Joe and Elana Byrd chose the snug back room of 49 West Coffeehouse and Cafe to hold last weekend's tribute concert to Jim Lester, a longtime Annapolis musician who enjoyed playing there. Lester died April 27 in Hingham, Mass., from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ( Lou Gehrig's disease) at age 82.
The warm ambience and intimate listening space were ideal for the concert, which featured Lester's musician friends Robert Redd on piano, John Jenson on trombone and Brooks Tegler on drums, along with vocalist Sue Matthews and guest trumpeter Dick Glass. For two hours, the music said everything in the language that Lester's widow, Valerie, son Toby and his gathered friends wanted to hear.
In a September 2006 interview, I discovered that Jim Lester knew no boundaries.
The former Beverly Hills psychologist climbed Mount Everest as part of his research on stress among climbers, then traveled through the Caribbean, Central and South America and Africa during two years in the Peace Corps. He did a three-year stint in academia as a department head for a college in Massachusetts and later worked for the U.S. Office of Naval Research in London and Washington.
After his retirement in 1988, he and his wife settled in Annapolis, where he completed a biography of pianist Art Tatum and concentrated on making music as a pianist and trombonist. In the 2006 interview, Lester said he was "mightily pleased" by a singer's description of his accompaniment as "playing like Fred Astaire's dancing." His keyboard artistry reflected the casual sophistication of a life well and fully lived.
From the opening, "Exactly Like You," to the spectacular finish, the two-hour concert was a joyous tribute through each thoughtfully chosen song.
At home with these masterful musicians, Matthews invested her songs with warm layers of feeling — sassy and upbeat in "Don't Be That Way"; tender in "The Nearness of You"; and with delighted astonishment in "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me." Later, she captured the sweet essence of George Gershwin's last song, "Our Love is Here to Stay" and followed with a longing for "Moonlight in Vermont."
The Redd, Jenson and Tegler trio joined by Glass defined classic jazz with their versions of "Stella by Starlight" and "Tea for Two," reaching a frantic peak in dueling trombone-trumpet duets. Through every number, drummer Tegler drove the beat in a masterful rhythm that lifted spirits in the cozy space, where musicians and audience connected.
The last segment of the concert offered a musical highlight with Jenson's skilled trombone tribute of the Tommy Dorsey theme, "Getting Sentimental Over You." Redd's singularly appropriate "The Very Thought of You" piano solo left a lingering glow. And a fantastic ensemble version of Jobim's "Wave" grew in intensity, much like Lester's incomparable recording of Jobim's "Quiet Nights."
The evening ended with Johnny Mercer's "Too Marvelous for Words," in tribute to Lester's published biography of Tatum of the same name, which the musicians agreed could well describe their honoree.
The Lester Tribute Concert began the summer jazz concert season. Also on the schedule:
•Pianist Stef Scaggiari and smooth vocalist Tony Spencer, July 10.
•Legendary 81-year-old pianist Dick Morgan with Dave Einhorn on bass, Aug. 14.
•Pianist Robert Redd with brother Chuck Redd on vibes, Sept. 11.
•"The Brazilians Are Coming," June 26. Featured will be fabled Brazilian drummer Deducca da Fonseca, his wife Maucha Adnet, noted Brazilian bassist Leonardo Cioglia, Chuck Redd on vibes and Robert Redd on piano.
•Master guitarist Gene Bertoncini, Sept. 10. Solo concert will cover his repertoire of jazz standards and Brazilian tunes.
•Gypsy jazz quartet "Harmonious Wail," Sept. 25.
There is a $20 cover charge at these concerts, held at 49 West and at Loews Annapolis Hotel Powerhouse. Reservations are required. Call 410-626-9796 for 49 West, and 410-269-0777 for the Powerhouse.