Anyone sharing my New Year's resolution to enjoy life more in 2008 might find this goal easy to pursue at 49 West Coffeehouse, Winebar & Gallery in Annapolis.
Having visited the cafe twice last year and experienced its ambience while enjoying the classic jazz offered in the back room, I returned Jan. 2 and Jan. 9 to find the atmosphere even more glowing.
A longtime fan of Joe Byrd and pianist Jim Lester, I found their music Jan. 2 as elegant as I remembered, with the added distinction of Bill McHenry on drums. We also enjoyed the fun provided by amateur singers who enlivened the second set.
Byrd was joined by another talented duo Jan. 9, when pianist-horn player Dick Glass surprised us by playing horn while accompanying himself with his left hand on the piano. Kevin Whisman propelled the music with his stylish drumming.
As was the case the week before, the trio was joined by musician John Starr, who seems at home on a variety of instruments, including flute, clarinet and bass. He is a skilled accompanist with the rare gift of perfect pitch.
"Joe started the jam to play with people he likes in a homey, friendly environment with no pressure on anyone," Joe's wife and business partner, Elana Byrd, tells us. "The most important reason was to give people who like to play and sing a venue where they can do their thing without the pressure of signing up, facing a big hall."
Both evenings began with the jazz masters working their magic on classics.
On Jan. 2, Jim Lester offered his sophisticated keyboard artistry. Lester is a retired Beverly Hills psychologist who climbed Mount Everest and served in the Peace Corps, and is now settled in Annapolis. His playing is compatible with Byrd's bass. Together, these masterful musicians lovingly improvised to take standards including "Pennies From Heaven" and "If I Had You" to new territory. McHenry provided subtle rhythm on drums.
In the second set, the trio proved sensitive accompanists to singers including Elizabeth "Bunty" Meikle, who developed her love of jazz in her native Scotland and lives in Alexandria, Va. She sang "Taking A Chance On Love" with feeling and gusto. She was followed by a singer who performed "Nice Work If You Can Get It." He had pitch and rhythm problems, but what he lacked in talent he made up for in confidence.
Music improved when Jim Reyback took a turn at the mike to display an impressive baritone and an understanding of the lyrics of "Nice and Easy," which was popularized by Frank Sinatra. Reyback has an appreciation for Sinatra and his music, but he seemed a bit stiff.
Joined by Glass and Whisman the next Wednesday, the Byrd trio welcomed the return of Reyback and Meikle. This time, Meikle was accompanied by Jim, her husband of 32 years, and their daughter, Brooke. Meikle's daughter served as videographer so that Meikle's mother in Scotland could receive proof that her daughter sings with a jazz band.
"Tee" - a computer guy born in Hong Kong who works in Annapolis - showed that he has fantastic rhythm and can sing great scat that would make Ella proud.
We stayed to hear one of Elana's favorites, Adrienne Collins, a songwriter and singer with a distinctive style. She was worth the wait.
At intermission, we chatted with 49 West owners Brian and Sarah Cahalan, who have created a cafe that emulates their favorite French-style cafe in Chicago.
The two met in college and married in Chicago in 1989. They came to Annapolis, where Brian managed the cafe at Maryland Hall from 1993 to 1994, and befriended several of the musicians there.
Later, Pam Godfrey, Annapolis Chorale administrator, musician and First Sunday West Street Arts Festival coordinator,said of Cahalan, "It's lucky for all of us here in Annapolis that Brian decided to open his cafe. He had a great vision and sparked the revitalization of West Street. I feel he is the catalyst of all that has happened since."
Cahalan "has always devoted himself to the preservation of the arts," Godfrey said. "Of course, his cafe features an artist each month, live music every day of the week. His commitment to art and music is paramount.
"When most restaurants are canceling their live music component because of costs, Brian has consistently fought to keep that feature, even in hard times. Brian was one of the original creators of First Sunday Arts Festival; I just took this idea and made it happen."
The schedule at 49 West includes the Unified Jazz Ensemble playing acoustic jazz classics each Tuesday. Guitarist Rob Levitt is featured on Thursdays, and Brazilian singer and guitarist Jonathan Stone entertains at Sunday brunch.
Ben's Bones acoustic rock is featured on Mondays, and Joe Byrd's jam sessions are on the first and second Wednesdays and one Saturday a month. Check www.49westcoffeehouse.com/calendar for a complete list of events.
Coming shows at the Powerhouse include Chuck Redd's All-Star Quartet on Jan. 25 and Steve Herberman's All-Star Trio on Jan. 26.
For information and reservations, call Elana Byrd at 410-269-0777 or 410-266-7338.