Colleen McHugh would’ve been a natural jazz baby. Prêt-à-Porter, her celebration of Cole Porter is predominantly up-tempo, insouciant, eager and, at last, a touch melancholy. It’s easy to imagine the vocalist in the throes of a Gatsby-like party while around the bandstand exhausted, inebriated guests are passing out in fountains and manicured hedges. She has on one hand, a wink in her voice and on the other, a stridence when she opens up- a pretty good description of the generation in which Porter thrived.
Porter’s “C’est Magnifique” is briskly rendered. McHugh has an effective way of holding a note in her mouth and throat when she chooses like a muted horn. Aaron Weinstein and his incomparable violin rise up on their toes as crisp riffs zigzag seamlessly from his instrument. “I’m in Love Again” is easy, swingy, and cool. Notes have rounded edges. The singer bobs in her appropriately fringed dress. She makes no actual gestures. Everything is communicated with bright-eyed vocals. Fred Astaire would have been comfortable with this one. Pauses are distinctively part of rhythm.
The rarely heard “When Love Comes to Call” cut from Fifty Million Frenchmen, begins with tandem sax and violin (these two should date more often!) Dark and lovely, it’s done justice by potent arrangement and direct-to-the-heart singing. Upon completion of the number during the recording of the CD, Matt Munisteri apparently commented “there’s the chord that says he’s never comin’.” A sublimely accurate description.
About arrangements—some of these may be among Tedd Firth’s best. Though a few seem rushed to my taste, most are fresh and texturally interesting rather than merely engagingly familiar. Attitude is clear, refined, and spot-on. Additionally, Firth’s piano work ranges from sizzling jive to the most delicate caress executed with equal skill.
With “Find Me a Primitive Man,” a nod to the broad in Broadway, McHugh gives us a taste of the silent screen actress. Her playful approach is winning. Even purposely phonetic French works. One wishes there was more of this, especially when the entire band gamely joins in with a vocal line.“Can Can” introduced as her Everest opens irresistibly with only Steve Doyle’s syncopated bass. As the band gradually comes in, momentum increases until, like stunt flyers, they seem to be swooping and circling upside down and sideways. Verse after perfectly enunciated verse expresses industrial strength exuberance. “Bravo!” Julie Wilson called out.
Among the evening’s highlights are a beautifully understated, samba version of the iconic “Night and Day” opening with French lyrics. McHugh’s long-lined phrases and Harry Allen’s expertly finessed sax have a conversation in moonlight; “You Don’t Know Paree,” wistful and romantic, accompanied by bittersweet, waltzy piano. The vocalist actually conjures The City of Light for those of us who have visited; And a pristine “True Love” (from High Society), whose yearning vocals and rich arrangement one wants to walk through barefoot it’s so evocative.
McHugh is relaxed and jokey with both audience and accompanists. She exudes happiness, makes sure she connects, and gets on with it. Her voice is clear and sharp. Vibrato is attractive and controlled. The material and sincere affection for it suffices for a thru line. Musicianship is top notch. This is a band of prime players. The inclusion of Weinstein adds audible sass.
Photo credit Stephen Sorokoff
Group left to right: Tedd Firth, Colleen McHugh, Harry Allen, Aaron Weinstein, Matt Munisteri, Steve Doyle (hidden)
Tedd Firth-musical direction/arrangements/piano
Harry Allen-tenor sax
Birdland July 9, 2012
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Go to Colleen McHugh’s website for CD source and other summer gigs