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The waitresses are chatting in Russian. The food is Italian. There's a group of Argentineans in the corner, talking Spanish at full-speed. And Texan Tianna Hall is on stage singing classic American jazz, backed by a Norwegian guitarist and a Lebanese drummer. Yeah, this is Houston.
Actually, to be precise, this is Little Napoli (1001 Texas, 713-225-3900), a cozy cafe just across from the Post Rice Lofts. With its full bar, surprisingly varied menu, white tablecloths and view of the busy street outside, Little Napoli is what passes for a bistro in Texas. There's a tiny stage tucked in the corner, with live music three nights a week.
I'm sitting by the window, a basket of warm bread, a plate of sautéed spinach and a platter of delicately arranged shrimp scampi in front of me. My friend Liz has come along with me -- supposedly for the music, but right now, all her attention's on the scampi.
The quartet, with Osama Raad on drums, Asle Roe on guitar, Steve Brown on upright bass and Tianna Hall on vocals, is in the middle of a set. Hall is singing a soft, slow, sexy version of Rodgers and Hart's "I Could Write a Book." Most of the restaurant is empty -- there are customers sitting at only a half-dozen tables -- but everyone is very attentive, and Roe's guitar solo midway through the song is followed by a healthy round of applause. As Hall eases into Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," a couple gets up to leave. By the time she's done with "Fly Me to the Moon," three more couples have gone. Now it's just us and the Argentineans.
"Let's see what they do with an empty room," I whisper to Liz. It's easy to play to an enthusiastic crowd. Who doesn't love the applause? But playing to an empty room is very, very different. There's no energy to feed off, no smiling faces to tell you you're doing a good job, just a smattering of polite applause. To their credit, the group keeps going with the same intensity and polish. Hall flirts her way through the Jobim classic "No More Blues" while Liz finishes off the scampi, sopping up the bits of remaining sauce with a crust of bread.
"We're going to take a break right now," Hall announces, "but we'll be back in just a few minutes. We're here until one o'clock, so stick around." The waitresses smile at each other and shrug as if to say, "We don't really have a choice, do we?"
Since the Argentineans are still having an animated conversation in mile-a-minute Spanish, Raad and Hall wander over to our table. After a round of introductions, I get straight to it with Hall: "Why are you singing jazz? Everyone tells me it's dead in Houston."
"Who said that?" Hall looks honestly surprised. "It's not dead. I work six nights a week singing jazz. Believe me, it's not dead by a long shot."
I look around the room, with all the empty tables. Hall catches my meaning. "This is a little slow tonight, because it's our first night here. But wait until people know that we're here, it will pick up. Really, there's a big jazz audience in Houston. Whoever told you jazz is dead, lied."
Hall goes on to tell me that she's been singing jazz for less than a year and a half. She was studying opera and performing in musical theater around town when Paul English saw her and said, "You need to be a jazz singer." Hall took his advice and started retraining her voice and learning standards.
I'm surprised. Hall has solid chops, natural phrasing and her own style. She's not just repeating Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan recordings note per note, the way most other singers "learn" jazz. The group's been playing straight-ahead jazz, not the jazzed-up pop or R&B that passes for jazz at other clubs around town. We chat for a few minutes until Roe steps back on stage, Hall's cue that the next set is about to start. She gets up to leave and then pauses, "You tell whoever thinks jazz is dead that we'll be here every Saturday night. Tell them to come on over."
"I'll do that," I promise. "I'll do exactly that."
To find out more about the Osama Raad Quartet featuring Tianna Hall, visit www.OsamaRaad.com.
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