Jon Weber

December 6, 2014 | By | 1 Comment

Jon WeberAnyone who has spent much time attending cabaret shows in New York City in recent years will likely be familiar with Jon Weber, who has worked as pianist and/or musical director for a number of other performers. I’ve come to appreciate his musical versatility, his good-natured professionalism in support of singers, his curiosity-filled smile, and his cool, exotic haircut. Weber has also made a name for himself as the host of NPR’s Piano Jazz—a job he took over from the late Marian McPartland.

With “From Joplin to Jarrett: 115 Years of Piano Jazz” at the Metropolitan Room, Weber has stepped into the solo spotlight on a Manhattan cabaret stage. This show is a happy blend of lecture and performance. In an approach reminiscent of the one Leonard Bernstein employed to teach young people about symphony orchestras, Weber offers adults a whirlwind lesson in American jazz-piano history, augmented with thrilling turns at the keyboard. If all the lectures you sat through in high school and college had been half as enjoyable as the one Weber provides here, you’d have wanted to postpone graduation indefinitely. “From Joplin to Jarrett” is a first-rate entertainment from a showman who—though self-effacing, on the one hand—clearly savors the limelight.

At the Thanksgiving eve performance, Weber scrambled to the stage, announced that he was feeling “thankful,” and promptly launched into a crisp version of Scott Joplin’s familiar “The Entertainer.” This turn was bright and accomplished, but compared with some of the pyrotechnic musical moments to follow, it was relatively polite and prim. For Weber, however, Joplin is a seminal figure. “I can only imagine how radical this must have sounded in 1899,” he says of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” the evening’s second selection.

Weber proceeds to explain how a complex and interlacing genealogy was set in motion by Joplin’s early ragtime compositions. He describes the various strains of piano jazz that would develop in five American cities—New York, St. Louis, Chicago, New Orleans, and Memphis. He explains how cross-pollination among those various settings, along with innovations from talented individual players, led to further mutation over the decades. He also describes how the contributions of non-pianists, such as Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, affected the course of piano-jazz history—as did such technical developments as the piano roll and the phonograph.

Throughout the evening, Weber plays music from everyone from W.C. Handy and James P. Johnson to Bill Evans, George Shearing, Thelonious Monk, and Keith Jarrett. It’s hard to single out any one of Weber’s performances, as so many are electric. I, however, had a perfect view of the keyboard from my seat in the club, and the way Weber’s hands flung themselves and slammed at the keys in ecstatic abandon made his performance of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp” especially breathtaking.

Weber’s rapidly paced narrative is full of humor and physicality. At one point, he slaps at his chest to demonstrate a point about a rhythmic innovation. He has found ways of explaining musical terminology succinctly and clearly for laypeople. For instance, he describes (and demonstrates) what “stride piano” is better than I’ve ever heard it described before.

His sense of wonder regarding the giants of American piano jazz is infectious. He says he would trade years of his own life for a few more years of Bill Evans’s playing. And he admits that more than once he has baked a cake to celebrate Art Tatum’s birthday.

Birthdays seem to mean something special to Weber. Throughout the show he mentions (without consulting his notes) the dates on which various musicians were born. Does he store these facts in his head with the same mechanism with which he stores all those thousands of notes in the muscle memory of his fingers? Or is there some kind of musical numerology or astrology at play to which he alone is privy? When he noted that Charlie Parker, Michael Jackson, and Dinah Washington all shared an August 29th birthday, I wondered whether he hears in his brain some sort of weird, cosmic chord created by the imagined confluence of those three disparate talents.

For those like me who struggled with years of childhood piano lessons in order to make it through the first few John W. Schaum keyboard primers, a talent like Jon Weber inspires awe, pure and simple—not to mention big doses of joy. This show is a must-see and a must-hear.

“From Joplin to Jarrett: 115 Years of Piano Jazz”
Metropolitan Room  –  May 21, 29, July 2, 8, November 26, December 23, January 5, 6

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. His features and reviews have appeared in such publications as American Theatre and Back Stage and on BistroAwards.com. As a dramaturg he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. His stage adaptation of Henry James's novel The Tragic Muse was part of the Gilded Stage Festival at the Metropolitan Playhouse in January 2014.

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  1. Andrew Davis says:

    Thank you for such a beautifully written touching review of JON WEBER’s great work!

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