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There is something that a red light bulb does to a man, something undeniable. It’s as if the tinge of the light activates some sexual sensory impulse in the brain, the spot where you hear him roar in soul-exploratory wonder.
He hits the groove and he spins it around and takes it from the start again in the excitation of his madness, his energy and virile strength. Striking the chords of our inner desires, he lays it up and down and into your heartstrings as they vibrate to the pulse of the brushes caressing the snare-head behind him. His channel of expression, a saxophone, his light red. But there’s no stopping him, no, his red light means “Go.”
I picture the historic Birdland jazz club under the marquee on a revelry-filled Friday night in Harlem, as they stand in the posture of the instruments they play. The saxman, his name is Rob Karns and he stands an approachable six five with a sharp angle in his eyes.
“This guy is free-blowin’, relaxed, real hands-off,” he says. “He trusts us to play the way we wanna play, it’s what we love.”
One of the originals of the group, Karns appreciates the ease with which his bandleader orchestrates the dynamism of the music.
“I getta let my hair down, blow when I wanna blow. It feels good,” his voice wandering a bit, as it does sometimes when we reflect upon the moments that define us. A few connections and jovialities later, I’m back inside Luna with my lady at my side and ready for the next set. I don’t wanna miss a beat, for as the Chairman of the Board himself would say, “The best is yet to come” for Johnny P and the Wiseguys, especially on a night like this.
Stepping back from the crowd on Saturday, the multitude dying to sing their praises to the sharp-dressed man in red carpet wardrobe and slicked back hair, Johnny smiles with this child-like twinkle in his eye.
“It’s not often we get a crowd this large and responsive,” he says. “We love Luna because it’s all about the music, a real treat to just focus on the music.”
Johnny P has an old soul and his authentic connection to the music is vividly apparent when he graces the spaces between the two and four. “I love the jazz, and what we do is in the jazz umbrella,” explains Panzarella. “The Great American Songbook, the night clubs of the 50s and 60s, all that cabaret stuff. That’s what we try to capture.”
Where a mic was before now there is a trumpet, he swings it up to his expecting lips with a natural swagger that suggests a gift innately understood a reflex of the instrumental variety. The riff he blows is simple and tight, touching all corners of the room and decorating the air for those breathing in as they dance, it is the inspiration you need, quite literally so. For as you inhale you exhale the movements and your body turns with a whirl and precision and your feet go where your mind is now and then the translation happens again in real time. Johnny P turns the mic back up to where the sultry sounds scoop you up and is now the reason you smile in that dip and dive-straight into the heart of the rhythm.
His pork pie hat rests tightly as he loiters in the corner with his swing lady. Ben Luhrman, former leader and current dance instructor for the SA Swing Dance Society, is no stranger to the music that makes you light on your feet.
“When I first walked in … electrifying. This is the place to be,” Luhrman says, gait leaning, antsy to get back on the floor. “He’s got that Sinatra sound people dig on. There’s a high energy but he also adds good variety, you can’t dance fast to everything”.
As his voice flies diaphanously, so too do his tippie-toes press him upwards towards the sky, where the air is rarified. The notes seem to land in the purple clouded bliss of it all, the ether that we strive to live into day-to-day but our voices become heavy and weary. Mr. Panzarella manages high flight well, while grounded in somber undercurrents of the reality of love. The drum cymbals crash and the power of that passion is put down in a final beat that picks you right up.
While Johnny admits that his favorite part of the gig is singing ballads, getting intimate with the crowd, he knows how to keep the atmosphere light, the people happy. “I try to stay current, but classic yeah, give ‘em some good jokes here and there. If nobody else tells ‘em then I will.”
When he gets into comic stance, the bandmates take their place and watch as Johnny milks the role for all its worth with one-liner after one-liner.
“Sex is one of the most beautiful, natural, wholesome things…” he draws out each word so that you feel the weight of the comma in between, “… that money can buy.” Acknowledgement of the crowd and his jocularity continues, starting with “you knows” to spark that connection. “You know, I just found out my wife is bi-sexual. Yeah, she gets sexual when I buy her things”.
Without missing a beat (or perhaps having just created the beat) he digs into the wailing cry of a woman on his shiny trumpet horn, a woman named Minnie the Moocher. The crowd feels that kick back from the drums and they sing back “ay dee ay dee ay dee ayy…ohh dee oh dee oh dee ohhh” and the people get all riled up when they double time it and Cab would be proud of the heart put into it all — a definite man having fun with his soul out to shine.
Dressed in a dress that is sure to impress, (the swing-dancers eye), Cara Cassidy waxes nostalgic as she confesses what Johnny means to her.
“I first danced swing to Johnny P at Sam’s, and it got me hooked,” but that’s not all. “Really, it got me over my fear of dancing, when his music started playing I didn’t care, I just wanted to dance.”
The beauty of jazz pouring mellifluously and naturally from her tapping feet, her heart wanders to another epoch of musical understanding. “When he plays it’s easy to forget the day-to-day. I forget what time period I’m in, I zone out … I’m in a carefree place”.
The bassist cradles his woman just so tight and lets it all hang out, plucking every inch, kissing every chord on that sweet big-hipped stringed thing, letting her know who’s boss, but she sings and runs back letting him know her real power and bite, but how giving she can be if you hold her just right. Johnny lays back and does a great job of leading the show, giving his Wiseguys credit where credit is due. The piano man is something special, taking that right hand into another atmosphere, not a languid note, only bright and hot and vivifying rhythms in trinklets and sprinklets of blue chords. And they look so good under that red light.
If you wanna take a peek at this fine ensemble, get your dancing shoes on and visit one of their gigs at the JW Marriott Hotel every Sunday morning at 10 a.m., at Kirby’s Steakhouse select weekends, or at Sam’s Burger Joint Monday, Feb. 17.
Adam Tutor is currently working at James Madison High School as a College Access Adviser for Trinity University’s Chapter of AdviseTX, a branch of the College Advising Corps. He also contributes developmental support to local nonprofit Dreams Fulfilled Through Music, an organization committed to providing musical therapy and performance to the special needs youth of Bexar County. When the sun sets, Adam is busy working on his new image in the jazz scene, both through playing his saxophone at local establishments, and developing his writing through his website, www.soulzzafying.com. Please feel free to join his blog and Facebook page, or email him at email@example.com.