did the Tribute to Johnny Hartman show at the Top of the Senator with pianist Corey Allen and Toronto bassist Steve Wallace. It was an excellent show, but thanks to the Art of Jazz organization and the Art of Jazz Orchestra, Toronto was treated to the big band show this time around, completing the Kevin Mahogany tour experience. It is a rare treat to hear a big band fronted by a singer of this calibre, especially a male singer.

This version of the Art of Jazz Orchestra was a seventeen-piece band, including Don Thompson as conductor and vibraphonist. Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer were special guests. The band started off the night with a Don Thompson composition, swinging up-tempo with nice ensemble work and some nice solos from Quinsin Nachoff and John MacLeod. This was an all-star band. Terry Clarke behind the drumset was an illustration of the words of numerous music teachers, the faster you go and the more complex it gets, the more relaxed you must be. Terry Clarke looked as cool as a cucumber but he was cooking.

Kevin Mahogany

Kevin Mahogany
Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer joined the band on the second tune, “Francisco’s Dream”, dedicated to percussionist Pancho Quinto. The tune featured a lovely piano and drum intro, a beautiful flute solo from Jane Bunnett and a muted trumpet solo from Larry Cramer.

Kevin Mahogany arrived on stage for the third tune with his understated yet commanding presence. He started off speaking to the audience in a high-pitched voice as he lowered the microphone to a more suitable height and his voice to a more natural register. Then he launched into “There Will Never be Another You”, smoothly soaring through the lyrics and sailing right into a chorus of upbeat scatting. This was followed by “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it ain’t got that swing)", with a Latin beat, Miami-style, as Mahogany put it. Everyone had fun with this one, giving it “everything they got”. “My Romance” was a duet, mainly alternating between Kevin Mahogany’s a capella voice and Jane Bunnett on soprano saxophone with a little soft piano coming in here and there. There was little to do but shake your head at the beauty and finesse of it.

After that? A killer version of “Yardbird Suite” played and scatted at breakneck speed with Kevin Mahogany signaling for extra punch and the band delivering right on time. That “something made famous by Frank Sinatra”, “One for my Baby” came next and “Secret Love” ended the set.

Between sets, conversations were on the order of "it doesn't get much better than this". Some of the younger musicians were heard saying "he knows those charts inside out, and the history!". Everyone commented on what a gentleman he is and what a pleasure it is to work with him.

The second set started with Don Pullen’s “Big Alice”, continued with “Parker’s Mood/Kansas City”, Mingus’ “Portrait” and a version of Mingus’ “Eclipse” in which Kevin’s deep bass notes harmonized as an ensemble instrument and Jane Bunnett played a bass flute. Don Thompson conducted the melting, merging harmonies. The word “bliss” comes to mind here. The inclusion of Jane Bunnett’s “The Real Truth” was a surprise, I wouldn’t have thought that Kevin Mahogany would have had time to learn it, but scatting up to the heights of his register he seemed right at home with it. Not so surprising when you think about it, Mahogany is a consummate musician. He taught clarinet at age 14 and played piano and baritone saxophone before deciding to be a vocalist. Sometimes he closes his eyes and fingers an invisible baritone as he scats.

Mahogany’s version of Percy Mayfield’s “Send Me Someone to Love” was superb. Kevin started off deep down against a bowed bass and the piece evolved from there to a full R&B blast-out. Kevin chuckled softly after that one, “whew, could need minor surgery after that, gotta watch something doesn’t just pop out”.

A seductive, swinging “Satin Doll” slid in after that, and to finish the evening, Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer came back to the stage joining in a relaxed blues, “Centerpiece”. The band was great, but there was no doubt as to who was the centrepiece of this evening.

The musicians

Kevin Mahogany – vocals

Art of Jazz Orchestra
Don Thompson – conductor, vibes
David Restivo – piano | Reg Schwager – guitar
Neil Swainson – bass | Terry Clarke – drums
saxophones: Perry White, John Johnson, Quinsin Nachoff, Pat Labarbera
trombones: William Carn, Alistair Kaye, Darcy Grant, Gord Meyers
trumpets: John MacLeod, Alex Brown, Brian O’Kane, Jason Logue

Jane Bunnett – soprano saxophone, flutes
Larry Cramer – trumpet



We welcome your comments and feedback
Joyce Corbett
• • • • • •
Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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