Jessie Mueller, Nicole Henry, Lari White

Sweet and Low Down: How Popular Standards
Became Jazz Classics

Jessie Mueller, Nicole Henry, Lari White

This year’s JLC Jazz and Popular Song series ended with a bang Wednesday night presenting a roster of particularly winning vocalists and excellent material. Its premise: The Great American Songbook “stays alive by being interpreted and reinterpreted…with a different set of values for every generation.” (Will Friedwald) Each number was performed in both traditional/straightforward and jazz versions. That latter renditions never strayed too far from either melody or lyrical intention added to the enthusiastic reception.

Host Michael Feinstein (left) opened the evening with a feather light “All the Way” first featured in the 1957 film The Joker is Wild. Frank Sinatra popularized the song. Performed by “every respectable singer,” it crossed over to jazz with Billie Holiday’s recording two years later. The house relaxed into the evening with pleasure. Jessie Mueller offered a captivating bossa nova style version of the number. Leaning into the lyrics, her pretty trill underpinned a smooth, open voice.

“But Not for Me” started in jazz vernacular, making its way onto pop charts with the film 1943 Girl Crazy. The beguiling Lari White imbued it with natural sweetness. Nicole Henry’s (below) version featured shortened phrases and sliding octaves. Its bouncy, up tempo arrangement attributed the lyric with an entirely different meaning than usual- as if the singer was relieved to discover she’d been fraternizing with the wrong man.

Michael Feinstein’s splendid vocal contributions included the “pardon the expression, straight versions” of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” soft brushes and clarinet underscoring his poignant voice, and a stunning “My Funny Valentine.” The vocalist also let loose with a syncopated, up tempo “There’ll Be a Change in the Weather” replete with emphatic growl. As always, his narrative exposition was informative and entertaining, peppered with personal anecdotes and humorous asides.

A highlight of Nicole Henry’s consistently fine performance was the jazz side of “Time After Time” into which she eased with the rhythm of a cool, upright bass. The vocalist tends to repeat or insert words into her lyrics keeping attitude loose and, in this case, bright, coloring creatively outside the lines. A musical conversation between drums and piano added texture. Henry’s potently suggestive “Night and Day” swung with the best of them.

Jessie Mueller’s (above) two interpretations of “All of Me” (a treat to hear the verse) began accompanied by solo ragtime-flavored piano. A skilled actress, she makes lyrics believable, offering experiences with which we can empathize. Mueller’s clear, sweeping, musical theater voice did justice to both genres. Later, the artist sang a mellifluous and understated “Time After Time.”

Lari White (above), to me the revelation of the evening, showed equal craft with both plumy classics and reinvented jazz. Her channeling of Maria for “My Favorite Things” was radiantly fresh. When the band segued into the John Coltrane arrangement, White came at the song from unexpected musical directions embellishing but never losing it. “Night and Day” was an intoxicating, chiffon fox trot while “My Funny Valentine” again showcased inventive melodic and phrasing choices. More please.

Jazz musician Loston Harris, who makes his New York home at Bemelman’s Bar (The Carlyle), played “Our Love is Here to Stay” taking us on a journey that began with wistful reflection, then segued into pedal-centric ragtime with nods to several other Gershwin tunes. I harbor the suspicion Harris has an extra hand. “It’s Almost Like Being in Love” offered an upbeat, nightclub sound with able vocals by the pianist.

The three ladies sang an exuberant “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” showcasing the extent of their collective talent and Michael Feinstein closed with “So in Love” which morphed into big, pithy swing.

All the musicians were excellent; Andy Farber once again excelling in solos of variety and style. Arrangements engagingly exemplified both sides of the coin.

A vibrant and entertaining musical repast.

Unattributed quotes are Michael Feinstein

Photo credit: Frank Stewart/JALC

Tickets for next year’s series go on sale soon. http://www.jalc.org/

Jazz at Lincoln Center present
Sweet and Low Down: How Popular Standards Became Jazz Classics
Michael Feinstein- Vocals, Host, Director of Popular Song
Nicole Henry- Vocals
Jessie Mueller- Vocals
Lari White-Vocals
Loston Harris-Piano/Vocals
Tedd Firth-Music Director, Piano
Andy Farber-Saxophone/Clarinet/Flute,
Tom Kennedy-Bass, Mark McLean-Drums
Scott Siegel-Supervising Producer and Director
The Allen Room Frederick P. Rose Hall
June 7, 2012

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