News Column

Pine Grill Reunion features showstopping performances

August 4, 2014

By Mary Kunz Goldman, The Buffalo News, N.Y.



Aug. 04--The sun shone Sunday on jazz in Buffalo. The Buffalo News Jazz at the Albright-Knox went on while the rain held off. And a couple of hours later, the Pine Grill Reunion was able to take place full swing in Martin Luther King Park.

The Pine Grill Reunion began with thanks to "the strong people who came out here tonight despite what it looked like." For a while, with dark clouds hovering, it didn't look good.

But the rain held off and the sky brightened. The concert began great guns with an appearance by Saltman Knowles, a combo from out west.

Saltman Knowles -- named for bassist Mark Saltman and pianist William Knowles -- featured an unusual vocalist, Yvette Spears. Spears was an arresting performer. You could not remember seeing anyone like her. She had a ladylike appearance and a rich contralto voice with a full vibrato. She began with the kind of song you don't hear every day, "September in the Rain."

Talk about unusual -- she did Gershwin's poignant ballad "But Not For Me," sung against a funky bass line. She followed it up with a touching speech about how the song was about an "aha" moment. "He's not for me," she mused. "What am I doing? What was I thinking?"

Her performance got a little hyper, but she toned it down for her wonderful last number -- a direct, moving rendition of the Abbey Lincoln song "Throw It Away."

The Danny Mixon Quartet changed the vibe to straight-ahead bebop. Mixon is a wonderful pianist. One song got an introduction that freely mixed Rachmaninoff and blues. I would guess he has listened to a lot of Oscar Peterson.

The set dragged slightly with a couple of dull lesser-known numbers but picked up with an "Up Jumped Spring" that featured gutbucket solos quoting such numbers as "Stranger in Paradise" and "Bibbity Bobbety Boo." James Stewart is a terrific saxophonist, with a thick, rich tone. A calypso number got the big crowd rocking and the set ended in a seamless "Shiny Stockings."

Niki Haris, next up, is a showstopper. She is a great straight-ahead blues singer. I wonder if she could not get a first-rate career going in the blues world, with the old legends dying off and the blues audience needing new faces.

She appeared in a retro-looking orange and brown maxi dress. She wasn't shy about mingling with the down-home characters who make the Pine Grill Reunion what it is -- the dancer waving a bottle in a paper bag, the guy in the cowboy hat boogying this way and that.

She did a lusty "Down Home Blues" and the Oscar Levant ballad "Blame It On My Youth" and a hard-driving but oddly poignant version of Harold Arlen's "Come Rain or Come Shine." Her voice was strong, deep and expressive. She did a split -- impressive considering she told us she was 53 years old. Her long stint as Madonna's backup singer must have made her pretty limber.

The skies seemed to brighten more with "This Little Light of Mine." "I see your light, Buffalo!" Haris called out. "I see your light. You're feeling good!" And we were.

Haris is the daughter of the late jazz pianist Gene Harris, though she spells her name differently. He must have been looking down proudly as, backed up by her basic but adequate band, she dug deep into "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" What fun.

The concert fell behind schedule but at long last the stage was set for Dr. Lonnie Smith. All afternoon we had been hungering for the sound of the Hammond B3, and there was a thrill just in seeing them setting up the elephantine instrument, in the middle of the stage.

The Hammond B3 was the heart and soul of the old Pine Grill.

Sunday's concert proved the spirit still burns brightly.

Email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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