Saturday, January 17, 2009

Coldest Nights, Warmest Heart: Bruce Henry at the Dakota

There are few guarantees in life, but fortunately, Bruce Henry is one of them. Spend an evening with Bruce and you are guaranteed nonstop and most sincere entertainment; a voice so flexible that it will stretch from bass to soprano and never sound falsetto; ballads that make you cry, blues that make you whine, and soul that rips right through to your inner Wonder. And absolutely, you are guaranteed to be on your feet before the end of the last set, be it to clap, to sing and/or to dance. Maybe we appreciate Bruce even more since he moved to Chicago last summer. Arriving for the coldest weekend of the winter, Bruce left none of his charm, wit, or musicianship back in the Windy City; everything we have long admired was on full display at the Dakota from the first note to the last curtain call.

Visits from Bruce also guarantee the reassembling of one of the hottest jazz ensembles in town—Peter Schimke on piano, Dean Magraw on guitar, Jay Young on bass, Kevin Washington on drums (and vocals—more on that later), and Darryl Boudreaux on percussion. The band gave us back-to-back full-throttle takes on Herbie Hancock standards before Bruce came on stage... or rather bounced in with “Billie’s Bounce.” The lyrics popped like machine gun fire as Bruce slipped in and out of scat, his phrasing adding the horn licks. Charlie Parker would have danced. A major outbreak of percussion introduced “Autumn Leaves,” the arrangement rising from locales where leaves never turn red and gold, Bruce ultimately climbing high into soprano range. A lovely ballad from Peter Schimke was marred only by overly zealous mic amplification, no doubt intended to force the quiet tune above the usual Friday night chatter.

Tunes from Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder incited the crowd, and frequently Bruce demonstrated the power of repetition of phrases and particularly syllables,along with a Bobby-McFerrin elasticity that leaves you wondering where the other voices came from. And a down-and-dirty blues brought friends on stage (T. Mychal Rambo, Kevin Jackson) and even drew on the surprise vocal skills of Kevin Washington—so why are we not hearing more from his voice?

If the first set smoldered, the second set burned unabated, with a Latinized “Footprints,” an incantation of Ellington’s “In the Beginning, God,” a melodic song from Tanzania that morphed into “Just My Imagination.” The dancing in the aisles, the clapping, the directed audience call and response, and the accompaniment of some from Bruce’s Freedom Train ensemble capped this evening with the High Priest of Song.

The final guarantee? You will leave a Bruce Henry show on far better terms with the world than when you arrived. It’s like having a pain-free heart transplant. A little bit of Bruce goes home with you, keeping the warmth flowing even if it is 15 below outside, keeping a spirit greater than yourself pushing you through the day ahead, with a song (and a band) in your heart.

He’ll do it again tonight, January 17th, 8 pm at the Dakota.
Photos: Bruce Henry (at a fall 2008 visit to the Dakota) and Kevin Washington. Photos by Andrea Canter.