Saturday, January 14, 2012

Jon Weber at the AQ: Concert review

Jon Weber by John Whiting
An evening with pianist Jon Weber is not to be missed. Witty, brainy, intimate, and enormously entertaining, it’s part concert, part music history class.

Weber engages the audience from the start, asking “What should I play? In what key?” He knows literally thousands of tunes and quotes liberally, so by the end of one you’ve heard bits and phrases from several. He tells you when each song was written, by whom, whether it came from a movie or a musical, when the composer was born, and what else he wrote, accompanied by musical examples. 

I wonder how he sleeps, with so much knowledge and so many facts crammed into his head, pushing and shoving and clamoring to get out.

While Weber’s performance borders on shtick—that’s the “show-business routine” meaning, not the “gimmick or gag” meaning—it never crosses over because he is so deeply and seriously musical. His playing is impeccable, his technique awe-inspiring, whether dashing through notes at top speed or interpreting “Autumn in New York” so tenderly and expressively that you stop breathing.

Maud Hixson by John Whiting
He’s also very funny. Following his own combination of Jobim’s “Wave” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” (strange, but it works), he mentions that he once thought the words to the latter were “Smell Cousin Walter.” He promises to give himself a 15-yard penalty if he uses the same musical quote more than once. He demonstrates the “sneaky fill”—where all the music happens in the right hand—by lifting his left hand high and mugging. He tosses off bon mots, like “Sometimes choosing the key is the hardest choice of all.”

Last night at the Artists’ Quarter, we experienced Weber’s customary romp through jazz, with bonuses. For part of the evening, he played solo; for part, with old pals Billy Peterson on bass and Kenny Horst on drums. Singers Maud Hixson and Alicia Renee were in the house; each was invited up to the stage. Hixson chose Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano”—in part, I’m sure, because of this verse and Weber’s signature ponytail:

And with the pedal I love to meddle
When Paderewski comes this way
I’m so delighted if I’m invited
To hear that long-haired genius play.

Alicia Renee by John Whiting
In the second set, she returned for “While We’re Young.” Renee brought her big, beautiful voice to “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

The best surprise of the night: young pianist Witness Matlou, originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, now on full scholarship at Berklee, who drove up from Iowa (where he spent a year as an exchange student at Drake) to see Weber. Matlou played the standard “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” and even the chatty table behind us quieted down as he made it a masterpiece of spacious understatement, playing behind the beat, swinging hard. Peterson and Horst were right there with him. Wish I’d recorded it. (Don Berryman, maybe you did?) Matlou has several videos on YouTube of varying quality; go here for a recent example of his playing. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t see more of him soon.

Related: Jon Weber's "Piano Jazz Rising Stars" radio show, now airing on KBEM at 10 p.m. on Saturday nights.


  1. Sorry, I did not record it, but I agree that Witness Matlou was quite inspiring. Someone I hope to be hearing more.

  2. It was a phenomenal evening, with the bonus of Maud Hixson, who earlier performed with him during a cabaret confab in New York. Jon Weber is the Robin Williams of jazz -- mind on spin cycle.

    Hal Davis


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