The dinner crowd at Ponza Italian Kitchen & Pizza in Norwalk was having a great time. Chris Coogan and his sidemen were swinging, playing standards and originals, foot-tappers and ballads, vocals and instrumentals with panache, skill and verve.
Live music at restaurants has long been popular. For my money, music is icing on the cake and jazz is the best fit.
I like to think of jazz as music for grownups. It’s generally not too highly amplified – just a step above acoustic – and the performers are accomplished. Anything from a duo to a quintet can offer vocal, guitar, piano or brass-centered music. There’s plenty of top-notch local talent.
At Ponza the calamari was crisp, tender and light. The generous portion of large cheese-filled ravioli was dressed with a meaty Bolognese Lemony chicken piccata was melt-in-your-mouth tender. The house-made cannoli was crisp, sweet and more than enough to share. We could see some good-looking pizza at the next table.
While we ate, Chris and the guys (Jim Clark on sax and John Mobilio on bass) improvised on an entertaining mix of favorite tunes, a little gospel and the debut of a Quarentune composition – new material that will be the topic of a concert later this summer.
Jazz is a pretty big tent. The uniquely American art form that rose out of the south includes many forms: dixieland, big band, cool, hot, bebop and swing to name a few. Opinion ranges on an exact definition, but I know it when I hear it.
Singer Cookie Thomas considers himself a “saloon singer” in the style of Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole, but for me he fits under the tent. The Stamford resident has been singing since he was thirteen. Standards and the Great American Songbook are his meat and potatoes. Thomas has a monthly gig at the Basso Restaurant in Westport. Check CookieThomas.com for upcoming dates.
Recently at the Lion Brasserie in Greenwich, Thomas was accompanied by guitar master Carmine Marino on a songlist which included Girl from Ipanema, A Foggy Day in London Town, and The Look of Love. While Cookie sang, we feasted on steamed mussels, classic coq au vin, perfectly cooked trout almondine and tender filet mignon. The service was impeccable.
A restaurant owner’s passion for music is often the motivation behind hosting live jazz.
Chef/owner Renato Donzelli at the Basso Restaurant and Wine Bar in Westport is, like so many, an amateur musician. His passion for percussion leads him away from the stove to sit in with his set of congas. He’s dedicated to being a chef but is happy when playing. Donzelli’s fusion of Italian and Spanish cuisine has earned Basso a strong following. Be sure to try the paella.
For Victoria Sandolo at Ponza, music broke through a non-verbal diagnosis for her young special-needs daughter who is in college now and studying singing. Sandolo credits music for breaking the barrier of her daughter’s disability. She knows the power of music and live performance, showcasing a wide range of music five nights a week at Ponza.
Roger Kaufman, bandleader, bass player and sometime booking agent is delighted that restaurant jazz is kicking off again, post-covid. “Veronica does it from the heart,” he said about the music at Ponza. The performers do too.
“Performance is a musician’s identity,” Chris Coogan told me. The communication between performer and audience goes both ways. The players need live real-time feedback to know that what they do is working. The audience gets a direct injection of emotion, artistry, and fun. There are smiles all around.
Cookie Thomas enjoys touching other lives through his performance. It keeps him moving forward when people offer thanks and say, “you lift me up” or “help me through the day.”
When I asked Veronica Sandolo why she had live music at Ponza, she replied, “Why Not? Everybody loves music, and it’s dear to us.” I couldn’t have said it better.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.