“Diggin’ the Beatles: A Pianoman’s Soulful Journey through the Beatles Songbook”
Metropolitan Room – Jan. 19, 20
“Diggin’ the Beatles,” at the Metropolitan Room, was not a scholastic exploration of the Beatles, a group that disbanded over 40 years ago and yet still has a musical Popularity Quotient that is universal, spanning generations. Nor was it an impersonation or a tribute. Pianist/singer/ songwriter Gary Negbaur approached the Beatles songbook as a collection of standards that he could stamp with his own interpretation: a breezy style and a sense of fun, exuberance, and a spirit that captured the audience. On the first night, he performed solo; on the night this reviewer attended, he added a trio of accomplished pop/jazz musicians: David Phelps on guitar, Ritt Henn on bass, Nat Seeley on drums.
Many of the traditionally well-crafted songs making up the Great American Songbook were embraced by big bands and by jazz musicians; Negbaur believes that some of today’s contemporary tunes have this same flexibility.
Negbaur is often categorized as a jazz musician, and while he’s taken master classes with Dr. Billy Taylor, Harry Connick Jr., and Ellis Marsalis, his musical leanings are broader than only jazz. A songwriter who has written for theatre and film, as well as a pianist and singer, he is as drawn to words as he is to music, and all this came into play in this evening of mostly John Lennon and Paul McCartney songs. “Diggin’ the Beatles” was not a straight-ahead jazz show. Negbaur kept the melody intact while exploring possibilities. In a trio of songs written by George Harrison, his rendition of “Something” was nuanced by David Phelps’s tender guitar interludes and was followed by “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” picking up energy and building to “Here Comes the Sun.”
His piano playing was sharp and versatile, smoothly poignant in “Blackbird” and amusing in “She,” using an arrangement of strong, Slavic chords heralding a robust Russian rhythm and peaking with a rousing finale. Wondering how a Beatles song might sound if it had been written by Cole Porter, Negbaur put a Latin beat under “Love Me Do.” This was an interesting try but the Porter slant did not come across convincingly. Far better was the introspective “In My Life,” including the story of Beatles’ recording producer and arranger Sir George Martin’s part in the recording. John Lennon wanted a harpsichord sound for the release and Martin suggested playing the piano at a slower tempo, then doubling the tape speed for the recording to simulate the sound of a harpsichord.
Negbaur pointed out that the Beatles were four archetypes, and that each fan associated with a particular Beatle. His affinity was with Paul McCartney, “the happy one.” “We both married Jewish-American women,” he quipped. He also shares McCartney’s appreciation of British vaudeville music. John Lennon, he believes, always wanted to be happy, but when things did not go well… Negbaur’s musical answer? A frantic “Help!” country-style.
From the racing “Lady Madonna” to the energizing R&B delivery of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Negbaur had the audience “Diggin’ the Beatles” with him. “With a Little Help from My Friends” led to the finale, a wry “All You Need is Love.” Besides “love,” we would have to add a spirited band and a lot of memorable songs. Of course, there was an encore: “A Hard Day’s Night.”