Catching Up With Ted Rosenthal at the Zinc

The keyboard master is familiar to our reviewer in every conceivable context except the latest: leading his own trio in a New York club. It was a ‘happening’ show.

Tom Buckley
Ted Rosenthal at the Zinc Bar. Tom Buckley

Between the Zinc Bar on West 3rd Street and Mezzrow, about a 10-minute walk to the west, Greenwich Village now has two low-key and highly intimate rooms that are perfect spaces in which to enjoy jazz piano. The Zinc’s Tuesday evening “Piano Jazz Series” boasts a particularly adventurous lineup of contemporary keyboard masters, including names both new and familiar to me.

Each is true in the case of Ted Rosenthal. I first heard him playing in the cavernous space of a Midtown hotel lobby in the early 1990s. Since then, I have encountered him in every conceivable context. Most recently, he served as accompanist for Marilyn Maye’s spectacular New Year’s Eve show at Birdland, and he has played for all kinds of singers and artists. For him to play piano for Ann Hampton Callaway, an accomplished keyboardist herself, is a bit like playing bass for Ron Carter — both an honor and a challenge.  

In 2014, Mr. Rosenthal was the featured soloist in a truly epic orchestral concert at Town Hall. In 2019, his full-length opera inspired by his family history during the Holocaust, “Dear Erich,” had its very successful premiere at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. For decades, he’s also served as a guest star in 92NY’s “Jazz in July” series.  

In short, I feel like I’ve heard Ted Rosenthal in every context except leading his own trio in a New York club; thus, this past Tuesday at the Zinc was the perfect time to catch up. For the occasion, he essentially borrowed Bill Charlap’s rhythm section, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, and delivered a tasty set of standards as well as surprises.

You could say it was a “happening” show: He started with “It Could Happen to You” and followed with “Everything Happens to Me.” Both opened with Mr. Rosenthal stating the melodies deliberately vaguely in rubato before bringing them sharply into focus and into tempo, and he concluded both with elaborate, imaginative codas. There were two classics by jazz composers, Tom McIntosh’s lively, boppish “The Cupbearers” and “San Francisco Holiday,” a relatively lesser-known work of Thelonious Monk, in which Mr. Rosenthal retained the essential Monkishness even while inserting a Latin vibe, particularly behind Peter Washington’s bass solo.

In February 2014, conductor Maurice Peress and bandleader Vince Giordano recreated one of the milestone events in all of American culture, Paul Whiteman’s “Experiment in Modern Music” concert of 1924.  Mr. Rosenthal played the all-important piano solo on “Rhapsody in Blue,” the part originally performed by George Gershwin himself.  

A few months later, he went into the studio and recorded a set of eight jazz arrangements of classic Gershwin works, all popular songs except for the opening, an ambitious interpretation for jazz trio of the “Rhapsody” itself. (The work is so iconic, that whenever you use the word “Rhapsody” people will generally know which one you mean, and it isn’t Liszt or even Queen.)

Mr. Rosenthal’s “Rhapsody” is a monumental extended work unto itself, one that includes most of the major themes as Gershwin wrote them plus a lot else besides, including a section in Cuban clave à la Chucho Valdés, and other passages that amp up the blues and swing that Gershwin alluded to in 1924. This one gets a high placement among the short list of first-rate unconventional adaptations of the work, like those of Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller. The whole album is worth hearing, and Mr. Rosenthal is due for a new one, since that 2015 release is, alas, his latest.

At the Zinc on Tuesday, Mr. Rosenthal found time for an attractive original, “Forever Young,” and then also caught us off guard with two well-known melodies not often heard via jazz trio. There was a stunning, modernist reading of a theme from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony — the same one we know from its pop adaptation, “Moon Love” — but the standout was a hard-swinging romp through Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 

“People Will Say We’re In Love.”  

This was an inspired follow-up to my favorite of Mr. Rosenthal’s albums thus far, his 2006 jazz adaptation of the score to “The King and I”; if he does a full jazz version of “Oklahoma!” as his next project, then he will find in me that I’m just a bald guy who can’t say no.

The New York Sun

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