Local club owners Vincent Hemmeter and Nicole Watson don’t just launch boiler plate ventures. They have singular visions and shoot for high quality. Take Nick’s, for instance. They didn’t just swap the name on the old Stoney O’Brien’s, sweep the floor and hang a few new beer signs. Like Vincent’s, they gutted it and unearthed a structural treasure over which they built a room of character.
The same attention goes to their entertainment. Both present entertainment that may not please all tastes, but each of which is sure to excite audiences of a certain mind. Nick’s has really homed in on their thing: jazz and cabaret, and they’ve assembled a stable of area musicians that turns out quality productions of a variety you would equate with big cities.
Nick’s doesn’t stop with good ideas, though. When they present one of their increasingly popular revues, they shoot for the deep cuts.
On the weekend of March 22-24, Nick’s will stage four performances of their latest idea, “The Unknown Ellington,” featuring works by The Duke’s multi-decade career as a pioneering jazz composer and bandleader.
“If you were to put a few jazz musicians together and just let them jam, I can guarantee you that before the night is out you will always hear a quantity of Duke Ellington songs, such as ‘Take the A Train,’ ‘Satin Doll,’ ‘Perdido,’ etc.,” says Nick’s co-owner Nicole Watson. “But doing a show with such over-exposed material would be way too easy and not much of a challenge for the musicians or the audience.”
Instead, says Watson, the Nick’s “house band” will dig deeper into the Ellington catalogue, making a show that might please a casual jazz fan, but provide something extra for the connoisseur, as well.
Most jazz lovers are familiar with ‘I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good),’ written by Ellington for his 1941 musical ‘Jump for Joy,’” says Watson. “Our concept allows us to bypass that well-known song and, instead, present two lesser-known songs: ‘Just Squeeze Me’ and ‘Brown Skin Gal in the Calico Gown.’”
Additionally, the group will perform other rarities, such as “Take Love Easy,” from Ellington’s ill-fated 1946 Broadway musical “Beggar’s Holiday,” which, Watson says, was crowded out of a season overrun with blockbusters. The piece will be performed “as a duet for Dan Burke and Linda Dagnello,” she says.
Another highlight for Ellington buffs will be Ellington’s “forgotten instrumental recording, ‘Starting With You I’m Through,’” which Watson says “is only known to exist on a single.” This version, which will be performed by Nick’s regular Dan Burke “expressly for this production, is possibly the first public vocal performance anywhere,” she says.
Nick’s commitment to live music has rewarded them with a growing circle of first-rate musicians with an ambitious bent. The personnel for this production is no exception. The return of four-time Nick’s revue musical director, Frank Racette, will be of particular interest, as he knew and worked directly with Ellington at the end of The Duke’s long career.
“Racette was responsible for Ellington being presented with an honorary degree from Berklee College of Music in 1971,” says Watson, and “he continues to maintain ties with the Ellington family,” adding, “in fact, Duke’s grandson, Edward Ellington II, has been very encouraging to us as we have been planning this event.”
“The performers involved in the show have shown themselves to be adventurous and open to trying new things,” says Watson. “Brian Koning, who was such a hit on trumpet in our Chet Baker production, will be using several types of vintage mutes that he has never tried before, and our drummer, Tom Spears … will be adding castanets to his percussion arsenal.”
Heavyweight area jazz vocalist Linda Dagnello will also be featured. “We suspect that she will stop the show with her bluesy version of ‘Rocks in My Bed,’ which was written by Ellington for the legendary Kansas City blues singer Big Joe Turner.”
Asked why they might tackle ambitious productions like this, while other rooms settle for risk-free money makers, Watson says, “Despite the great deal of effort that goes into it, I find it very personally rewarding. Worcester audiences are very savvy music lovers,” who, she says, “have proven it with their attendance to our previous sold-out productions of revues of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and Chet Baker.”
The logistics, she says, are daunting. “A production like this requires an enormous amount of planning, coordination and work for everyone involved.” Yet, the result, she says, is “a top-shelf product … with a very theatrical experience for the audience.”
According to Watson, Nick’s has “added extra performances to allow more patrons to attend and to enjoy a great night of music in an intimate venue” where the cover charge is quite reasonable “for the quality of the show, which one would find at such venues as Sculler’s or the Metropolitan Room in New York City.”
“I am confident that the intelligent and curious music lovers of Worcester and beyond will support this ambitious project,” Watson says.