Max Wellman ‘woodshedding’ at Temple Theater with ‘The Songbook Project’11/20/2013
Max Wellman has had it with people harping on his age. “As long as I’ve played professionally,” says the singer and bandleader, “there’s been this tremendous emphasis.” The upshot? At the still-tender age of 22, he’s doubling down on his loyalty to his grandparents’ Hit Parade. He’s embarked on his Songbook project, which will commit him through 2014 to, as he puts it, “charting his own course” through American standards of the previous mid-century. Dozens of classics, familiar (Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ”) and lesser known (Paul Ryan’s “All My Tomorrows”), will be made available at a rate of six or so a month, as downloads or CDs through www.maxwellmanmusic.com.
Undaunted by the legacy of giants like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, Wellman intends to leave his own mark. For half a decade now he’s brought a young man’s energy to these songs, performing in small venues and with large accompaniment ranging from a single piano to a swing band. Throughout, he says, he had in mind “the trajectory of a career.” Each gig needed to contribute something, taking on fresh material or instrumentation. Now however, with the Songbook, he sees himself as “settling into the craft.”
What Wellman’s up to used to be called “woodshedding.” Out in the woodshed, away from the hubbub, musicians would stop worrying about the next hit and, well, settle into the craft. Bob Dylan and the Band had the basement of Big Pink, outside Woodstock, N.Y., and Wellman has Capp Studios in Norwalk. Alongside, he has two longtime cohorts: Jason Danielson on piano and Steve Charlson on bass. Both are much older than their front man and are quick to acknowledge that, but while all three contribute, final decisions are up to Wellman. He himself avoids other versions when making his selections, though, of course, he knows the masters (Ella, in particular, matters to him). Rather, Wellman browses musicians’ “fakebooks.” These offer a quick handle on a piece, a streamlined take, and Wellman looks first for an effective melody, then elements like song drama. These selections are brought to Charlson and Danielson, and together they hunker down.
In a preview concert at the Temple Theater last week, a group of about 30 got to savor the threesome’s respect for each other and what Wellman called, unabashedly, “the beauty of these songs.” A couple days later, in an interview, it emerged that once the singer wraps up his Songbook, he’ll be moving to Chicago — a new jazz hub, lately the city has produced major talents like Dee Dee Bridgewater. At the Temple, though, career plans took a back seat to craft. The trio sculpted a sound at once flexible and intense. Now relaying signals with a gesture at his hip, now throttling the mike-stand for some open-throated blue warmth, Wellman had the piano and bass breathing together à la Oscar Peterson and Roy Brown. Up-tempo one number, down and crooning the next, the band grew so focused and potent that all in attendance could’ve been out in the woodshed, sweetening the Songbook anew. Chicago won’t know what hit it. CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.