Since first meeting and seeing Mark Winkler perform back in what seems like another lifetime (circa 1989), he’s been one of the most poetic, charismatic, inspirational and consistently engaging soundtracks to my now 30+ year jazz life.
Having praised for years his prolific array of albums of dynamic original song and themed collection spotlighting the catalogs of influential legends like Bobby Troup and Laura Nyro – and having seen so many dynamic performances it’s easy to lose count – I, like many others who have been along for the journey through the Wonderful World of Winkler, have lost all objectivity when it comes to evaluating yet another live performance. All I know is every time I’m in that audience of mostly longtime fans and friends, it’s going to be a remarkable, uplifting and soulfully jazzy treat.
The singer’s latest special occasion, the release celebration for his latest Café Pacific album, the cleverly titled Late Bloomin’ Jazzman, at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s demanded a slightly different approach. Rather than go stag as usual, I invited a dear friend with whom I’ve shared many musical adventures from Olivia Newton-John in Las Vegas to Tchaikovsky at the Hollywood Bowl. Yet she had never had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Mark live.
One of the pleasures of inviting her would be to experience him through fresh eyes and ears. I assumed she would dig him - I mean, who doesn’t? – but her total engagement in every song was a joy to behold. My usual sweet and cheerful Winkler experience was elevated by seeing my friend smiling throughout the show, her eyes lighting up at various time as we followed him through every turn of witty phrase - via his own grand lyrical poetry and those of the masters on the handful of standards he sang - and swinging groove of his ensemble of L.A. jazz greats, including Rich Eames (piano), Grant Geissman (guitar), Gabe Davis (bass), Ann Patterson (saxes) and Clayton Cameron (drums).
Besides the grand material (always a mix of Great American Songbook gems and Winkler originals that are on par), it’s always great to hear his alternating humorous and poignant anecdotes ever-effusive effusive praise for his onstage and offstage collaborators and supporters.
Mark started the set with the wonderfully familiar “The Shadow of Your Smile,” which was a featured song on Old Friends, his long awaited dual album with David Benoit. Then he got to the heart of the matter, with ten enchanting tunes from the new album (out of 12 total!) that despite their diversity of rhythms and subjects all seem to artfully and poetically coalesce around the theme of getting older – and why it ain’t so bad when you think about it.
He rolled from “Old Enough,” “I Always Had a Thing for You” (featuring lyrics by his longtime pal and fellow wordsmith and singer Lorraine Feather), a hard swinging “Old Devil Moon” and balmy, exotic “Bossa Nova Days” (music by Bill Cantos) through “Before You Leave,” a fresh twist on his film noir inspired “When All The Lights in the Sign Worked” (whose original version appeared on Mark’s 1995 epic Tales from Hollywood), the beautiful and emotionally restorative “In Another Way” and of course, the crafty, partly talk-sung narrative of “Late Bloomin’ Jazzman.” He wrapped with the mini Gershwin-inspired set of tunes that bookend the album, a snappy romp through “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (a witty take on the Bible from Porgy & Bess) and the wistful “If Gershwin Had Lived.”
The only juncture where Mark broke up the new album flow was for the high spirited “I Could Get Used To This” (from Eastern Standard Time, a duet album recorded with Cheryl Bentyne) which features his and Shelley Nyman’s hipster lyrics set to Wes Montgomery’s classic instrumental “Bumpin’; Geissman’s Wesbound electric guitar solo drove this one home. The anecdote about how difficult it is to get clearance to pen lyrics to a Montgomery song set the scene for this gem beautifully.
Despite the album name and delightfully infectious story told by the title track, Mark’s been a jazzman his whole life. Thankfully for all of us who have been fans for years, and for the new fans he picks up along the way, he continues bloomin’…
Check out the title track of Late Bloomin' Jazzman here: