Wednesday, May 27, 2009

soloNOVA: Piccola Cosi

Italians have always been quite hospitable to American expat jazz musicians, perhaps most notably with Chet Baker in the 1960’s (at least before jailing him on drug charges). The fragile romanticism of “My Funny Valentine,” a standard closely associated with Baker, would indeed be a fitting trial-by-fire for an American neophyte jazz vocalist. Aja Nisenson relates that fateful debut live performance, as well as the men and music she encountered in the Bologna jazz scene, with words and music in Piccola Cosi, which opened last night at the DR-2 Theatre as part of the soloNOVA Arts Festival of solo shows.

Unlike other soloNOVA selections, Nisenson has back-up on-stage, in the form of her able jazz trio, led by director Brian Dilg on keyboards, with Joe Nagle on drums and Pete O’Connell on bass. Of course, the only talking they do is through their instruments, which is appropriate since music plays such an important role in Nisenson’s story.

As she presents herself, Nisenson arrived in Italy a shy, inexperienced college student, who had performed opera and musical theater, but never jazz—at least not in front of a live audience. Her first time tackling a jazz standard is a bit of an adventure, as one might expect, but fortunately the piano-player leading the band is indulgent. After a false start, Nisenson demonstrates why she set out on her jazz excursion. It turns out she really has quite a voice, and even shows some scat chops she did not know she had, when cajoled into it by the encouraging band leader.

As Nisenson explains, Italy was a liberating environment for her. She claims she would not have had the nerve to sit-in with an American group, but in Italy everyone seems more inviting, particularly the men. Much of the show involves Nisenson’s attempts to deflect the advances of several prospective Italian lovers, with varying degrees of success. Again, the attractive Nisenson explains she always perceived herself as a geeky sneaker-wearing kid, but in Bologna, she had more romantic attention than she really wanted.

While the roster of would-be suitors sort of blend together for the audience, Nisenson infuses Piccola with a hip jazz sensibility that suggests she really does know of what she speaks. She cleverly integrates classic standards like “Take the A Train,” “Just Friends,” and “I’m Through with Love” into the show to help advance her story. As a crowd pleasing bonus, she even ends with a swinging “Mambo Italiano.”

Nisenson has a charismatic stage presence and legitimate vocal talent. Each standard she performed on opening night (even those intended for comic effect) earned a hearty round of applause. Combining jazz, musical theater, and solo performance, Piccola is an entertaining night of hybrid-theater. It runs at the DR-2 through May 30th, concluding the 6th annual soloNOVA fest.