It seemed rather improbable how Christiana and Mike’s paths crossed, and a deep musical friendship grew despite the many miles separating them. Mike and his wife Meribeth, along with their golden retriever Samba, two cool cats, a gaggle of geese, and a frog named Dave, all lived in a place filled with music, tucked away at the end of a long dirt road in the hills of western Maryland. Christiana – although (or maybe because) she grew up in Germany’s Black Forest – considered herself a “dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker” ever since settling in Brooklyn in the early 1980s.
They met more or less by chance, at a weekend visit with mutual friends in the area, and played at a music session together. Once or twice a year, Christiana found herself in Mike’s neck of the woods, and one jam session led to another. They found common ground in the old Standards like “The Nearness of You” and “You Stepped Out of a Dream”, especially enjoying their work as a duo. So they decided to develop their shared repertoire and started booking gigs between DC and New York. Together, they developed their own “book”, crossing over into each other’s territory, inspiring and enriching their music in the process.
Studying with Brooklyn jazz pianist Charles Sibirsky, who carries on the lines and harmonic developments characteristic of the Lennie Tristano school, Christiana brings her own scat-inflected repertoire of the Standards. Her biggest influence is Billie Holiday with her true-to-the-core delivery and genuine feel for the musical phrase which can leave the listener feeling as vulnerable and emotionally open as Lady Day herself. On the other end of the spectrum, Christiana loves Ella Fitzgerald’s scat singing, so pure, joyous and unfettered. In between these happy parameters, Christiana tends towards the cooler, tongue-in-cheek deliveries of some of the bebop greats, Annie Ross, Anita O’Day, and even Peggy Lee.
Mike takes his inspiration from composers such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Johnny Mercer, Burke/Van Husen and Antonio Carlos Jobim and guitarists Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Joe Pass and Oscar Moore. He brings his more contemporary repertoire into the mix with his instrumental cuts of “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Laverne Walk”. They shared the wordless musical lines of guitarist Jack Wilkins’s “For Baden”, and “Friends Again” by West-Coast sax player Lanny Morgan. Their love for trading and soloing together, and Mike’s Latin repertoire – so ably supported on this CD by Dominic Smith on drums and Bob Shann on bass – made them delve into “I’ll Remember April”. Chris Battistone’s cool and tasteful trumpet lines complement this cut, as well as the title tune, “I’ve Got the World on a String”, “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”, “There’s a Small Hotel”, “You’re Looking At Me”.
Mike introduced Christiana to the 1970s Nancy King - Steve Wolfe album, \"First Date\", which took them to a later recording of King’s and a re-harmonization of “Tennessee Waltz\". In another nod to her, they couldn’t resist including an intimate version of “There’s a Small Hotel”. Mike first heard pianist Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” on his album with Stan Getz, and they included this challenging and haunting song for a rare vocal rendition. They rounded out this CD with “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)” and “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”.
Here is what Mike Gellar says about his band on this recording:
Bassist Bob Shann always lays down a smooth, warm, supportive sound and is a wonderfully melodic soloist. The Ray Brown influence comes out on Bob’s solo on “I’ve Got the World on a String”, and he plays a beautiful solo on “There’s A Small Hotel”.
Drummer Dominic Smith is a master of taste, dynamics and textures. I love his brush work on “I’ve Got the World on a String”, “There’s A Small Hotel”, “The Peacocks”, and “The Way You Look Tonight”. Listen to the beautiful cymbals in “The Peacocks”.
Tumpeter Chris Battistone and I go back over 20 years. We have performed together, he recorded with me and wrote an arrangement for my 1998 debut-CD “Perdido”, and he has even helped me improve my ear from time to time. Chris’ playing is always so tasteful, he makes me think of Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison. Enjoy him backing up Christiana and his solo on the opening tune. I loved trading 8’s with Chris on “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”. He reminds me of Randy Brecker, along with Bob and Dominic really laying down the rhythm.
I love the interaction between us on the CD’s instrumental cuts,“The Way You Look Tonight” and “Laverne Walk”. – Guitarist Steve Herberman turned me onto this Oscar Pettiford tune during a gig together. I thought a bluesy, rhythm changes-type tune would be a nice complement to the others on the CD. And I even threw in a lick from my earlier rock days.
“Friends Again” is alto saxophonist Lanny Morgan’s composition which he recorded with guitarist Bruce Forman. Chris Battistone and I used to play it, and one day Christiana and I decided it would be fun to do together. Tony DeCaprio helped me improve my picking on this challenging tune.
Mike plays an incredibly wonderful and expressive handmade guitar by Gary Mortoro.
The CD package was designed by Tom Shultz of Creative Attitude.
With their whimsical CD-package “Got the World on a String”, (cover design by Tom Shultz) vocalist Christiana Drapkin and guitarist Mike Gellar seem to take the title song as their motto and launch into a joyous celebration of life, love, and music. Bassist Bob Shann’s deft bass intro sets the tone, and soon the entire group is on a leisurely stroll through the changes, leaving plenty of room for all members. After Christiana’s high-energy opening, Chris Battistone’s muted trumpet provides a cooling contrast. Mike Gellar picks up the pace again on guitar, and Bob Shann romps through an entire chorus on his bass before Christiana carries it out again on vocals.
“You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”, a Cole Porter classic, is given a cool, up-tempo treatment that shows the musicians’ bebop sensibilities, while staying true to the grace and romance of the original. Mike gives the arrangement a contemporary drive, and Christiana rephrases the last chorus with a light touch.
Mike and Christiana change pace with their duo treatment of Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington’s “The Nearness of You”, one of the earliest tunes they shared when they met over a dozen years earlier. Their “nearness” in musical terms is palpable from the first phrase on.
Mike Gellar truly shines on his melodic lines like Oscar Pettiford’s “Laverne Walk”, one of the two instrumental cuts on this CD. Mike is comfortable and creative in his jazz vocabulary, and at the same time he lets his rock roots from half a lifetime ago shine ago. His long-time fellow-players share his sensibility, and it shows.
Along these more contemporary lines, Mike and Christiana worked up “Friends Again”, a line by West Coast saxophonist Lanny Morgan that is based on the standard “Just Friends”. Mike has this to say about improvising with Christiana: “We love the interplay and counterpoint that happens between us. I look at Christiana as a jazz musician, who is adventuresome, rather than as a vocalist who sings with jazz musicians. She brings a great deal of joy to the music and is not afraid to take chances.”
They’re certainly not afraid to take chances with their choice to include Jimmy Rowles’s “The Peacocks”, a haunting ballad with lyrics by Norma Winstone. The sinuous phrases that stretch over almost two octaves, and the chromatic passages in the bridge are a challenge for any vocalist who still has to make lyrical and musical sense in their delivery. Miss Drapkin certainly rises to the occasion, ably supported not only by guitar and bass, but especially by Dominic Smith’s imaginative percussion work.
Time to exhale with “The Way You Look Tonight”, the other instrumental cut on this CD, here as a light jazz waltz. Mike sets the mood with his lilting phrasing, and one can hear the influence of his heroes, guitarists Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Joe Pass and Oscar Moore. Bob Shann’s bass solo is lighthearted and nimble, and Dominic Smith’s brushwork on his solo is just lovely.
Mike introduced Christiana to some 1970s recordings of Nancy King, which took them to a fairly recent recording of King’s “There’s a Small Hotel” with Fred Hersh. Here, with the help of Chris Battistone’s phrasings, the group turns this old Lorenz & Hart tune into a moment of very private musings between two lovers.
Why include Redd Stewart’s and Pee Wee King’s “Tennessee Waltz\" on a jazz album? Again, in a grateful nod to the wonderful Nancy King, who’s never hampered by narrow genre definitions, they include her re-harmonized version. Maybe Christiana’s German roots are showing through, because she is so utterly comfortable improvising over this waltz rhythm in a lilting and wistful manner.
Mike keeps bringing his more contemporary repertoire into the mix, and here they share the rarely heard musical line of guitarist Jack Wilkins’s “For Baden”. Their love for trading and soloing together, and Mike’s Latin repertoire – so ably supported again by Dominic Smith and Bob Shann – continues to drive the nicely plotted arc of this CD, which provides the listener with almost an entire hour of music.
“You’re Looking at Me”, a beautifully constructed walking ballad by Bobby Troup (who also wrote “Route 66”), testifies to Mike’s admiration for Nat (King) Cole’s work. Christiana and Mike spend many listening sessions in Mike’s country home together, and they want to make a point of bringing somewhat neglected tunes to new listeners. Trumpeter Chris Battistone adds his subtle obbligato lines behind Christiana’s phrasing.
“East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)” evokes Mike and Christiana’s many times on the bandstand, and their love for trading and harmonic interplay when soloing together. Their special rapport inspires each of them to a greater result than merely the sum of the two individuals.
Their intimate duo treatment of “You Stepped out of a Dream”, dances with time and rhythm. Both artists create the perfect dreamlike quality that the lyrics call for. Mike shines in his duo work with Christiana, not least because he loves to play on his favorite instrument, a beautifully handcrafted guitar by the master builder Gary Mortoro.
Trumpeter Chris Battistone joins the quartet again on “I’ll Remember April”, the final number on this CD. His confident line helps the music flow in an effortless way. Drummer Dominic Smith is a master of taste, dynamics and texture, which enlivens this last number and holds the listener’s attention until bassist Bob Shann rounds everything out with his last notes.