Thursday, September 24, 2009

Jazz singer celebrates quirky characters

She tries to Channel Tracey, but doesn't go as planned.

Jazz singer celebrates quirky characters

Spider Saloff's 'Entertaining Guests' debuts at Acorn
By JEREMY D. BONFIGLIO - H-P Features Writer
Published: Thursday, September 24, 2009 1:11 PM EDT

THREE OAKS - Spider Saloff's first attempt at channeling Tracey Ullman didn't go quite as planned.

The acclaimed jazz singer was performing at Davenport's, the Chicago piano bar, in 2001 when she decided to interpret a series of standards through the voices of the characters in her life.

"It was done in more of a workshop format," Saloff says about her one-woman show "Entertaining Guests." "It didn't have original music at all. I just performed standards. When I realized it was going to take a lot more work, I put it on the back burner until about a year and a half ago."

Using a selection of original songs and the singer's ever-present comedic wit, Saloff's current incarnation of "Entertaining Guests," which she'll perform tonight and Friday at the Acorn Theater in Three Oaks, turns the autobiographical musical theater piece into a celebration of life's quirky characters.

"There's an Italian hairdresser from South Philly and a very strict German woman," Saloff says. "The whole premise of the title is that there are these people who just show up in your life. They are like guests who show up to your party, make an impression and then leave. The show is bizarre, and all of it is true. There's stuff that's so weird you couldn't make it up."

Saloff, who is originally from the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia, lived in New York City before making Chicago her adopted home in 1994.

Since then, her scats and improvisations have made her a fixture in Chicago's jazz scene, performing at the Gold Star Sardine Bar, The Green Mill and the Fairmont Hotel, and teaching at the Bloom School of Jazz.

Saloff is the co-star and co-creator of the internationally syndicated public radio series "Words and Music," but is most widely recognized for her extensive knowledge of classic Broadway theater music of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Her concert series, "Spider Saloff Sings Gershwin," which toured the United States and headlined the St. Petersburg Gershwin Festival in Russia, featured a few rare Gershwin melodies given to her by members of the composer's family.

Saloff recently performed a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra and released her seventh studio recording, "Cole Porter Live at Maxim's," on Kopaesthetics Records in the summer of 2008.

In "Entertaining Guests," however, Saloff turned to her own story for inspiration, penning a series of original songs that are, at times, more personal than even she anticipated.

"There are things in my life that I didn't ever think I would tell publicly," Saloff says. "There's the issue about abuse that comes up in the play, and I'll leave it at that. Somehow putting these stories together felt brave, it felt right."

The play is set at a memorial service for an Asian drag queen. Saloff portrays herself and a series of characters who pop up in her memory as she's telling stories. Only one song, "Like Glass," has been previously recorded. The rest Saloff wrote specifically for the piece.

"Once I got into these characters it kept coming out," Saloff says.

"Some of the music is written for me as myself, and some are written for these characters. It was a really fun process even though at times it could be like sitting on an egg and waiting for it to hatch."

Saloff, who has performed the current show just once - last spring in Chicago - is planning a longer run in both Chicago and New York after the two Acorn performances.

"My passion for this piece from the very beginning comes from wanting to use my broader talents," Saloff says. "A lot of people don't know that I was an actor before I was a jazz singer. I wanted to express my character work. Until now, I just wasn't sure how it was going to happen."

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