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!