It's the last Monday night of the month, and the band on stage at the Wild Goose in Ashland has drawn a good crowd. A demographically eclectic mix of music lovers occupies all eight of the small venue's tables and most of the stools along the bar. A quiet hum of conversation and the occasional loud crack of pool balls from the adjacent room accompany the band as it glides through another big number from the Great American Songbook.
The crowd is on hand for the Goose's monthly Singer Showcase night. Hosted by the great Peggy Rose and featuring a house band led by Wild Goose owner and longtime local pianist Dal Carver, the showcase has, over the past four years, created a unique institution and fostered a community of musicians and music fans by bringing the audience into the act. Rose and the band invite all comers — anyone with the guts to give it a try — to walk on stage and join them for a song or two.
The core of regular singers who show up each month ranges from people with backgrounds in professional show business to folks who've taken up jazz singing as a hobby largely because of the outlet that the showcase provides. There is an element of live-band karaoke at work — but that description doesn't do justice to the band or the singers.
The singers seem to feel a sense of responsibility to the band and to the audience that is entirely different from the kind of Friday night, booze-emboldened, I-dare-you-to-sing-one vibe of the typical karaoke night. This is a real band. This is a real show. The singers are serious about their craft.
Rose was out of town the night I attended. In her stead, hosting duties were handled admirably by regular participant and back-up host Bran Jones. The format works like this: The host calls out a name and the next singer approaches the stage. He might have a few sheets of written music, or he might not. Either way, he goes first to the piano to confer with Carver and work up a strategy for the song he wants to play.
Which song? What key? What kind of tempo?
"Like this?" Carver might ask, setting a rhythm and playing through the chords. Sometimes the singers snap their fingers and shuffle their shoulders to give him a sense of the feel they are after. Sometimes he has to consult the big book of jazz standards. More often than not, he already knows the song. Many of the regular singers have their own books — collections of computer printouts collected into three-ring binders.
The process goes remarkably fast. Carver identifies the song, finds the chords — either on the written page or just by virtue of memory and talent and intuition — and plays just a little bit to set the tempo. Drummer Michael O'Malley joins in, making the tempo official. The singer says OK and they stop, pause to collect themselves, and then give the song a proper beginning.
Bass player Dave Miller has a remarkable ear and a real gift for playing strong and assertive bass lines at the same time that he is guessing and intuiting and listening for the mysterious next chord. The trio seemingly effortlessly lays down a solid foundation from which the singer is able to work. The members adapt to whatever little stumbles or hiccups might occur — and, honestly, there were remarkably few hiccups the night I was there.
The singers rotate out after two songs. Most of them stick around and get back in line to have another crack at it later on. The night I attended, the band just got better as the night went on. Most of the songs have instrumental breaks in them, and Carver's piano playing began to take on a refined whimsical quality.
Sometimes he'd go large — barreling into his solo in the biggest, most gregarious and most obvious manner that the song called for. Other times, he'd peck away at the songs, purposefully just ahead of or behind the beat, sliding into the proper notes from the ones just below them on the piano keyboard. One particular singer was treated to one verse somewhere in the middle of each song she sang where the piano suddenly played the chords in a bossa nova beat for a few measures before returning to normal.
The band asserts that it is willing to try anything and it is easy to see that the trio has the talent to back up the boast. The trio is often joined by guest musicians. When I was there, saxophonist Dennis Freese walked in just in time to sit in for the entire third set.
The Singer Showcase happens the last Monday of every month from 8 to 11 p.m. at the Wild Goose, 2365 Ashland St. Singers can begin signing up at 7 p.m.
Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.