The Weekly Gig: Why Madison keeps coming back for more

By Kenneth Burns for Isthmus
January 27, 2006

Jan Wheaton & Matan Rubinstein
Fridays, Hilton Madison Monona Terrace Hotel, 9 pm

Hoteliers go to great lengths to make guests feel at home, but fresh ice and high-threadcount bedsheets can only do so much. By its nature travel is disorienting, and staying in a hotel, amid strange people and strange surroundings, can be downright otherworldly.

Which is not always a bad thing. The managers of the very comfortable downtown Hilton cultivate a big-city luxuriousness that is atypical of our modest town. What with the retro chandeliers, the cocktail shakers and the plush circular sofa, guests in the hotel lobby might think they were anywhere but casual-dress Madison until the loud crowd in Packer jackets stomps in.

But hopefully they will stay out late on Friday evenings so you can enjoy the lobby's most elegant touch: the quiet jazz music of vocalist Jan Wheaton and pianist Matan Rubinstein. One of the city's most gifted interpreters of songs, Wheaton sits atop a barstool next to the black baby grand and, gesturing with her left hand, performs sprightly, unpredictable versions of standards. Taking in the show, you would be forgiven for expecting Fred Astaire to glide in.

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When I stopped by on e Friday, snow was falling outside, but roaring fires in the fireplaces made the lobby cozy. Except for a few groups passing through, the hotel seemed quiet. As Rubinstein finished up an early set of solo piano music, a girl of about 6, wearing a tiara, led a grandfatherly man in a striped sweater from chair to chair.

Eventually Wheaton, in black pants and lavender blouse, took her seat. In the room, candles burned attractively as she leaned back and crooned the old Duke Ellington song "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me." Between verses she scatted softly.

(One sight I recognized from the Lonesome Rogues' show: On the television over the bar, a basketball game was getting under way. Must televised sports always intrude on the music?)

Then Rubinstein, bespectacled and shaggy behind the keyboard, started up another tune, Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." "There's no love song finer," Wheaton sang, "but how strange the change from major to minor." Someone in the audience snapped pictures. Impishly, Wheaton teased him. "How much film is in that camera?" she asked.

As Rubinstein banged out the opening chords of the doo-wop song "For Your Love, " a bored teenager wandered into the lobby in his pajamas. Clutching a bottle of Mountain Dew, he looked around with a blank expression, then headed for the elevators. Wheaton giggled and did double-takes at the musical jokes with which Runinstein punctuated the tune, including a coda of "Blue Danube Waltz."

The set concluded with a swinging version of "Her There," from the musical The Pajama Game. At the break, Wheaton was playful in a conversation. "We're having so much fun," she said.

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