By Edward Kliszus
Marissa Licata at Birdland connected her violin to the sound system and began to improvise. Her solo opener immediately revealed her virtuosity. Her playing evoked the thematic raptures and modalities of Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2., Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D – double stops, passionate portamentos, and satanically difficult passages with dazzling, ravishing violin pyrotechnics.
A versatile, dramatic artist, Licata began with Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango, capturing the spirit of the renowned Buenos Aires invention with its passionate form that drives the magnificent dance—at times using inventive bowing techniques to create percussive sounds, with a jazz musician’s pensive aplomb she improvises and follows the form where each member of the quartet, in turn, improvises over the tune.
It had already become clear that Licata is not just a musical descendant of Europe’s finest violin traditions but that of the great jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Licata’s choice of music is marvelous, inventive, eclectic, and adventurous. The music originated from jazz, pop, gypsy, Bulgarian rhythms and modes, Klezmer, and late 19th-century romanticism from the violin concerto form.
Licata and her team effortlessly performed a traditional Bulgarian song that required astonishing rhythmic ensemble skills. Drummer Shannon Ford was outstanding as he maintained a solid 7/8 meter (seven beats in a measure) pulse and provided an anchor for a joyous, exciting, and adventurous modal romp performed along with Licata and guitarist Michael Aarons, and bassist Martin Doykin. I recall a conversation with the great Joe Morello, who explained to me how Dave Brubeck’s quartet struggled with the famous song Take Five, which required many takes to record due to the work’s unsettling 5/4 meter. Morello noted how he provided his peers with a solid rhythmic base by relying on the hi-hat for a consistent, predictable beat. This selection inspired musical ruminations ranging from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 second movement set in 5/4 meter to Don Ellis’ 1971 recording of Bulgarian Bulge.
The pace slowed for just a bit with Licata’s performance of Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow, featured in the 1939 film The Wizard of OZ. This demonstrated Licata’s reflective, expressive, romantic spirit and provided a restive interlude for the next Bulgarian chiaroscuro.
A series of delightful songs like Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman, Be Steadwell’s Greens, Anthony Newley’s Feelin’ Good, and Beyoncé’s Daddy Lessons kept the audience engaged and enthused. Guest vocalist Aury Krebs appeared to perform solo and also sang a duet encore with the versatile, multi-talented Licata in the Pointer Sisters’ funky song How Long – Betcha’ got a Chick on the Side.
Licata performed accompanied a cadenza from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D. Bravissimo!
Our violin virtuoso immerses herself unabashedly in her performance. She and her instrument are as one, conveying the innermost meanings and passions of the music she selects from the extant library. Improvisation frees her from the discipline of interpreting only what is expressed in written notation, expediating her channels of personal expression. She is in full command of her venue, having mastered the predilections of her seemingly fragile instrument. Her sizzling exclamations are just as advertised. Marisa Licata has it all: poise, glamour, charisma, sheer talent, depth, brilliance, and power. She is a blazing nonpareil of her oeuvre.
Birdland Jazz Club
315 West 44th St
New York, NY 10036
Events and ticket information: https://birdlandjazz.com/calendar/Har