Jazz clubs harken back to an earlier, romantic time in American history, where smoke-filled rooms furnished with tiny tables containing perhaps a single candle to provide the only lighting for shadow-shrouded couples, focused on a sultry chanteuse belting out a torch song. Meanwhile, some Humphrey Bogart-type character in a white dinner jacket lurks in the gloominess, brokering some nefarious bit of intrigue.
Well, that’s only in the movies. However Catalina Bar and Grill offers up this slice of a tantalizing bit of Americana at a time when venues of this sort are increasingly few and far between. On this particular night, I was there to take in a performance by a singer devoted to keeping up the legacy of one of the grand standard bearers of the tradition, Frank Sinatra.
And to my delight, although not listed as the headliner, vocalist and master of ceremonies Dave Damiani turned out to be the unifying element of the evening’s performance, with his “Instigators” nine piece band providing more than adequate backup, especially with the keyboard support of L.A. native and UC Irvine and Cal Arts grad Gary Matsumoto tickling the ivories.
While Damiani and his bandmates all appear well under the age of 40, they display slavish devotion to the canon of standards and big band aesthetics, even adhering to what might be called a “postmodern Rat Pack” slant on their music.
And then there was the actual headliner. At first glance, Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. might seem an unlikely standard bearer. He is a tallish, thin Black dude with braids, and the thickest West Virginia speaking accent this side of (football receiver) Randy Moss. He explained away his technique via the influence of a babysitter with musical tastes leaning towards old school crooning. In this way, he initially fell under the sway of Nat “King” Cole, who was in his words the “coolest Black guy in the world.” He eventually segued to the “coolest White guy in the world,” Sinatra.
These stylings enabled Murphy to prevail over the competition in the NBC “America’s Got Talent” (AGT) reality TV show. In fact, he has honed the art of emulating “ole blue eyes” down to a science, a methodology that is both his strength and weakness.
The highlight of the evening was arguably the inclusion of singer Maiya Sykes, whose formidable talent did not prevent her elimination from “The Voice” AGT’s NBC rival. During this competition, music mogul and judge Pharrell Williams compared her to icons Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight, and the night’s performance at Catalina validated these evaluations. Her renditions of the gone-too-soon Amy Winehouse chestnut, “I’m no Good,” and the Sam Smith associated, too-new-to-be-a-standard-yet classic, “Stay with Me” underscored the assessment of Sykes by media blog “Gawker” as “the soulful voice of perfection.”
Both Damiani and Murphy might benefit from the cultivation of personal, more individualized approaches to their repertoire. An associate suggested that Murphy could be suited for adjacent genres, such as Broadway musicals and the like, since he already possesses the “chops” or technique in abundance.
True artistry often involves eccentricity and idiosyncrasy, the inclusion of which may just elevate Murphy past the point of being a very good imitation to a genuine master.