Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival: The Betty Bears

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Ella Daniel – The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO

Life always feels more elegant when there is a grand piano in the center of the room, and The Betty Bears brought the elegance and pleasures of an era long past to Levontin 7. In the low light of the basement room, with people all around raising their glasses of wine or beer, music flowing, and Ella Daniel’s honey voice rising in song, one could almost imagine that this was a speakeasy sometime in the 1920s. Yet the beauty of the music lies not only in the enticing melodies, sophisticated syncopation and the proficiency of the practitioners, but in the raw, visceral appeal of the songs to life as it is lived, revealing and reveling in the secret yearnings, addictions, loneliness, pain and heartache. An ache that can only be relieved by singing it out, dancing it out. Performing in the center arena: Dor Zehavi – piano, Avior Rokah – trumpet, Bar Tal – trombone, Michael Edwards – bass, Oded Levy – drums, Matan Ben David – guitar and banjo, Ella Daniel – vocals. On camera, Muperphoto captured the magic of swing and the deep of the blues in his photographs – Enjoy!

Dor Zehhavi – The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO

The set opened with I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, a song popularized by Fats Waller, with music by Fred E. Ahlert and lyrics by Joe Young. Opening with the mellifluous sweet flow of Ella Daniel’s vocals, the Betty Bears turned on the heat after the first verse, with the full band sound coming in, feeling the raw power of the song. Although the songs they perform date from over a century ago, their arrangements are infused with a contemporary feel and their impact is tremendous. When I hear The Betty Bears, I want to dance! And dance they did at Levontin 7! There were several accomplished dancers in the crowd, who strutted their stuff with panache, despite the fact that the room was full to capacity. A discerning eye would have noted that even Levontin 7’s own Natisha Shpaner joined in the fun. The mood was high, bright and easy-going.

The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO
The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO

Between songs Ella Daniel chatted with the crowd, throwing in a few phrases in Russian, English and French, for fun and international flair. Next up was Exactly Like You (Dorothy Fields & Jimmy McHugh). First recorded in 1930, the song has had some memorable covers, including Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. In their inimitable way, The Betty Bears make it their own. The crooning trumpet glistened in the dark, and from where I was sitting, the drums were close enough to touch.

Avior Rokah – The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO
Drums (Oded Levy) – The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO

One of my favorite Betty Bears covers is If You’re a Viper, composed by Stuff Smith in 1936. I’ve always wondered about the meaning of the second line’s “mighty mezz” and after the concert, late that night, I decided to look it up. Turns out that this was a reference to Milton Mezzrow, a Jewish saxophone and clarinet player who moved to Harlem and was known as much for the Mexican weed he sold as for his music. Nice to know that when I’m swaying to this tune, and singing along with the chorus – as the audience did lustily at Levontin – I’m connecting to Jewish history.

Ella Daniel – The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO

Everybody Loves My Baby (music by Spencer Williams and lyrics by Jack Palmer, with a significant recording by Louis Armstrong in 1924) featured a cool drum solo, with Matan Ben David on banjo for this one. Another 20s song, Crazy Blues (by Perry Bradford) followed, and then the band offered up an instrumental piece. Ella Daniel sang out St. James Infirmary slow and mournful, her voice at times almost a wail, and towards the song’s end, drawing out each sound, so tender and delicate. Then from that dark place, the traditional New Orleans song Eh La Bas sent spirits high. One intrepid audience member even dared to brave the many cables in the center of the floor to dance for us all. The tristesse of Delta Bound was followed by the sweet caress of Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, the debonair liveliness of Cake-walking Babies From Home, and the heat of You Gotta Give Me Some. No one in the audience wanted the night to end, but as a parting tune, The Betty Bears left the crowd with something happy and bright, words to live by – Jack, I’m Mellow.

Ella Daniel – The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO
Michael Edwards – The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO
Matan Ben David – The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO
Avior Rokah & Bar Tal – The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO
Ella Daniel – The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO
Ella Daniel – The Betty Bears @Levontin 7 360° Piano Festival/Photo: MUPERPHOTO