By Aaron Jenkins
Joe Soltysik may or may not know it, but he's competing with a macho trio at the corner bar, whose volleying banter is a vignette among a clustered cast of midweek patrons at The Oak Leaf Grill/Golden Oaks Golf Club.
The woody decor cradling the blushing comfort of tonight's makeshift lounge in Ruscombmanor Township is a far cry from the shoddy floorboards of smoky blue-collared bourbonites and whiskey drinkers meditating on the electric euphoria of Muddy Waters.
But music is music and drink is drink, and the liquor that Lady Bartender is pouring into the glasses of the high earners this evening, March 22 - or rather Day 6 in Berks Jazz Fest time - is going down smoother than usual, thanks to Soltysik's stripped-down tonic of jazz and blues.
"If you remember Frank Sinatra, he made a couple dozen hits," Soltysik muses. "This is 'Lady is a Tramp'."
And with a snappy intro, Soltysik blusters into the Ol' Blue Eyes classic. Soltysik later admits it's the late icon's signature styling that makes Sinatra, Sinatra. "He's always on pitch. Great feeling," Soltysik says. "If you listen to his records, he's perfect. He's swing but does jazz."
But with Sinatra you can't just have one, and Soltysik delivers another gem, giving way to a synergy of gruff vocals and Sinatra's rolling tenor.
In sweeping three sets spliced with jazz, blues, bosanova and Latin numbers, the Sultan of Swoon was one of the many legends Soltysik, along with guitarist Gene Bujnovsky, channeled from a pantheon of musical legends: Ray Charles, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin, to name three.
That that watermelon time is a-gettin' due, And I'm a watermelon man
In between sets, Soltysik explains that nearly 80 percent of jazz is a reworking of old standards made popular by the likes of Gershwin a half-century ago. "A lot of jazz musicians do take popular standard numbers and improvise on those songs," he says. "That's a lot what jazz is, improvisation and hits."
"I think if you're a jazz musician, you have to love to play jazz."
Bending songs to match his vocal ability, Soltysik is fastidious in rewriting arrangements by hand. "The problem with jazz is it's great for a jazz musician who plays and improvises. They know what they're doing, but you as a listener [thinks], 'What the heck are they doing?'" Soltysik says.
Soltysik turned heads with a series of rousing renditions of "Lady is a Tramp," "Watermelon Man" and "Sweet Home Chicago." "If you go to Chicago, go to that club," Soltysik tells the now all-ears-on-Joe crowd.
Although Soltysik is new to the 16th annual Berks Jazz Fest, musically, he's no spring chicken. Having a reed in his mouth since age 9, Soltysik is a skilled saxophonist and slaves over a piano and accordion like it's nobody's business. After being discharged from the Army decades ago, where he played sax and keys, Soltysik has hopped around in area big bands, including Dave Stahl, and he currently leads a five-man eponymous ensemble from Reading - giving life to dance halls throughout the region.
"When people come to hear me they don't know if they're going to get jazz or swing or polka," he says. "I'm comfortable with any kind of music. I try to keep loose with everything I'm doing."
Looseness is a must in order to pull of Tom Jones and Elvis, samba and mambo in a single night. "It's about challenge to me...I have to [reserve] all these tempos in my brain...a mambo tempo or a samba tempo," Soltysik says of his band.
"I like all different kinds of music."
I said blowin', blowin',
Blow my baby back home....
"Which was good for today because it was windy," Soltysik says to his audience, who after nearly three hours is fading.
It's a surprise to find that Soltysik has been playing blues for just over a year. It fits him like a zoot suit. "You really don't have to be a superb musician to play the blues...all you have to know is three chords, and you're a blues star," he says.
"I'm starting to get a blues feeling," Soltysik laughs.
Wanting to do a side project, Soltysik took up jazz and blues a year and a half ago. "What I'm trying to do is jazz and blues," he says. "Other groups it's one or the other."
It's now closing time at The Oak Leaf, and long after the remnant swirl of diluted scotch water was swallowed and the final notes keyed, all that is left are staffers cleaning up in attempts to make a quick exit to what remains of their Wednesday evening.
Soltysik breaks down his equipment and eyes future gigs. The Joe Soltysik Band will play the 41st Annual Duryea Day in Boyertown later in the year.
The veteran musician leaves on a philosophical note. "Music is really a feeling," Soltysik says. "It doesn't matter if you play blues or country or rock 'n' roll. If you don't have a feeling, you're not going to project a feeling."
And it's that feeling that's blowin', blowin' Soltysik back home.
Contact reporter Aaron Jenkins
at 610-367-6041, ext. 240 or