If ever two jazz artists were meant to perform together, it’s vocalist Madeline Eastman and pianist Randy Porter. Madeline is one of those rare singers who is a full partner in the music: “I don’t want a back-up trio,” she says. “I don’t want accompanists. I want to be part of the fun. To connect with everybody and take that wild ride.” And she’s taken the ride with some adventurous companions: Kenny Barron, Turtle Island String Quartet, and Tony Williams, to name a few. Randy is the perfect pianist for Madeline’s intrepid journey. He’s gone the sideman route with luminaries like Freddie Hubbard, Art Farmer and Benny Golson. But he’s got an uncanny sensitivity for singers, having worked with Diane Schuur, Bobby Caldwell, Gino Vanelli, Nancy King, and, for the past decade, Madeline.
For more information, visit www.madelineeastman.com.
You could say that the extraordinary duo of Madeline Eastman and Randy Porter was born at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. As the longtime director of the Workshop’s vocal program, Eastman has employed an array of fine pianists in various teaching situations over the past two decades. But several years ago, she decided to call upon Porter, a brilliant improvisational partner with whom she had already performed widely and recorded 2003’s The Speed of Life and 2008’s live tour de force Can You Hear Me Now? (both on her Mad-Kat Records). Those sessions featured full bands, including the commanding bassist Rufus Reid and drummers Akira Tana (Speed) and Matt Wilson (Hear Me).
After their barebones experiences playing together at Stanford and JazzCamp West, where Eastman is the artistic director, they started “interjecting some duets in our regular shows,” Eastman says. “I proposed we invest more in that direction, and it’s really developed into something special.
“Randy doesn’t accompany me like I’m a singer,” Eastman continues. “We play together like we’re two musicians, relating to each other as equals rather than as an accompanist and a vocalist. There’s a lot of trust, which means we can go a lot of different places. He’s very playful, with an incredibly deep harmonic sense, and an all-around brilliant musician.”
They documented the partnership on the recent, critically hailed CD A Quiet Thing (Mad-Kat Records), an album distinguished by emotionally taut balladry. Porter’s probing dialogues with Eastman make strings and horns feel superfluous, particularly when they strip a pop classic like Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Alfie” down to essentials. Part of what makes the project so rewarding is that Eastman continues to avoid the usual suspects so many singers round up from the pages of the American Songbook. A dedicated song sleuth, she offers several invaluable discoveries, such as the Alec Wilder/Loonis McGlohom gem “All of Us In It,” a persuasive paean to the pleasures of wedlock, and Victor Feldman and Tommy Wolf’s rapturous “A Face Like Yours.”
When she does tackle a standard, Eastman turns it into something startling and new, like her bruised and wary version of “Pick Yourself Up.” Usually delivered as a jaunty affirmation of resilience, the song turns into a spiritual odyssey as she folds it into Donnie McClurkin’s contemporary gospel anthem “We Fall Down.”
A San Francisco native, Eastman came of age on the Bay Area jazz scene in the 1980s, inspired by great musical storytellers like Carmen McRae and Etta Jones. Her canny choice of influences is one way that Eastman has turned herself into a singular performer. She has listened deeply to Miles Davis, particularly his mid-60s quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams (who powered much of her breakthrough album, 1994’s Art Attack). Among vocalists, her prime inspiration is Carmen McRae, one jazz’s most incisive lyric interpreters.
“There’s the holy trinity, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae, and for me it was really Carmen from the beginning,” Eastman says. “I was a big fan of her style of phrasing and her ability to communicate a lyric without regards to the bar lines.”
Eastman made a name for herself as a tough and fearless performer, unafraid of mixing it up at torrid tempos with formidable improvisers such as Tom Harrell, Kenny Barron, and Mike Wofford. She recorded her first duo album in 2001, Bare (Mad-Kat), a beautiful collaboration with the late great LA pianist Tom Garvin. Her collaboration with Porter is a highly personal take on similar territory, capturing her love of sponteniety.
Based in Lake Oswego, Oregon, Porter studied with Jaki Byard and Fred Hersch at New England Conservatory, but much of his jazz education took place on the bandstand during his formative years in San Diego, backing jazz masters such as Freddie Hubbard, Charles McPherson, Art Farmer, and Benny Golson. “University wasn't a big part of my jazz education,” Porter says. “My first two years I was at a college without a jazz program, so I just studied classical. Then I went to the NEC and studied with Fred and Jaki, and I was just trying to glean as much as I could from the great players.”
Influenced by everything from R&B, soul, and gospel to Mexican standards and West African drumming, he’s developed a wide open approach to improvising marked by sensitivity to group dynamics. No wonder he’s been sought out by masters such as violinist Stephane Grappelli, and bassists David Friesen and Bob Magnusson. He’s recorded five jazz albums as a leader, most recently 2008’s Thirsty Soul with ace Bay Area bassist John Wiitala and drummers Todd Strait and Richard Melz. But Porter is probably best known for his superlative work with vocalists, including recordings with Ed Reed, Diane Schuur, Rebecca Kilgore, and Nancy King.
Tonight’s performance closes one particularly fruitful chapter with Eastman, who’s ready to move into new musical territory. “For me, we’re wrapping up this phase and moving on to whatever the next musical thing is,” she says. “We’re very excited to be able to present this year-and-a-half-long journey as really committed duo players, and I’m so pleased to do this in Campbell Hall, an intimate, beautiful setting. It’s really grown and changed since we first started. There’s only two people involved so you can really let yourself be taken by surprise and be open to letting things happen.”
Sponsored by Dent Hand.