Melburnians with a knack for jazz are now accustomed to the cosy atmosphere and excellent drinks list Bennetts Lane has to offer. What is more, the club has established itself as “The Blue Note Jazz Club” in Melbourne, leading in delivering professional jazz performance in this cosmopolitan Australian city. The blue velvet curtain backdrop of Bennetts Lane’s small stage silently references the emblematic jazz colour and witnesses the work of rising and established local or visiting stars almost every day of the year. On Saturday 11 of October, four experienced Melbourne artists performed a smorgasbord of jazz standards. Accompanied by Joe Ruberto (piano), Michael Tortnoni (acoustic bass) and Dean Cooper (drums), leading lady Rebecca Mendoza (vocals) delivered a varied and stimulating program with original and heartfelt interpretations.
Rebecca Mendoza has everything one may wish for in a jazz singer. She looks well and moves well and has an expressive face. Her sturdy technique supports an inquisitive musical mind and a voice of more than three octaves, which allows her to deliver original interpretation at ease. The timbre of her voice is warm and smooth with spacious low notes and a resonant top. One can tell that gospel and Billy Holliday had been an influence in the formation of her technique, the sound is however unique and thrillingly jazzy. Mendoza’s performance brought new light to tunes everyone in the audience knew well and followed with interest. Her virtuosic scatting embellished many of the songs, while her delivery of the story line of each song was deeply experienced. Amongst music by Cole Porter and Duke Ellington and the dance rhythms of samba and bossa nova, the highlights of the night were celebrated songs such as My Romance, The Song is You and God Bless the Child. The touching delivery of Black Coffee, the third song of the second set, absolutely dazzled and silenced the audience - a signal that the piece had hit the target and the performance had reached its peak.
The instrumentalists supported the vocal line with a fine taste of balance and structure. Joe Ruberto’s piano complemented the tunes, while the strong rhythm support of Cooper and Tortoni was a great foundation throughout the performance. Tortoni demonstrated what a worthy instrument the often overlooked double bass could be, employing cleverly the bow to deliver the melody in the instrumental overture or to emphasise a keyword at the culmination of a song.
After warming up during the first set, the quartet started delivering solid ensemble work, where each instrument was now in tune with the energy of the singer. It was during the third set that the instrumentalists revealed the full capacity of their technique and improvisatory ability. The ensemble let loose during a crazy medley of well-known tunes. The keyboard pyrotechnics of Joe were now at their best and exuberantly virtuosic. Tortoni wildly slapped, bowed and plucked his bass referencing well-known tunes starting from hard rock and finishing with a haunting folk melody. It is rare to see a club owner get up and perform professionally along with the musicians he is supporting. Cooper’s improvisation didn’t leave any gap in the audience’s imagination about more possibilities of dynamics, rhythmic combinations and percussive sounds on the drum kit.
Dynamics was one of the aspects of the performance which overall could have been explored more by the ensemble. It is dangerous to treat songs as plain accompanied pieces in jazz performance. Out of all genres the jazz genre allows the musician the ultimate freedom to push the boundaries of structure in order to combine subtle musical communication and instrumental and vocal unity. There individual improvisation does not dominate but is part of the overall texture and outlay. One could see in the second set that this ensemble could achieve this level of musical contemplation.
The Rebecca Mendoza night was another excellent instalment of professional jazz performance in Melbourne’s “dedicated jazz venue” as the logo of the club proclaims. About 80 people with average age in the low thirties left the club entertained, satisfied and perhaps a little reflective of life’s abundance of emotions and moods. Michael Tortoni’s passion and love for jazz is growing, reaching old generations of jazz lovers and young musicians and audiences. Rebecca Mendoza has perhaps finally found her genus and her true voice and we all should be looking out for her next performances.
Rebecca Mendoza Quartet
Venue: Bennetts Lane Jazz Club | 25 Bennetts Lane, Melbourne
Date/Time: Sat Oct 11th 2008 @ 8:30pm
Tickets: $20 or $15 concession