Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jeni Fleming. Vocalist. Appearance at Trinity Lutheran Seminary.

A misty, cool Tuesday evening in Bexley. Our boarder, Alex Hettinga, and I walk to an evening of music at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. The seminary is located at the corner of College and East Main in Bexley. An audience is gathering for the first of this summer’s Tuesdays at Trinity musical events.

The performance space is the Trinity’s Gloria Dei worship center. The featured performer is Jeni Fleming. She and her ensemble live in Montana.

Many in the audience are wearing sweaters because of the cool evening. Inside the worship center, the air conditioning is on and people don’t take off their sweaters.

Trinity’s president, Mark Ramseth welcomes the musicians and the audience. He reminds the audience of the family connection that brings this musical performance to Trinity and Bexley. The singer, Jeni Fleming, is his daughter and Jake Fleming, the saxophonist, is his son-in-law. Mark reminds the audience that the musicians have traveled from Montana for the performance. And, they arrived in Bexley at 2:00 a.m.

Jeni Fleming. wears a black strapless cocktail dress with red and white oval prints. She also wears a long white scarf. The performance space is too chilly for Jeni, so she puts a coat on as the performance begins.

Jeni performed at Trinity for the first time in 2002. Since then, it has almost been an annual performance with different constellations of back-up musicians. This year’s line up of musicians are Craig Hall, electric and acoustic guitars; Adam Greenberg, an Ohio native on drums and percussion; Chris Cundy, piano and Hammond B3 organ; Sean Lehmann, bass and Jake Fleming, acoustic guitars and saxophone.

From Jeni’s prior performances, my expectation is for an evening of sophisticated jazz arrangements from the American Songbook and also some jazz arrangements of a few pop hits thrown into the mix.

Surprises are in store this evening. Jeni warns the audience that in the last two years their performance repertory has moved into a galaxy known in the music business as pop-rock , and that they are more specifically categorized as jazz-pop artists.
Jeni opens the evening’s performance with their own arrangement of a Beatles tune “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The lyric seems incongruous in the chapel setting but that doesn’t matter. The arrangement moves the familiar Beatles ballad into a Western Swing rhythm, clearly reminding me that this is an ensemble from Montana.

Jeni’s second song is written by Jake Fleming. The acoustics of the room make it difficult to catch all of the lyrics. The title is “Scarecrow” and some of the lyrics sound like it is an introspective, moody song but I’m not certain. Phrases that I decipher are “There’s a shadow hanging over me…you must call tonight…There’s a cold deep down inside of me….You must call to lie…Can’t erase the things that are part of me…” The acoustics aren’t working for me tonight so I’m not certain if these are the actual lyrics, particularly when I ask myself what these lyrics have to do with the song title “Scarecrow.” Perhaps for new songs, the lyric might be printed in the program?

The third number is a fresh arrangement of “Never My Love,” a song made popular by the Association in the late 1960s. Jeni confesses that she wrote the arrangement without reference to the original performance of the Association. When she listened to the original, Jeni describes her reaction as “I didn’t realize how much I had destroyed.”

As “Never My Love” concludes, Jeni has warmed up and takes off her jacket .

Appropriately, the next song is a Brazilian samba. I miss the songs name, but the tropical heat of the tune is unmistakable. There is a dragging major cord in the arrangement that, within the samba rhythm, recreates the measured pace of a walk on the beach.

The arrangements of the songs are much more complex than in previous performances. The ensemble is larger than the trio that I associate with Jeni, so the complexity shouldn’t surprise. The effect of the complexity is to make it more difficult to the focus on the vocalist. There is also some need to balance the several instruments. Percussion and piano were too loud and sometimes over-powered Jeni’s voice. The larger ensemble makes the performance less intimate, less personal.

The fifth song, “God Bless’ The Child,” is the Billie Holiday, Arthur Herzog Blues standard. A song and arrangement perfect for Jeni and, with Jake on the saxophone, a reminder of what these musicians do best. This is also where I begin to notice the bass playing of Sean Lehmann. What a musician. What an addition to the group’s sound and rhythm.

“God Bless’ The Child” is also where I first wonder if there is a Jazz Pop and Jazz Mom in this ensemble.

Next is another Jake Fleming song where I have difficulty deciphering the lyric. Maybe it is not the acoustics of the location; maybe it is my hearing that is deficient. I think the title is “The Other Side” with lyrics like “I fear my affliction…awesome innocence…Need a friend…to sneak into the other-side…I spend my time…painful song in a rock-fall…freedom I’ve been crying for is finally here…” Print the lyrics in the program. Please.

This is followed by a song that featured Chris Cundy on the piano. The piano filled the room with sound and lyrics seemed secondary. “Hallelujah” and “I’ve seen your flag and marble arch…” and “love is not a march” are all I caught.

The next song arrangement was written by Jake on a February trip to Hawaii. Jeni and Jake had a two hour professional engagement on one of the islands. The two hour engagement included a week-long hotel accommodation. During the week, Jake arranged “Day After Day.”

Then in quick succession, two familiar numbers “Gimme the beat boys and free my soul,” and the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “Danny Boy.”

Closing the first half, , a Hebrew folk tune started slow and gathered speed.. This folk tune is a new genre and energized the audience. The interior chill had been broken.

During the interval, Alex and I discuss how the performance is different than anticipated. No standards in the play list. Little jazz except the Billie Holliday number.

The second half begins with another Brazilian song. Antonio Carlos Jobin’s “The Girl From Ipanema.” This song is performed as a samba and gives a fresh perspective on the standard.

Next is an R & B song made classic by Ray Charles: “One Mint Julip”. Jeni says the lyric is a description of how she met her husband Jake. In truth, she corrects the story to say she and Jake actually met at a campus ministry happy hour.

Then follows a Willie Nelson song, “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” and Lizz Wright’s “Trouble In The Air, I Don’t Want It.” Willie Nelson. How far the evening is from my expectation.

Before singing her final number, Jeni invites May Schwarz professor of church music to the microphone. Professor Schwarz organizes the Tuesday at Trinity musical events and she reminds the audience that next two Tuesdays at Trinity events are the Brass Band of Columbus on June 15 and the Columbus Symphony Brass Quintet on June 22.

Jeni’s final number is “I Need Your Inspiration” arranged as a dance number. With Jeni slapping a red tambourine, and Jake’s saxophone playing, this gospel classic energizes the musicians and the audience.

On the walk home, I discuss the performance with our boarder and explain that the concert was a surprise, and not what I expected at all. In a light rain, I comment that the music was louder, more energetic, more pop, less cerebral than her last performance. Our boarder is a sophomore music major at Carnegie Mellon and his comments are about acoustics,
arrangements and individual performances. “They covered a lot of genres,” he said, “She has a very versatile voice.” He was most impressed with Jeni’s “very pleasant voice” within the group and commented that the group could’ve let her shine a bit more. The lyrics to her songs were frequently indistinguishable over the band. However, even as someone who attends the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra every week, comparing and criticizing performers of the highest levels, Alex found the evening of music making quite enjoyable. He agreed that some of the songs worked considerably well with the ensemble, and it was very interesting to see their interpretations of different styles.

Next morning, when I look at my concert notes, I’m surprised. Rather than being a completely different Jeni Fleming, the notes are much like notes from her last concert. She takes familiar songs and rearranges the material into her own. The brainy content, both lyric and melody are gently led into the shelter of Jeni’s brilliance. She makes a song her child and nurtures it to become something new, something distinct from its origins. Jazz Pop and Jazz Mom indeed.

The sequence of songs, none from the American Songbook, also makes sense next day as I read my notes. Blues, Gospel, Bossa Nova, Beatles, Country and Western, Western Swing. The breadth of her repertory is amazing. What an enjoyable performance.
So next year, should we expect German Techno?

What I want is Jeni doing the Beach Boys. Please Jeni, next year do “In My Room,” “Rhonda.,” “California Girls.”

Jeni can pull it off an evening of the Beach Boys.

Maybe an entire CD of Jeni Fleming singing the Beach Boys.


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