Yesterday was the first Sunday in September. In what has become an annual ritual, jazz pianist and vocalist Mike Greensill returned to launch the new season of Old First Concerts at Old First Church. This year he was joined by Noel Jewkes playing a wide diversity of clarinets and saxophones and Dean Riley on bass (with one turn on pocket trumpet). As always, there was a special “mystery guest” (Greensill’s wife, the vocalist Wesla Whitfield), who appeared after the intermission.
Usually Greensill interleaves his own pieces with familiar standards. Yesterday, however, he limited himself to only one of his own originals, “Blues for Mr. Tom.” This came from American Lullaby, a 1989 duo album that he made with Jewkes. Greensill claimed that the album is no longer available; but Amazon has a Web page that claims to offer one new and two used CDs of the album, along with another Web page for two new audio cassettes for those who are seriously old school. Before they were joined by Riley, Greensill and Jewkes played four selections from this album. These included one of Jewkes’ originals (“Cat in the Blue Fur Suit”) and two standards, “Monday Date” (Earl Hines) and “I’ve Got the World on a String” (Harold Arlen). For these four tunes Jewkes alternated between soprano saxophone and clarinet.
After Riley joined them, Greensill and Jewkes moved on to the title selection from their album. Duke Ellington wrote this in 1942 on a commission by Meredith Wilson, who aired it on his Good News Program, a morning radio show sponsored by Maxwell House. Greensill observed that Ellington himself never recorded this, and he may be right. In this case the closest Amazon could come was a used copy of the sheet music.
Riley’s one take on pocket trumpet was for Harry Warren’s “I Had the Craziest Dream;” and Jewkes moved over to the bass for this selection. This was the final selection before the intermission, after which Whitfield ruled for the rest of the program. Her pitch is not as certain as it once was, and her general style of delivery has gotten more casual. However, her very presence is as captivating as ever; and she still has the gift of holding her audience in the palm of her hand. This part of the program was dominated by standards. Greensill took “the press” to task for announcing that this would be a program consisting only of songs by Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern; but both of them were still represented. This included “I Love Me,” which Kern apparently added for the 1946 revival of Show Boat. The most engaging Arlen selection was “Out of This World,” which included Jewkes one take on bass clarinet and provided just the right sonorous mood to reinforce Whitfield’s voice.
There was, however, a poignancy at the end of the afternoon with the selection of J. Fred Coots’ “For All We Know” as the encore. This was on Billie Holiday’s penultimate album (Lady in Satin); and that version may be one of the most tragic tracks ever recorded. Let’s just hope that, in spite of the words of the song, we may all meet again with Whitfield and Greensill next September.