Friday, October 17, 2014

The Highliners - The Band That's Tight and Plays it Just Right

On Friday evening October 10th The Highliners performed to a large crowd at Somethin' jazz club in the East 50s in NYC. The atmosphere was intimate, akin to a cavern-styled Parisian jazz club like the one that was lovingly reproduced in the movie 'Round Midnight. Instead of experiencing tenor saxophonist Dale Turner (portrayed by Dexter Gordon) with his 1950's style jazz trio, the audience was exposed to the multidimensional sounds of a quintet that is well versed in multiple styles of jazz including straight ahead, uniquely interpreted rock tunes, classical music and Latin offerings. Some of these numbers have original arrangements with through-composed lines adding to the texture of the quintet's interpretations. And as the title of this blog indicates the band is psychically tight. The rhythm section of Steve Newman (piano), Adam Kahan (bass) and Tommy Mattioli (drums) was like a finely tuned timepiece playing satisfying ideas that were always spot on to Debra Kreisberg's sultry alto sax and Melissa Fogarty's mellifluous vocals.

One of the contributing factors that make The Highliners stand out from other local jazz groups I have heard over the last 20 years is Melissa Fogarty's vocalism. She has a distinct, clear soprano sound reminiscent of Diane Schuur. Fogarty's virtuosic lines are more rooted from a singer's organic perspective while Schuur's lines are more instrumental in approach. Fogarty is also a classically trained soprano whose training lends a pleasing heft to her sound consistently throughout all registers while managing not to sound operatic at all. She studied at Eastman School of Music where she received her bachelors degree. After graduation she studied privately with the great diva and music educator Rita Shane. Ms. Shane unfortunately passed away earlier in October. (Yours truly also had the honor of studying with Ms. Shane for 7 years in her private studio in NYC.) Fogarty dedicated Johnny Mandel's The Shadow of Your Smile to her and the band played the tune in a stimulating bossa style that truthfully memorialized her powerful spirit.

Another contributing factor to this quintet's uniqueness is Debra Kreisberg who is a jazz and classically trained saxophonist also with a bachelors degree from Eastman and a masters degree in Jazz and Commercial Music from Manhattan School of Music, where she studied with Dick Oatts. Her solid technique shows in the beauty of her tone and in the ease with which she executes her lines. Her solos are tasteful and fulfilling like a mellow Bordeaux and never too aggressively brash as a "drink now" wine would be.

To further expound on the versatility of The Highliners here is a sampling of their tune list - Johnny Mandel's A Time for Love, Jobim's No More Blues featuring an original composed line by Kreisberg and The Beatles' Eight Days a Week cleverly arranged by Fogarty. Their next engagement is on December 10th at Tomi Jazz and you can find out more about them by "liking" their facebook page. A web site is forthcoming. Do go and see them. Their music will inspire you and broaden your jazz sensibilities.

Tami Swartz is an actor, opera singer, director, producer, occasional jazz vocalist and when possessed by something that moves her is a blogger who resides in NYC with her husband and stuffed rabbits…

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

*When Tofu Meets Italian

*In spite of two blaring science fiction references that some of you may or may not get this is actually a blog about food. (grin)

Weary from my recent travels I donned my silk jammies, as agent Dana Scully would do after a particularly exhausting case, and surveyed the contents of our ice cubicle. To call a New York City apartment sized vessel that contains chilled food stuffs a refrigerator would be an overstatement. Not having shopped in a few days I braced myself for the process of making a hap hazard dinner of makeshift ingredients. I generally stock the box (alas if it were only a blue box that were bigger on the inside) with serviceable basics that easily fit in the confined space - fruit, vegetables, eggs, cheese, herbs, condiments and other sources of protein and, oh yeah, a bottle or two of the white stuff. (The red stuff lives on a rack underneath our custom-built-oak-computer-hutch-turned-bar. THAT is another story for another time.) In the pantry are always beans, rice, canned goods… What happened next was a revelation. My dinner soon became an Italian themed semi-vegetarian repast of Cannellini Beans with Arugula and Pan Seared Tofu with Tomato Cream Sauce. "Italian tofu sauce?!" you exclaim. Seriously, it's really delicious. Tofu is an amazing blank, nutritious palette that assumes any flavors that you choose to infuse it with and those of you who are my close friends know I can't resist marrying Eastern and Western ingredients in my recipes.

This meal, while substantial enough to warm the tummy on an early Autumn evening, could also be served at room temperature and used as picnic food should Indian Summer grace us once again. The total cooking time? I think I was standing in the kitchen for an hour. The prep and cooking time will be less if you make the simple red sauce ahead of time. Recipes and instructions are in the following paragraphs. I highly recommend Calamus Estate Winery's 2012 Barrel Kissed Chardonnay with this dish. Its caramel-smooth, robust nature is never over oaked and provides the perfect compliment to the pungence of the roasted tomatoes and anchovies in these dishes.


Simple Red Sauce
Cannellini Beans with Arugula
Pan Seared Tofu with Tomato Cream Sauce


Simple Red Sauce
1 Can Organic Fire Roasted Crushed Tomatoes
3 Cloves Garlic - finely minced
2 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Sprig Fresh Rosemary - finely minced
1 TSP Fresh Oregano - plucked from the stems
1 Bay Leaf
2 TBSP Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese
Sea Salt and Pepper - to taste

Cannellini Beans with Arugula
2 Cans (16 ounces) Cannelini Beans
2 Shallots - sliced
3 Cloves Garlic - finely minced
2 Cups Fresh Arugula
3 Anchovies
1 TBSP Fresh Rosemary - fined minced
1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Sea Salt and Pepper - to taste

Pan Seared Tofu with Tomato Cream Sauce
1 Cake Extra Firm Tofu
1 Cup Simple Red Sauce
1/4 Cup Half and Half
2 TBSP Olive Oil
Toasted Pine Nuts
1/4 Tsp Grated Nutmeg
Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese to Taste


In a sauce pan add the olive oil and heat on medium until the oil is shimmering. Add the fresh herbs and bay leaf and toast for one minute. Add the minced garlic and sauté until a bit browned. Add the fire roasted, crushed tomatoes, salt, pepper and stir. (I prefer the fire roasted variety as the roasting process releases the sugars in the tomatoes and adds a smokey sweetness to the sauce.) Sprinkle the cheese on top and cover. Reduce the temperature to low and simmer for 20 minutes allowing the cheese to slowly fall into the sauce and incorporate. Set aside and stir before serving.

While the sauce is simmering pat the tofu cake dry with a paper towel and slice into cubes. Add oil to a non stick pan and heat on high (setting 5 out of 6 on our stove) until the oil is shimmering. Add the tofu and brown it as you would a piece of meat for a couple of minutes on each side. (I like to use fresh tofu if I can find it. The health food store near us also carries some wonderful local, artisanal varieties.)

In another non stick fry pan heat the olive oil to shimmering over medium heat and add the sliced shallots. Once the shallots are soft (about 5 minutes) add the rosemary, garlic and anchovies. When the garlic is light brown drain the beans and add them to the pan lightly mashing them with a fork leaving some of the beans intact. Then stir in the arugula and salt and pepper to taste. Anchovies already have salt so you don't have to use much. Once the arugula is wilted and incorporated with the beans the dish is finished. Set the pan off of the heat.

Add the browned tofu to the non stick fry pan you used before, add the simple sauce, the half and half and grated nutmeg. I prefer fresh nutmeg as it adds a beautiful fragrance to the sauce. Stir all ingredients and heat until warmed through. Top with some toasted pine nuts and grated Pecorino Romano cheese. (Toasted pine nuts are easy to make. I usually add a little olive oil in a pan and heat on medium until the nuts are brown. It only take a few minutes.) I prefer Romano's sharp flavor of sheep milk to Parmesan's cow's milk flavor and Romano is generally less expensive. These recipes produce 2 generous dinner servings or serve 4-6 as an appetizer. Have fun making your own variations!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Little Opera Company That Could

On Friday September 12th and Saturday September 13th, 2014 Utopia Opera celebrated its fourth season with a production of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah at the Lang Recital Hall at Hunter College in New York, NY. The little company did much more than expected in such an intimate space usually reserved for recitals and master classes. The hall, which maybe seats 175 people, was filled with enthusiastic opera goers of all ages - something that is quite unique in a world that claims opera and its audience are dying.

The cast was combined with young professional newcomers and established professional artists. Standouts were: Metropolitan Opera tenor Adam C.J. Klein as Susannah's brother Sam whose voice, musicianship, character development and language ability (yes that was a genuine Appalachian dialect he was using) make many of us wonder why we can only get this Broadway quality of performance occasionally in major opera houses and a bit more so in regional opera houses; Steven Fredericks, whose rich basso would normally be a comforting balm to a cold and harsh world (indeed yours truly portrayed Pamina to his Sarastro and felt warmed to the toes and a return to the womb every time he sang his aria), convincingly and creepily juxtaposed his portrayal of a monster molester whose baser, animalistic needs won out over his common sense as the role of Reverend Blitch; Shannon Jones and Sara Beth Pearson - both in the roles of Susannah - gave nuanced and believable performances as a kind young woman whose earthiness is used against her by her fellow townspeople and whose life is forever marred by hearsay, gossip and lies. It is not fair to compare their performances so this writer choses merely to point out the differences. Jones had a fuller voice and her Susannah was an old soul while Pearson's voice was lighter and her characterization more innocent up until the second act. Both performances and vocal quality were perfectly acceptable for the role.

Along with the 14 cast members there was an ensemble of 14 instrumentalists which unfortunately had to split the stage with the singing actors. The artistic director William Remmers, who also served as stage director and conductor, assured the audience that eventually they would have a larger venue that would accommodate a pit for the orchestra. "Huzzah!" this reviewer exclaims: however, with what little space they had all the artists sharing said space managed splendidly.

This young opera company has truly burst out of the gate for its first production of the season. May it grace New York City for years to come. With its young crack team and innovative, hip thinking that should not be a problem. The only criticism is that perhaps there should be more of an effort to get sponsorship and/or grants solely dedicated to paying the singers who currently go without a salary/stipend. Production values (sets, props, costumes, lights, sound effects, sir titles, etc.), larger halls and orchestra - all of which require money - are very important to opera, but necessary to opera are the opera singers which is the primary reason why audience members go to an opera. That said, do not miss a performance. For more goings on with this little opera company that did, can, could and continues to do go to:

Tami Swartz is an actor, opera singer, director, producer and when summoned an occasional critic who resides in NYC with her husband and stuffed rabbits…

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Now Playing - Right Down Broadway’s Production of “Voices of Swords”

"Voices of Swords" is a winner. The play's premise of dealing with aging parents is very familiar to our collective consciousness. What playwright Kari Floren so beautifully illustrates is the power struggle that occurs between parents, children and siblings during this life cycle. The relationships in the play are completely believable and the characters are richly portrayed with verve, humor and truth by this excellent acting ensemble. Loni Ackerman’s steel in the face of adversity is something to behold in the role of Olivia – a woman who is facing heart surgery a year after the passing of her own husband. Celia Schaefer is beautifully engaging in the role of Alexis – the professional organizer who is unwittingly thrust into a war between Olivia and her son Kosey while dealing with her own struggles regarding her parents and siblings. Bob Ari and Gillien Goll are touching and dynamic as Alexis’ parents. Philip Christian’s performance of Kosey is acerbic and colorful as we see him dealing with the changing role of his mother. Michael McKenzie’s performance of Alexis’ ex husband, Matthew, is honest and unfettered and gives us hope that when couples divorce there can still be a civil and caring relationship between former partners.

Regarding the creative team, Eve Brandstein’s direction is simple and powerful. Doss Freel’s set is uncomplicated and quite effective as the perspective is placed on angles not allowing audience members to view the action completely dead on thereby creating a sense of tension in the scenes. Composer Roger Murdock’s minimal late sixties/early seventies style jazz music (Fender Rhodes included) moodily enhances the scene changes accordingly. The production values overall are of the best quality.

So often we see older characters marginalized and the message sent that one could not possibly be interesting after the age of 40. “Voices of Swords” shows us that we can be engaging and passionate about life at any age. Support live theater at its best and go. You will not be disappointed.

“Voices of Swords” runs Wednesday, August 20th through Sunday, September 7th, 2014. Details can be obtained here.