April 22, 2010

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Catch piano lounge vibe at Z
Jazzy Boston songwriter anchors new downtown music series
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

A downtown Manchester restaurant is the latest establishment to go all-in for live entertainment. Z Food & Drink on Elm Street is now offering an eclectic mix of singers on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

“I wanted to have live music as part of my expansion,” said chef and owner Tom Puskarich, who recently tripled the seating in his three-year-old restaurant and added a new bar. “It was always going to be piano-based, old- school lounge, with the baby grand piano and the torch singer up front.”

There’s a shiny new baby grand piano and a stage where the old bar used to be.

Puskarich recruited area musician Joe Deleault to coordinate talent, and Deleault responded by landing Alli Beaudry as a Thursday night regular and Boston singer-songwriter Samantha Farrell for Fridays. Saturdays will feature a rotation of rising stars like Sabrina Rabello and the piano-and-vocal duo of Steve Aubert and Dave Ayotte, who perform this weekend.

The music starts at 8:30 p.m., a decision calculated to keep the focus on the performers: “Dinner’s almost over by then and people are more likely to pay attention,” Deleault said.

Puskarich hopes to inject a different element into the downtown music scene. “It’s pretty lively here, but it’s also very rock- and blues-based,” he said, adding that he and Deleault are trying for a contemporary sound that’s informed by jazz. “Anything you’d hear on WXRV is something that I’d like to hear in here.”

One performer helping to drive the new direction is Farrell, with a baby talk singing style reminiscent of Macy Gray and Corrine Bailey Ray, and an impressive résumé that includes Luminous, a record she made with Dave Matthews Band flute and saxophone player LeRoi Moore in the months before his untimely death in 2008.

As a toddler, Farrell earned the nickname “Lala” for her habit of singing aloud everywhere she went, as sounds from her parents’ Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday records wafted through the house.

But Farrell didn’t think about performing professionally until her undergraduate years at Maine’s Bowdoin College. By then she was playing a dozen different instruments, beginning with flute in fourth grade and progressing through piano and multiple horns throughout high school — especially saxophone.

“Music’s always been a huge passion,” she said, but focusing on vocals only occurred to her after seeing two masters of blue-eyed soul, Van Morrison and Ray Lamontagne, perform within days of one another.

“I saw Van and I couldn’t believe how moved I was, the energy in the audience and how happy everyone was to be there,” she said. Later, she watched Lamontagne do an intimate club set accompanied by an upright bass player, well before his debut album, Trouble, vaulted him to headliner status.

Farrell had a revelation.

“His voice just melted my face,” she says. “I left thinking, I want to do that, right there.”

After graduation, Farrell headed west to Los Angeles to make her mark. “I proceeded to work every crappy job possible,” she said. “I thought it would give me impetus to work harder on music.”

At her 19th job — a stint at an IT consulting firm — Farrell’s boss was a former member of the Boxing Gandhis, a group that toured with the Dave Matthews Band early in its career. “They shared a van together in 1991 for a couple of months,” Farrell said.

Unbeknownst to her, he’d played a few of Farrell’s songs for Moore, and it piqued his interest. “One day I’m sitting in my cubicle in this warehouse and I see an e-mail from LeRoi’s AOL address,” Farrell said. What followed still feels like a dream to Farrell, as Moore moved her into his Virginia mansion, and the two began making music. She became his pet project, for what turned out to be Moore’s only attempt at production.

“Roi was the first person in the industry that really got what I was doing,” Farrell said. “I sing in weird key signatures, with distinctive phrasing. He understood that less is more … in Los Angeles, I got drowned out by drum machines and power guitar crap, and I didn’t know enough to assert myself.”

Others had tried to change or rein in her idiosyncratic style, but Moore disagreed. “He loved my voice,” recalls Farrell. “He said, ‘You’re doing exactly what you should be doing, don’t change — come with me.’”

Moore also shared Farrell’s musical roots. “He was a total jazz cat before he started doing Dave Matthews Band stuff,” she said.

“He understood me in a way that no one ever had,” she continued, “and he validated what I was doing in a way that had never happened before.”

Because it was his first time behind the boards, Moore kept his work with Farrell quiet. No contracts were signed.

“He’d never produced anybody before, and I think he was really nervous about it, but we just hit it off so well,” says Farrell, explaining her decision to work on a handshake. Her choice became a personal and professional nightmare for Farrell.

“When he died, I had nothing, I just went home, I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I was in this legal mess, trying to get control of the masters, trying to go back into the studio. Basically, I wasn’t allowed to work on my record until all the estate insanity had been figured out.”

Finally, in the summer of 2009 Farrell got permission to complete Luminous, which she released last fall. Incredibly, until that time she wasn’t even permitted to perform songs from the record at her shows.

When they last talked, Moore was recovering from injuries received during an ATV accident. Bedridden but happy, he was on the mend and looking forward to continuing his work with Farrell.

A few days later, he was dead, and Farrell’s dreams had abruptly shifted.

“There were so many plans for the future and the path I was going to go on was totally extraordinary,” said Farrell. “He was an amazing friend.”

Z Food & Drink Music Series
Where: Z Food & Drink, 860 Elm St. in Manchester
When: Thursdays (Alli Beaudry), Fridays (Samantha Farrell), Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.
Info: 629-9383 or www.zfoodanddrink.com