Mad Romance performs at O'Callaghan's Hotel. The… (Bud Johnson, Baltimore…)
On May 28, after a three-month absence of major jazz concerts in downtown Annapolis, local music enthusiasts celebrated the appearance of major jazz artists at a new venue, O'Callaghan's Hotel, where the vocal jazz quartet Mad Romance played to a capacity audience, filling all seats at every table.
In setting up the show, legendary bassist Joe Byrd, who retired from performing in December 2008, continues to keep jazz alive in Annapolis with his wife, jazz entrepreneur Elana Byrd.
Reflecting on the concert, Elana Byrd, who is also a practicing attorney, recalled the bumpy road to get there.
"Looking back on our history, we were at the Maryland Inn for two months shy of 30 years and were canceled on one-week notice, with six months' worth of shows pending," she said. "Then we were at Loews for seven-plus years and canceled following a sold-out all-Brazilian concert Feb. 26 on two weeks' notice, with six months' worth of acts pending."
To honor concert dates that had already been set, she arranged shows at other venues. O'Callaghan's proved to be a near-perfect concert space, where audience members could enjoy food from the menu along with drinks served at their tables in a large dining room. Most important, the room is two stories high, permitting better sound distribution for great jazz — which Mad Romance delivered.
We lucky listeners were treated to some notable harmonizing by this Miami-based quartet, who presented original arrangements of classic jazz, lush ballads and distinctive Latin rhythms. The vocalists are also talented musicians, and took turns on woodwinds, keyboard, trumpet, percussion and saxophone.
The program was filled with surprises, setting Cole Porter's classic "I Concentrate On You" to Cuban rhythms and delivering the Irving Berlin standard "Let Yourself Go" complete with a vocalized rendition of the unmistakable rhythmic tapping of Fred Astaire immortalized in the 1936 film "Follow the Fleet."
A tender version of the torch tune "You Don't Know What Love Is," complete with saxophone solo, was impeccably delivered by Greg Diaz, with vocals supplied by harmonizing divas Wendy Pedersen and Lisanne Lyons — both classically trained musicians. Pedersen and Lyons not only harmonize exceedingly well, but can transform their voices into unique orchestral instruments together with Diaz and leader Rick Harris, who created vocal improvisations based around repeated vowel-sound combinations. The product was phenomenal and resembled nothing I'd ever heard.
Despite the major differences, the sound might be likened to the scat of Ella Fitzgerald. During a break, Joe Byrd reminded me that the Mills Brothers did a similar type of vocalizing in their heyday.
Harris told us that he had grown up in Silver Spring, which made this concert like a homecoming for him, and he recalled playing many concerts in Annapolis. Harris, a multi-instrumentalist and self-taught arranger, founded the original Mad Romance in Washington in 1983 with singing partner Pam Bricker. She was a member of the group from 1983 to 1987.
As a duo, Bricker and Harris won several D.C. music awards; Harris later became an award-winning solo jazz vocalist. He paid a heartfelt tribute to Bricker, who died at age 50 in 2005, in a moving rendition of "How are Things in Glocca Morra?" The song seemed doubly appropriate in the Irish setting of O'Callaghan's.
Mad Romance was lucky to have local pianist Rob Redd to join them on the keyboard, doing whatever was required — and more — to give new meaning and luster to instrumental interludes. Bassist Dave Jernigan's considerable talents also enriched the evening.
This opening experience at O'Callaghan's Hotel adds up to Joe and Elana Byrd's having found a new permanent home that both agree is "a good fit, where the ambience is terrific and the staff is great, and the feel of the place is perfect for jazz."
If you go
Upcoming jazz shows at O'Callaghan's Annapolis Hotel, 174 West St.:
•8 p.m., Friday, June 24: Lewis "Flip" Barnes Ensemble, featuring Flip Barnes on trumpet and Jerry Queene on sax
•8 p.m., Saturday, June 25: Stef Scaggiari and his trio with guest singers
Tickets are $20. Reservations: 410-269-0777 or email firstname.lastname@example.org