Words by: Bobby Coleman | Images by: Rod Snyder
Alyssa Graham :: 10.17.08 :: Philadelphia Museum of Art :: Philadelphia, PA
The setting for Alyssa Graham's performance was fitting for this singer who appreciates fine art. The Greek inspired building, "The Parthenon on the parkway," as it is affectionately known, is a huge sandstone building on the east bank of the Schuylkill River that dominates the hillside as you walk from the center of the city into the east entrance of Fairmont Park. A magnet for the imagination, it's easy to spend days dreaming inside its marble walls and drifting through its galleries.
As Graham was introduced to us, I sat upon the marble staircase inside that ascends to the second floor balcony and the other galleries. The large bronze sculpture of "Diana The Hunter," the Roman Goddess of Love, dominates the hall - holding her bow in an amorous pose, smiling hopefully, having sent her arrow to the object of her affection, a moment frozen in time.
The band warmed up with an instrumental medley of jazz songs. The noisy crowd drank and talked as if the music was only a background sound for their conversations. Graham was seated on a stool in the center of the stage with the band - Jon Cowherd (piano), Derek Nievergelt (bass), Bill Campbell (drums), Doug Graham (guitar) – around her. She spoke softly and introduced a cover of Neil Young's "Don't Let it Bring You Down." What emerged from Graham's petite frame was a mature, deeply practiced vocal style. Her training is evident and welcome in a music world so often lacking in discipline. In contrast to Neil Young's scratchy, wining imploration, Graham delivered a remarkable, even stunning rendition, her voice blending and drifting out of the lyric into the body of the music, buoyed by some wonderful piano solos along the way. Her voice was clear, sexy and sweet, on key and in pitch.
She told us about her love of Brazilian music and particularly legendary Brazilian singer and guitar player Joao Gilberto. She described the lifestyle and the love she has with her partner and guitarist Douglas Graham, detailing their musical adventures in the Southern hemisphere as a setting for a song about love from Rio, "É Com Esse Que Eu Vou," by Pedro Caetano. She used gestures to communicate and animate the words to the song, which was sung in Portuguese, making cute faces while singing with fluidity, using small hand movements to indicate a romantic embrace or perhaps a kiss in a flowery garden, piano and guitar softly punctuating the lyrical phrases, the band holding us, moving us back and forth into the seduction.
|Alyssa Graham :: 10.17 :: PA|
On "Arkansas" from her new CD, Echo, her innocent looks belied her depth of passion. Her range also descended and volume increased slightly, the musical theme repeated in the chorus: "Darling are you dreaming of the plans we'd made?/ Your dreams may change when I'm gone." Her vocal styling on this number was the epitome of that moment when we surrender and accept the failure of the will to continue to love. Again the piano played the part of a percussion instrument, the performance of this haunting song ended like a bell tolling for the reality of that moment.
There evolved a pattern in the songs, in the rhythm of the words as well as the beats, where the intellectual content of the lyrics (the thinking part) became pure emotion. We were lead there through the next two songs. "Involved Again" is a tune written 50 years ago by Jack Reardon for Billie Holiday that Graham sings on her ner CD and proves a serendipitous match. But, what touched me so deeply at this show was the honest way "Butterflies" was introduced, where the very personal details of her and Douglas' lives together revealed to us how they exist in the enviable state of love. "And I dreamed of you under the moon/ I heard your laughter fill the room/ I dreamed of you." The way she delivers the phrase is so telling and absorbing it forms a portrait of forgiveness, and her voice expresses a merciful, tender love and deep felt sentiment.
"America" by Simon & Garfunkel was the final selection. Their "patriotic moment" proved a playful, jazzy run that was ultimately delightful and near epic; not to mention a nod to our future and the hope that we just might evolve.
After the show, at a table in the first row, Graham shared stories, starting with the beginning of her career performing rock & roll with a six-piece band in front of a coffee shop in Cornell. Growing up, Graham was exposed to jazz and folk rock, admiring Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Now, Graham is pushing herself with jazz and helping to bring in a new audience. She's not redefining it but broadening the experience, taking us for a ride in these improvising, open concerts. She is a star ascending and we'll surely be hearing more from Graham in the days ahead.
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