Vintage Bar and Grill is an unlikely place for jazz aficionados. This Abington sports bar, with six television screens tuned to muted ball games, is loud, raucous, and filled with chatty regulars perched on endowed bar stools. The art on the walls is dominated by a red neon Budweiser sign.
But every Wednesday night, along with half-pound burgers, Vintage serves up a tasty Jazz Jam, featuring vocalist Michelle Lordi, tenor sax legend Larry McKenna, Sonny Troy and Tim Conley on guitar, Jason Fraticelli on bass, and Bill Avayou on drums.
A casual atmosphere
There’s no stage or performance space. The musicians set up in a cramped corner next to the entrance, so close to patrons’ tables they can grab a beer. At 8pm, when Lordi introduces herself and the band, the dinner crowd is going strong. No one lowers his voice. Few glance in her direction. Waiters continue to swoop around, refreshing drinks, slapping down orders of fish tacos.
Over all this chaos rises Lordi’s voice — sultry, crystalline, understated yet authoritative. Sticking to tunes from the American Songbook, she opens her set with “I Remember You.” Discerning ears recognize in Lordi’s haunting phrasing her similarity to Julie Christy or Diane Krall. Lordi’s jazz stylings recall another time and place with smoky lounges, sweet regrets, and indelible kisses. However, her repertoire is more than nostalgia. Lordi doesn’t simply perform jazz standards, she reinterprets them, instilling new meanings with raw emotion, making them her own.
Does the crowd ever quiet down when Lordi performs? Not really. Although many are there for the music, they are also there to table hop and socialize. It’s a sign of consummate professionalism that Lordi and her band seem unphased by the ruckus. (This doesn’t happen when Lordi appears at Paris Bistro in Chestnut Hill, where patrons are regularly reminded to “Please refrain from talking during the performance.”)
When she isn’t singing, the band offers applause-worthy improvisations. Fraticelli knows how to make his bass swing. Many come just to hear McKenna. Having backed up Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, among many other jazz greats, McKenna has no shortage of groupies. Same goes for jazz guitarist Sonny Troy who has over 45 years in the biz, playing on recordings, in Vegas clubs, and with iconic songbirds like Peggy Lee.
Old favorites and weekly surprises
These jazz giants could be anywhere. The fact that they choose to be at Vintage weekly with Michelle Lordi for a free-wheeling jam says a lot about the place, the crowd and, more than anything, about Lordi. It’s takes a lot of confidence to stand in Peggy Lee’s and Ol’ Blue Eyes’ shoes, belting out the songs they made famous with the very same musicians backing her up. Lordi does it with grace, finesse and respect for the music.
When she croons, “Who Knows Where or When?” her audience smiles nostalgically. Many are old enough to remember when these WWII-era songs first came out. Vintage attracts an older crowd, primarily in their 50s and 60s, with the exception of a few young professionals there for the food and drink, oblivious to the fine musicianship. One young woman at the bar wore fuzzy bunny ears; it’s doubtful she knew the words to Lordi’s wistful rendition of “That Old Feeling.”
Many of the “regulars” are musicians and vocalists for whom the party doesn’t really start until around 9:45pm when they can sit in with the band. By then, the dinner crowd has cleared out, leaving only serious music lovers and serious drinkers. The first guest artist to sit in was Merv Gratz, a trumpet player in his early 70s. Then, a crowd favorite, Charlie Doren, sang “I Want to be Around.”
Part of the excitement of Lordi’s jam is not knowing who is going to show up on any given Wednesday night. It could be a jazz legend. It could be a talented singer who hedged her bet and went to law school instead. Or it could be you.
Sunday, May 22 2016 4-6:30pm
This month, Exhibit: Jazz will celebrate the artistry of two local jazz legends, Sonny Troy and Larry McKenna. They have a 60+ year history of making music together – starting in Frankie Avalon’s band in South Philadelphia. Both have played at the highest level in top jazz bands such as Louis Prima and Woody Herman and as accompanists to Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and more. They will be joined by Michelle Lordi – vocals and Joe Plowman- bass. Come join us and be part of this historic musical conversation. Rain or shine!