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Arts feature: Empire state of mind

New York jazz musicians spotlighted at annual concert featuring black composers

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As sung in the 1944 musical "On the Town," the Leonard Bernstein song "Some Other Time" was a wistful ballad. Three American sailors had just had momentous shore leaves with three pretty girls, and now they were headed back to war.

On a recent evening, when "Some Other Time" is played on piano and bass in a Palo Alto house, it's a jazzy lullaby with hints of Chopin. Never one to be limited by genre, the veteran pianist Valerie Capers has crafted an arrangement with both rich, lulling bass patterns and delicate filigree high up on the keyboard.

With Capers on piano and longtime collaborator John Robinson on an electric bass plugged into a small amp, the song croons, pitter-pats and moves. Robinson's head bows as his big hands skate up and down the neck of the bass. Capers' motions are easy and smooth. Dynamic changes seem effortless, with the unspoken communication that comes from playing together for 35 years.

"Mesmerizing," fellow musician Josephine Gandolfi says when the song ends.

Everyone is gathered together at former Palo Alto councilwoman LaDoris Cordell's house for an excited reunion. Conversations buzz; favorite pieces of music swish out of folders; reminiscences and laughter pop. Capers and Robinson are in town from New York City again for an annual concert that has become a tradition: a performance that highlights the music of African-American composers, some contemporary and many not widely known.

This year's show is on Jan. 27 at 3 p.m., held at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto; ticket sales benefit the school. Compositions by Capers have been on the program for three years, and this will be the second year that she and Robinson have flown in to perform as well.

Capers is one of the biggest names on the bill. A graduate of both the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind and the Juilliard School, she has been performing, composing, recording and teaching jazz and classical music for decades. She has recorded five albums and played in venues ranging from the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill in Greenwich Village to Lincoln Center. Before retiring, she chaired the music and art department at Bronx Community College.

Robinson studied with Capers and later joined the Bronx faculty. He's performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis and Celia Cruz, to name a few, playing jazz, Latin and classical bass, as well as recorder.

Gandolfi and Cordell are clearly thrilled to have the New York musicians in town. "Just living the dream! Who gets to do this?" Cordell exclaims after singing a few songs with Capers and Robinson.

Cordell, a retired judge, has long had an artistic bent as well. She's a longtime piano student of Gandolfi's, and a few years ago the pair began researching music by African-American composers. They were surprised at how little they knew beyond some spirituals and jazz. These concerts have become a labor of love and a mission to educate listeners.

The pair are longtime fans of Capers' music. They got to meet her a few years back after Gandolfi, a private music teacher and conservatory graduate, became taken with her collection called "Portraits in Jazz." Capers penned the pieces as simple arrangements to introduce children to jazz, inspired by the works that Schumann and Bach wrote for young people. In turn, Gandolfi arranged the pieces for voice, and then got in touch with Capers to tell her so.

"I was just completely bowled over," says Capers, clearly delighted. "We've worked together ever since."

There's been good give-and-take among the musicians for several years now. At the 2011 concert, Cordell sang one of Capers' compositions, "Billie's Song" (a tribute to Billie Holiday), after writing her own lyrics to it. Capers loved it, but said the key was too low. So she reworked the piece and coached her singer, and Cordell sang the revised version at last year's concert.

"She brought the house down," Capers says. "She tore it up."

To find new music for this year's concert, Gandolfi went on a research trip to Columbia College in Chicago to delve into an archive of music by black composers. "I went through dozens and dozens of scores," she says. From that treasure trove she chose several pieces for this year's program, including three solo piano pieces that will be performed by Deanne Tucker: "Azuretta" by Regina Baiocchi, "Glaciers" by Dolores White" and "Flight" by Zenobia Powell Perry.

The concerts always begin with performances by the Eastside Prep choir singing. This year's selection is Stevie Wonder's "Love's in Need of Love Today." Fittingly, the program also includes two of Capers' "Portraits in Jazz": "Bossa Brasilia" and "Ella Scats the Little Lamb."

In addition, the concert will feature several jazz songs by the late Abbey Lincoln, an American singer, songwriter and actress. Lincoln's songs "Bird Alone" and "Rainbow" will be sung by Cordell, accompanied by Capers, Robinson, percussionist John Neves, violinist Susan C. Brown and cellist Victoria Ehrlich.

Then, Capers will present her own new settings of the Lincoln songs, with Gandolfi playing the piano and soprano Yolanda Rhodes singing.

On this evening in Palo Alto, visitors get a taste of the new settings, with the musicians playing them in an impromptu performance. "Rainbow" is youthful, while "Bird Alone" is gentle and melancholy, with Cordell singing, "Are you on your way somewhere?"

"With my setting of 'Bird Alone,' I got inspiration from Ravel," Capers says. "My 'Rainbow' I wanted to be childlike, almost sing-song."

Composing doesn't come easily to Capers, she says: "I get ideas, but then I have to work."

Cheerfully, she figures she's in good company. Composing may have come naturally to some, such as Mozart, but others like Beethoven struggled. "Beethoven is the greatest composer who ever walked the earth," she says. "Beethoven dug ditches to compose. That's what I have in common." She beams.

What: "Music of African-American Composers: The Story Re-Told," a concert featuring vocalists and instrumentalists performing works by black composers

Where: Eastside College Preparatory School's Performing Arts Center, 1041 Myrtle St., East Palo Alto

When: Sunday, Jan. 27, from 3 to 5 p.m.

Cost: Suggested donations are $20 general and $5 for seniors and students, with proceeds benefitting Eastside Prep.

Info: Call 650-688-0850. Tickets are available only at the door.

LISTEN ONLINE: Pianist Valerie Capers and bassist John Robinson play "Some Other Time" by Leonard Bernstein, from the 1944 musical "On the Town." (Right-click to download, and save as an MP3, if the audio does not play in your browser.)

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