Dave Damiani
Dave Damiani & the No Vacancy Orchestra Photo credit: Steve Beyer Productions

Dave Damiani Shoots for the Moon

It can be a difficult thing when multiple musical foci are competing for attention on the same stage. Rush are somehow able to divide attention evenly and fairly; Clarence Clemons would form the perfect duo with Bruce; but in big band jazz, it’s another story, especially in a vocal big band jazz. The singer and the orchestra often lock in a tug-of-war for the spotlight. Who has the better arrangement, the better harmonies, the better phrasing; who captures the crowd’s attention? Dave Damiani & the No Vacancy Orchestra found themselves in a similar struggle during their recent performance at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club.

Damiani styles himself after Frank Sinatra, the poster child and most enigmatic performer in the history of vocal, big band jazz—cocktail jazz, as he put it. Old Blue Eyes has long been debated by jazz critics, scholars and fans alike as to whether he truly belongs in the echelons of the jazz world. His career balanced between the world of serious, swing and big bands (he often performed with Count Basie) and the Hollywood-ized, big band pop that ruled American airwaves for decades. Damiani clearly aspires to a Frank model-finely polished shoes, snappy suit, cool, Playboy-esque demeanor; and that voice. Dave, like Frank, knows he’s not the best singer; so he tries to find numbers that suit the particular, expressive qualities of his voice.

“Destination Moon,” Dave Damiani & the No Vacancy Orchestra’s first music video, is one such example of a match made in heaven for Damiani’s vocals. Written in 1951 and sung rarely, notably by Dinah Washington in the 1950s, the natural swing and syncopation of the standard is an ideal fit for Damiani’s controlled phrasing. Damiani found a strong number to fit image and voice, employing subtle expressive techniques to palpable effect, and was supplemented by the tight, cross patterns and explosive punctuations of the No Vacancy Orchestra’ arrangement

It was in rare numbers like these that showed the cool, creative chemistry between Damiani and the orchestra. Another such knock out was an original, “The Tinder App.” For a song about a dating app, Damiani gave it the Johnny Mercer treatment: witty rhymes, cosmopolitan air, and a great match up between vocal melody and orchestral harmony. For a song that could have been disastrously cliché, corny, or offensive, it was surprisingly appetizing on the intake.

When in complete synchronicity, it was fair to picture that Damiani and the group were performing Strayhorn vocal arrangements, some of the most engaging and balanced in big band jazz, for Sinatra. The gumbo of pop, cocktail jazz and symphonic jazz was an intriguing scent in the air of the art-deco big room of Bethesda Blues and Jazz, but the group still clearly has some laboratory work to do. Vocalist and orchestra—specifically the rhythm section on occasion—had trouble synchronizing rhythmically during the 90 minute set, notably on a well-intentioned but ill-executed take on the Four Seasons’ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” “Moon” was the exact opposite: expert execution by both parties.

In true big band fashion, the star gave up his position on the bandstand to make room for up-and-comers there to prove their potential. Of the other singers that walked through the revolving door on-stage, the only one was Maiya Sykes, a onetime contestant on NBC’s The Voice. Displaying a tone that swung between an Amy Winehouse-like, nasal-focused soul jazz and Mary J. Blige-indebted boisterous belting, Sykes brought a classic tone to her numbers and the orchestra. On numbers like Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” and Sharon Jones’ “100 Days, 100 Nights,” the group matched Sykes’ classic, revenge-ballad approach with anchoring riffs by the baritone sax, a tight contrast with the other horns. “Bye Bye Blackbird” was, tonally, closer to Aretha Franklin than Ella Fitzgerald, but it featured one of the more adventurous arrangements of the night. There was a real attention to detail, with little single piano notes that rung out as a sweet punctuation mark on the horns’ savory, yet airy prose. These moments, like the ones with Damiani, demonstrated a real sense of cohesion in the No Vacancy Orchestra.

As he was introducing Kern and Hammerstein’s “Nobody Else But Me,” Damiani said something that seemed to sum up the night.  “It’s a good lyric if you’re trying to figure out who you are, like I’m trying to figure out who I am.” This was an apt adage to apply to Damiani’s performance. His repertoire selections often failed to synchronize with his timbre, or phrasing. There is a swing to Damiani’s vocals, and a rougher tone than in most vocal jazz, and that makes him stand out. He has found some numbers that suit it.

To learn more about Dave Damiani and the No Vacancy Orchestra visit www.davedamiani.com