Mark G. Meadows
Sometimes the gods of luck just smile down on you. I was at Chelsea Table + Stage a few weeks ago to review George Krissa; I had received a press release for the late show that same night – a jazz singer/songwriter/pianist presenting an evening of originals, Stevie Wonder songs and other material. I decided to stay for the second show. That is how I came to see Mark G. Meadows and witness one of the most impressive, exciting, musically inventive, and vocally exquisite jazz sets I have seen in ages. Ostensibly a celebration of the release of his new CD, Only Time, it was really an introduction to a major player in jazz, current and future. I am tempted to use the word “promising” but it simply doesn’t apply. The show and the artist sprang whole and fully-formed onto the N.Y. music scene as a force to be reckoned with. Intricate, involving, surprising arrangements swirl around vocals dedicated to the emotion and drama and joy of the lyrics and of the stories that he needed to tell.
His band acted as one with his vision and it was thrilling to experience. Meadows was on piano, Kris Monson on bass, Keith Butler on drums, Danielle Wertz and Kanysha Williams on vocals, and the remarkable Zac Zinger was on sax and Shakuhachi (an Asian woodwind instrument that made Meadows’ sound even more special). Zinger’s sax was fantastic, but it was the Shakuhachi that invested the entire evening with a gentle, haunting, uniquely emotional power that brought everything to another level.
While it’s often the case that lyrics place second to music in a jazz set, Meadows kept the words front and center—often mentioning them in his brief but warmly entertaining patter. His work in theatre (he is coming to Broadway in 2024 with the new musical, The Outsiders) might have something to do with that, but whatever the reason, it was a constant pleasure. In no way was the music slighted; his inventive arrangements were filled with surprise, wit, power, and personality, ably brought to life by his brilliant band.
His song choices, when not his own or Wonder’s, were equally adventurous and unusual. He opened with Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” (Walter Becker, Donald Fagen) which, in his hands (and expressive voice) sounded for all the world like vintage Paul Simon. It simultaneously made me sit up and listen and sit back and relax. Then came the first Stevie Wonder cover, “Uptight” which he treated in a low-key but still rhythmic lullaby to his infant son. What is usually a raucous R&B romp, became a message of hope, comfort, and an assurance that “everything is all right.” With this surprisingly effective reimagining of a classic, I was prepared to follow Meadows wherever he chose to go.
An original, “Steady Water,” was a beautiful blend of simplicity and sophistication, highlighting the gorgeous voice of Danielle Wertz while Monson’s bass perfectly complemented the masterful piano.
The vocal interplay of the three singers on “As If You Read My Mind” (Wonder) was a perfect blend against the slow and steady build of the arrangement. I was lost in the sound, the spirit, and the message of a hypnotic “Desperado” (Glen Frey, Don Henley) on which Wertz’s sad, mysterious, magical vocal took centerstage. Kanysha Williams was featured on Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” which was the closest to a traditional arrangement but still infused with Meadows’ voice, set apart by the subtle, perfectly paced drums that helped it grow to a burst of passionate, heartfelt joy, and a wildly exciting climax. A beautifully rhythmic love song, “Be There,” was dedicated to his wife. His remarkable choice of covers continued with “That’s the Way It Is” (Bruce Hornsby) which he set up by calling on the audience to pay close attention to the line “Don’t believe them,” an advisory that can sometimes get lost in the beauty of the song. On this number (and to varying degrees throughout the show) it was a pure delight to see the band get lost in the perfection of the arrangement.
“Once Upon a Purple Night” (Meadows) was inspired by Baltimore but was repurposed as a tribute to his soon-to-be new home, NYC. The two back-up singers joined their voices to a fiery sax solo to create a horn section to fill out the sound with a decidedly urban grandeur leading into cascading piano flourishes. One last original, “Only Time,” reminded the audience that “we make our own time.” Its powerful, healing message was the perfect close to a remarkable show, a show that was a creative, cohesive, unforgettable statement of Mark G. Meadows’ art. In my heart, I am still applauding.
Presented by Chelsea Table + Stage, 152 W. 26th St., NYC, on September 23, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”