NERO MY HEART TO THEE
I always have a peculiar mix of excitement and trepidation when seeing a favorite entertainer live for the first time, especially when they are well past retirement years. In the case of Peter Nero, I wondered if my memories of listening to this astounding pianist would be pushed aside by a possibly weak performance. After all, the man who started his recording career 55 years ago is now 81 years old. But the indefatigable Nero not only reminded me of his creativity with jazz renderings in the vein of George Shearing and Oscar Peterson, but he walloped those Steinway keys into submission.
The occasion was a salute to George Gershwin, the first act being standards from Broadway, and the second act offering tunes from a glorious but small film career, which was cut short by Gershwin’s untimely death. Fittingly, the 2 and 1/2 hour performance ended with “Rhapsody in Blue”: His bio tells us that Nero’s first major national TV success came at age 17 when he played the composition for solo piano and jazz band with Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who introduced it in 1924. Here at Valley Performing Arts Center, there was no band. Aided only by long-time bassist Michael Barnett, Nero offered improvisations on excerpts from “Rhapsody in Blue,” and it was as transporting as a Debussy prelude or Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. The chordal structures and harmonies, riffs and arpeggios, had magical resonance that few solo piano players achieve.
Vocalist Kate Strohmaier, changing outfits 3 times, offered competent interpretations on “Embraceable You,” “Stairway to Paradise,” and others, but she wan’t particularly distinctive. Barnett accompanied Nero with some wicked bass playing on “Foggy Day,” and proved himself a worthy player to Nero’s pyrotechnics. But my money was on the headliner himself. This is the type of piano playing that keyboardists in bars can only emulate and imitate. I dare anyone to silence an audience the way Nero did when, during excerpts from Porgy and Bess, he lulled us with a mystically sweet and rapturous “Bess, You is My Woman Now.” The soul-stirring textural musical overtones were better than a drug. It’s difficult to imagine someone of Nero’s age still slamming the ivories with consummate skill, but I was blown away (thanks to VPAC’s Executive Director Thor Steingraber for putting this together). Catch Nero in concert if ever you get the chance. “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is an understatement.
photo by Donna Billingsley