Gregory Charles, musician, singer, songwriter, actor, author, radio host, and concert organizer (whew!), is briefly ensconced at the otherwise sophisticated Café Carlyle with a self described “glorified piano bar act.” The ebullient artist and his capable, young band literally don’t know of what a set will consist before the lights go down. Audience members fill out song request cards which are chosen at random during the course of an evening. Not only do the performers appear without rehearsed material, Charles tends to begin playing a selection, calling out a key but no song title, utilizing hand signals worthy of a catcher’s mound for any further direction. Change of electric guitar to acoustic (on command) is quick and telling.
Opening with the cheerful, swingy aesthetic of Duke Ellington followed by Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” whose Heidi, Heidi, ho is willingly provided by the audience and becomes defacto chorus later on, Charles genially explains the game and a first slip is drawn.
Does he get stumped? Sure, but cover is artfully executed. “We create around it,” he explains. Segues into musically sympathetic alternatives fill in where lyrics are elusive, choruses are repeated and elaborated upon. I don’t mean to minimize Charles’s skill with this description. Last night, there wasn’t a song with which he was unfamiliar from 1938’s “The Nearness of You” (Hoagy Carmichael/Ned Washington) to 1958’s “You Are My Destiny” (Paul Anka)—replete with high octave finish—through numbers by Cold Play and Guns and Roses, “undoubtedly a first at The Carlyle,” and a rousing version of “Stand By Your Man”(Tammy Wynette/Bill Sherrill).
Most song requests prove Charles’s theory that its audience doesn’t really want the group to be caught unawares, “they just want excitement and to hear good music.” I couldn’t help but wonder what an evening of choices by writers Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter et al, more traditionally at home at the Carlyle, might’ve elicited.
Charles has a warm, jokey way with patter. After silently reading a request and acknowledging its author from the stage, he quickly plays a line or two, sometimes singing under his breath, occasionally mugging, settling on an approach. The preface adds cleverly to anticipation. Peter and Jasmine, newly engaged, want to hear “At Last” (Mack Gordon/Harry Warren). One and a two and a… Perhaps in order to make it more interesting to the musicians as much as to the room, he begins with the classic syrup-slow yearning, but has guitarist, Jean-Benoit Lasante, switch instruments and offer an updated, rock-shaded solo. Lasante clearly cut his teeth on the genre which emerges in much of his improvisation.
Phrasing varies appropriately from song to song. Sentimental restraint, rasping, staccato Motown riffs, balladic flourishes, country lilt…all are pulled like colored handkerchiefs out of a single top hat. While “La Vie en Rose” (Louiguy/Piaf) is sung with familiarity in French (the group is French Canadian); a piece by Antonio Carlos Jobim (music only) lacks anything close to the sensual undulation of his style. Musicians are adroit and quick witted, but there’s no opportunity for distinctive arrangements. Thus, accompaniment sits just to the left of entertainingly generic. Charles has a pleasing voice, though little is sustained sufficiently to really gage it. I’d be curious to hear him perform a set of cohesive material.
Not at all what one might imagine at Café Carlyle, the evening is nonetheless entertaining and enthusiastically received. Reduced dinner/show charge is in effect so that younger people and/or those unacquainted with the venerable room might take advantage. An indication of sure change, cabaret is beginning to open its doors more widely, offering other than classic genres, lowering tariffs, and welcoming the uninitiated. One can only hope the new wave will not wipe out the glorious original which remains timeless and evergreen, but rather ride tandem.
Photo credit: KATVAN STUDIOS
Gregory Charles- vocals, piano
35 East 76th Street
Through April 7, 2012