Sean Harkness (with Friends)
As if he didn’t already have enough on his plate between gigs, rehearsals and working on CDs (I would hate to be his scheduling assistant), Harkness has launched this additional monthly show at the Met Room. The handsome, silver-haired strummer sees Duos as a “real, unscripted, personal show promoting audience interaction” that he hopes is “intimate and liberating” at the same time. Based on the first two compelling and engaging performances, in which he was joined by “nationally and internationally recognized” friends and colleagues, Harkness could ultimately accomplish his vision.
The show’s format and structure is simple: Two of Harkness’s musician buddies serve as “co-stars” and each joins him on stage separately during the set, hence the “Duos.” Then they perform either duets or he accompanies his guest’s solo songs, with some schmoozing between the numbers: how and when they met . . . where and when they’ve played together . . . what the guest star is up to career-wise . . . Anyway, you get the idea. Harkness wants the audience to feel like they’re eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between friends. But the talk-fest part of the show isn’t quite Cabaret Home Companion just yet. While Harkness wants the conversations to be spontaneous and natural, he needs to prep with his guests a bit more to ensure the chat won’t fall into the mundane and cliché, devoid of interesting anecdotes or insights into the creative process. But he’s got the musical interludes nailed and those parts of the show are totally charming and engrossing.
For the inaugural set on May 3, Harkness was first joined by fellow guitarist Brian Camelio and, after the duo played Camelio’s beautiful “Untitled Song in E Minor,” they combined for a wonderful improvisation on an audience-suggested bossa nova in G major. Then lovely singer Nina Hennessey (who revealed she is working with Marilyn Maye to improve the lower part of her register) teamed with Harkness on a jazzy version of the Vincent Youmans/Edward Eliscu/Billy Rose “Without a Song,” a languid rendition of “Lazy Afternoon,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Falling in Love with Love.” As an encore, the three embarked on a superb inprov, with Hennessey scatting through a Harkness/Camelio instrumental.
The June 7 show featured bassist, vocalist and composer Mimi Jones and urban folk and jazz guitarist/songwriter KJ Denhert, who has appeared at Bar 55 on Christopher Street for 15 years. Jones and Harkness captured a reggae groove on Jones’s original song, “Sylva,” and then Jones switched to a bass guitar for her song “Traveler,” where the duo excelled on a long, jazzy instrumental. On Harkness’s song “Hammock Time,” they combined to give the breezy, melodic number a jazzy Antonio Carlos Jobim vibe.
Denhert joined Harkness on guitar for three of her originals, including the jazzy, up tempo “Try to Fly,” the poignant jazz ballad “Beautiful,” and the reggae-inspired, anti-war message song “Choose Your Weapon” (“War will choose a weapon for your child”), which earned Denhert the grand prize in the 2012 John Lennon songwriting contest. For an encore, the group teamed up for an ultra-bluesy version of the classic “God Bless the Child.”
Sean Harkness says he hopes Duos will “break down walls on what defines cabaret.” That’s a pretty ambitious goal and he’s got some work to do before he creates that new definition. But before you completely break down the wall, you’ve got to crack it a bit and Harkness certainly has begun chipping away.
Sean Harkness’s next installment of Duos will be on Thursday, July 5, 9:30 at the Metropolitan Room, with guests Bistro Award-winning pianist and Musical Director Ian Herman and R & B vocalist Martha Redbone.