At 92NY, Much More Than Your Average Song-and-Dance Routine
Caleb Teicher and Veronica Swift tap and scat their way through an all-too-brief set. For the last chorus, the dancers all defer to Swift as if she is preaching; a spiritual ending seems highly appropriate.
Midsummer Music Fest
Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92NY
Through July 27
“Caleb Teicher & Company, featuring Veronica Swift,” part of the Midsummer Music Fest, was promoted as a dance-driven event, and most of us were expecting it to start with a big number, an explosion of movement and brassy sound.
The opening number not only didn’t feature dancing, there was no band either. There was only the formidable Ms. Swift, seeming somehow both defiant and vulnerable singing a capella in a tight pin spot. The song had us all searching our mental inventories — was this Stephen Schwartz, or even Sondheim? — at the same time we were reaching for the tissues.
It turned out to be Ms. Swift’s original ballad, “If Only Someday (Why Not Now?)”. She started small and somewhat hesitant, but grew in both volume and confidence as the tune progressed. Then, heading for the high-note climax, she surprised us all with a major modulation, something that’s hard enough to do even with full musical accompaniment.
As she held the final note, Caleb Teicher — who prefers to be referred to as they/their and with the honorific Mx. — tapped their way onto center stage, and she launched into the Miles Davis bebop classic “Four,” with Jon Hendricks’s equally celebrated, highly philosophical lyric. The opening “head” melody (“of the wonderful things that you get out of life there are four”) functioned as a kind of introduction, as Mx. Teicher executed time steps beside her.
Both started to let loose when she moved into the vocalese lyric, based on Davis’s 1954 trumpet solo (“Don’t you know the score? / Well, people, when they’re younger / Never realize the pleasure-treasure life’s got”). Two choruses later, both began to improvise on the changes in a trade of fours: Ms. Swift would scat a line or two, and Mx. Teicher would respond with taps and twirls. Adding to the synchronicity of the two, Ms. Swift is a fairly accomplished dancer, and while she wouldn’t try to compete with Mx. Teicher, she could at least keep up with a step or two of her own.
That second number — all by itself — was perhaps the most remarkable synthesis of modern jazz, song, and dance that I’ve ever experienced.
From Miles Davis the team moved on to Rodgers & Hammerstein. Pianist Steven Feifke started tinkling in waltz time as Ms. Swift sang a verse that’s almost never heard outside of “The King and I.” Instead of singing the last line herself, she gestured toward the audience — and the house, filled with altercockers such as myself, took the bait and chanted en masse, “Getting to know you.”
The piece shifted from a traditional waltz to something more like a jazzy 6/4 as she sang the chorus, with bassist Ben Tiberio and drummer Brian Viglione joining in. Two dancers, AJ Howard and Gaby Cook, subtly took the stage, and at the end of the first chorus, Ms. Swift and the trio shifted into 4/4 swingtime as the dance troop semi-improvised a series of lindy hop moves. Then, as she sang the last chorus in a hard, boppish four, the full contingent of seven dancers formed into a line, and then went back into pairs.
During the course of the all-too-brief set, Mx. Teicher also had the chance for a solo, a capella dance. In their production “Sw!ng Out,” reviewed in these pages a few weeks ago, Mx. Teicher worked primarily in the swing-jitterbug vocabulary. Here they used a lot more tap moves; for a tapper, they employ a lot of slides and reverse motion. They also took the piano and sang a rather poignant song by the relatively recent bebop piano sage Barry Harris, written from the point of view of a can, which Ms. Swift responded with Harris’s ballad about a sock.
Along the way, the pair also built production numbers around two standards from the 1920s, “Guess Who’s in Town” and “Crazy Rhythm,” which Ms. Swift intoned with gusto while Mx. Teicher’s dancers celebrated the idiom of the Charleston and Black Bottom. There also was a tasteful number inspired by Dave Frishberg’s alcoholic aria, “A Little Taste,” with a comically exaggerated wah-wah trumpet solo from James Sarno.
Later, she delivered a slow and highly romantic rendition of “Prisoner of Love” that incorporated Billy Eckstine’s iconic tag and a lusty tenor saxophone solo by Troy Roberts. Ms. Swift’s own biggest dance moment was “Pick Yourself Up,” which, in the Fred-and-Ginger tradition, served as the premise for a dance lesson that reached a high point — literally — with Marilyn Maye style full kicks.
Nearing the climax, she introduced her new arrangement of Jerry Herman’s “I Am What I Am,” the first track from her forthcoming album. (The single drops today, the rest of the album in September.) More than the recorded version, the live performance had an elaborate intro — all scat and drums — inspired somewhat by Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” with snatches of other bits of Ellingtonia and Strayhorniana, “Clementine,” “Kinda Dukish,” and “Raincheck.” Her improv started with Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie” and then went for baroque in a fugal chase chorus with Mr. Feifke.
The last number was a hot and churchy “Moanin’” — Bobby Timmons and Jon Hendricks again — in which Mr. Roberts dueted with Mx. Teicher, Ms. Swift mimed a bass in an exchange with Ben Tiberio, and though Mr. Feifke quoted “Lullaby of the Leaves,” nobody was sleeping. For the last chorus, the dancers all deferred to Ms. Swift as if she were preaching from the pulpit.
A spiritual ending seemed highly appropriate; ever since the first time I heard Ms. Swift eight years ago (around the time that she placed as a finalist in the Thelonious Monk vocal competition), I have thought that she was sent down directly from heaven to renew the faith of all of us who love this music.
Correction: They/their are the preferred pronouns of Caleb Teicher, who uses the honorific Mx. The pronouns and honorifics were incorrect in an earlier version.