Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tuesday, June 10, 2008. Bexley, Ohio. Jeni Fleming Trio dazzles audience at Trinity seminary.

The second of three concerts in the twenty fourth annual Tuesday at Trinity was an evening of simple summer pleasures. Ice cream and music from the American Songbook. The performance was by a female jazz vocalist and two musicians, all three from Bozeman, Montana.

Does it sound a bit eccentric? Bozeman, Montana jazz musicians performing at a Lutheran seminary in Bexley, Ohio.

The Jeni Fleming Trio offered an hour and a half of American standards, rearranged, rewritten and remarkable.

The trio is Jeni Fleming, Jake Fleming and Craig Hall.

Trinity Lutheran Seminary is on the trio’s tour itinerary because Jeni’s father is president of the school.

Occasionally nepotism works very well and the performance of this trio is one of those times.

The concert is in the Gloria Dei worship center. The interior is shaped like the acoustic tent used at the Columbus Symphony Orchestra for its Summer at the Pops, or the Island Park Band Shell summer concerts of the Dayton Philharmonic. But the worship center is air-conditioned.

The audience is large, more than one hundred fifty people.

The usual Trinity audience, knowledgeable and sophisticated in their musical tastes.

Mostly women. Of all age ranges. Seniors, middle aged, mature mothers and young mothers. Capital and Trinity faculty. College students and high school girls. For the women in the audience, the hair colors are much more limited than the ages. Grey and white, with the occasional brunette. But, hands down, the dominant hair color for the audience is Lutheran blond.

The men in the audience. Some bald, a few beards. Mostly grey haired. Three African men; one speculating with his neighbor about travel to Montana. Some familiar faces from the seminary faculty, staff and Bexley neighbors.

The men and women in audience are attired in similar hues; white, cream, tan and pastel yellow. Occasional sparkles of color among the audience. For the men, brightest color is green, but even that is pastel green. For the women, pastel pink and fuchsia.

While the crowd gathers and finds their seats, the sanctuary itself is uncluttered save for the instruments the musicians will use: an upright bass viol, an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar and a saxophone. Amplifiers and loud speakers are arranged around the edge of the alter platform at the sanctuary.

The three musicians walk to their instruments in the sanctuary. Dark suits for the men. Jake has a white tee shirt. Craig has a deep, deep purple dress shirt and a dark blue silk tie. Jeni is in a vivid red cocktail dress. A matching red shawl covers Jeni’s shoulders and arms. She also wears high heels, perhaps four inches high, with black ribbon straps. Agonizing, no doubt but a distraction. A distraction so compelling I forget my speculation about where men in Bozeman buy their dark suits.

This year the trio has completed a spring tour through Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana. They came to Bexley following a Saturday concert in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The trip to Bexley took the musicians through the rain storms in Indiana. They lost a windshield wiper in the Indianapolis winds.

Another concert is scheduled for Bozeman, Montana this coming Saturday and the musicians must drive Thursday and Friday to meet that commitment.

Two long, twenty-four hour drives and two performances. in five days.

I wonder when the piper will be paid for those long hours. I also wonder when the musicians will reap the rewards of those long drives.

The concert begins. Jeni’s first four phrases are enticing. “I met a man…” Her voice promises an evening of pleasure. And she delivers. The song is an arrangement of “Mr. Bojangles” that keeps the song familiar but only confirms the identity near the end.

It is an approach to an American standard that keeps the song fresh and bewitching. Bill Evans did the same. But this evening the magic is the female voice of Jeni Fleming.

Jeni’s voice is clear and with perfect pitch. The clarity of her voice. Is it from breathing the clean air of Montana. Is singing really this different in big sky country.

Jake plays the sax on a jazz piece that no one identifies and I don’t recognize it. Seminary friends tap their feet and disguise their hipness. Vague references to phrases in “Route 66,” and recalling the jazz of the 1950s. Difficult vocals but her perfect pitch carries Jeni through this dangerous piece. What was that piece? Who wrote it?

This mystery is followed by an Antonio Carlos Jobin bossa nova piece. “Dindi” is the melody and the lyrics borrowed from the gospel hymn “Amazing Grace.” An amalgam that surprises but fits the context perfectly. The arrangement for saxophone and guitar are bossa nova and, on a hot summer night, music from tropical Brazil and Southern gospel lyrics fit the night perfectly. On a summer night it is easy to imagine Jobin writing music just for Jeni. “How sweet the sound.” The mélange of these two songs reminds me of the associations between Duke Ellington and the Lutheran Church.

Jake then introduces the song he wrote as a marriage proposal to Jeni. The song is “Once Around the Sun” and was inspired by Jeni’s remark that Jake should take a “day off.” Jake wrote the lyric with the misapprehension that a “day off” is “once around the sun” when a “once around the sun” is actually a year. Jeni accepted Jake’s proposal. Their marriage is not the last marriage that will be based on a husband’s misunderstanding.

The first set was completed with a memorable rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” “When all the world is a hopeless jumble, And the raindrops tumble all around, Heaven opens a magic lane…” The rendition is sung so pure, I began to think that Bozeman, Montana might be a refuge from urban horrors, a place where things are done accurately, even done perfectly.

And then, like an elephant suddenly charging into your living room, it happens. Joni sings the lyric “Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the CHIM LEE tops, that's where you'll find me.” CHIM LEE??? “CHIM LEE tops.”

Jeni really did sing “CHIM LEE. tops.”

Next time she is in Bexley, I’ll “axe” her why the unusual pronunciation.

The intermission is a little bourse where four of the trio’s five CDs are sold and autographed by the musicians. The phrase “…going like hot cakes” is descriptive.

The most recent CD is from 2006, “We’ll Be Together Again”

The CDs are available from

Jeni Fleming studied classical piano. She is an award winning soloist and is a talent opener at the annual Jazz Montana Festival in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Jake Fleming is a public school music teacher. He is also minister of music at the Center for Campus Ministry at MSU-Bozeman. He was the winner of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award-1992, and Academic Excellence Award in the MSU Concerto Competition for 1994.

Jake and Jeni Fleming are husband and wife.

Craig Hall works with several artists and groups from the intermountain region of Montana. He is a graduate of MSU and has studied guitar and vibraphone. His name appears on more than thirty six music CDs of regional artists. His work on these CDs is as arranger of string orchestrations and guitarist. Craig is also a recipient of a Montana Arts Council Fellowship.

The second half of the concert is an easy experience. Easy to enjoy. Easy to appreciate the musicianship of all three individuals. The first half was the performance of a trio. The second half highlights the individuals. The arrangements keep melodies intact and make it easy for the audience to pay attention to individual performances.

The first number I don’t recognize. Lyric includes “I can’t hear what you say” and “Second hand winds.”

An anecdote follows the first piece about why Craig became a bass player. Bozeman had no bass player, so Craig took the time to learn the instrument and now supplies bass for music ensembles throughout the city. He is always playing the bass for other combos. Craig has yet to have bass accompaniment for his own guitar playing.

Then follows a discussion of Jeni learning Portuguese. That explains the Jobin pieces. Jeni claims to be fluent in three sentences in Portuguese. “I would like fish, I would like a beer. I’m on a diet.”

Then Craig was featured on a song that had lyrics “I promise no more-no more fears, no more sighs…happiness I found was in my hometown.”

The title is probably “No More Blues.” This is followed by the Beatles “Can’t buy me love.” And then Paul Simon “Still crazy after all these years.” The anecdote that introduces the Paul Simons song is about the ease of shopping for groceries at 11:30 p.m. and listening to the Paul Simon song on the grocery store Muzak.

The standing ovation at the end brings another Jobin piece as encore. “The Girl from Ipanema.” Jeni sings the piece in Portuguese. Not one line though is about fish, beer or diets. Only “Danny Boy.”
There is mystery in this performance. My puzzlement on the walk home asks simple questions with no answers. Was the performance complex or was it really simple. Is Jeni’s voice what hypnotized me or was it her performance that mesmerized? She is a mystery that makes a hot summer night very nice.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Chimlee tops is accurate for the original lyrics as mary Poppins was written. Rent it and see for yourself. Don't be so hard on others, it is a big crow you must eat now.