“She lifted the art of life and sang to the height of excellence…” Rex Reed
Helmed by journalist/author Rex Reed, her intimate friend, Thursday’s New York Cabaret Convention salute to Sylvia Syms (1917-1992) is as illuminating as it is entertaining. The well produced event features affectionate, amusing, well balanced recollections by Reed and those appearing vocalists who knew her, as well as numbers out of Syms’s repertoire.
In 1992, Reed tells us, he was awakened by “an angry, urgent phone call” from Liza Minnelli. “We lost her,” she sobbed. Sylvia Syms had a heart attack and “dropped dead into the arms of Cy Coleman” while in performance at the Oak Room of The Algonquin Hotel. “When I go,” she told me a thousand times, “I wanna go in the middle of a standing ovation.” Our host is a terrific storyteller.
We begin with the inimitable Barbara Carroll. Syms asked the pianist to play on her first album in 1951. Discovering Carroll worked until 2 am, the recording was schedule for that hour. A piano tuner was even awakened when the studio instrument was found lacking. With Jay Leonhart on bass, Carroll plays “I Wanna Be Yours” and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” making them, as she does everything, her iconoclastic own. Listen to the winking integration of classical influence, to the reflective retards, complex notations, and utter clarity.
Highlights of the evening:
“As wonderful as she was with ballads, she could also be a very funny broad…she said: If you wanna know what I sing like baby, go home and tear up a rag…I don’t care what anybody does in bed. I just wish they’d do it to me once in awhile.” Jay Leonhart’s rendition of “I Always Say Hello to A Flower” is perfect, deadpan drollery. One forgets how well the consummate bassist can sing. (Tomoko Ohno-Piano)
Barbara Carroll; Carol Woods
Syms, it seems, liked to rescue songs. “Big Fat Heart” was cut from the musical Seesaw. Carol Woods’s version is conversational and expressive. There’s an oomph to her delivery adding geniality. Later we hear “Pick Yourself Up” from this vocalist. It’s kind of preaching, full of infectious brightness and optimism. (Barry Levitt-Piano)
“Despite her impeccable taste in ballads, she would also swing…” At 17, Syms would be snuck into 52nd Street jazz clubs by sympathetic doormen, sequestered in hat check rooms so she could listen and observe. Reed credits her with spontaneously supplying Billie Holiday’s famous gardenia, apparently meant to cover a hole burned in her hair one evening before a show.
Nicolas King swings in with “Looking At Me”/ “That Face”/ “Look At That Face” as polished and robustly rhythmic as a full fledged member of the Rat Pack. The man gets this to his bones. In Act II, King offers “Here’s That Rainy Day” with full, rarely heard verse. The melancholy number emerges meticulously controlled, subtly modulated. A lovely interpretation. King covers the stage, drawing in his audience with awareness and flair. (Jon Weber-Piano)
Nicolas King; Billy Stritch
Accompanied by Tedd Firth, Billy Stritch takes center stage, offering only vocal for a change. “Mountain Greenery” is jacked-up and jazzy. The understated Stritch plays with repetition, octave slides, scat, and rhythm making a virtuoso turn seem easy. Later, at the piano, he sighs “It Amazes Me” leading us to empathize with every surprised and grateful lyric. There’s no doubt the performer could’ve made a career as a vocalist if he so chose.
There are stories about Syms’s 3am telephone calls, her appreciation of gossip, uncensored, sometimes caustic opinions, terrific loyalty, generosity, and of Francis Albert Sinatra’s undying devotion.
The ever vital and savory Marilyn Maye sings “Fifty Percent” with powerful authenticity: I don’t share his name/I don’t wear his ring/There’s no piece of paper saying that he’s mine/But he says he loves me, and I believe it’s true/Doesn’t that make someone belong to you? We believe every dramatic, confessional word. Maye returns with “Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home,” starting with unexpected a capella, launching into swing with her very own superb grace and brio. (Tedd Firth-Piano)
Marilyn Maye; Ann Hampton Callaway
Ann Hampton Callaway is, for my money, the highpoint of the evening. When this vocalist is on stage, she becomes an additional musical instrument. An originally interpreted Fats Waller medley is propulsive, crisp, and sassy. The artist steps from side to side, shoulders slightly swaying and covers a bit of ground as if she can’t stand still. It’s Happy. Her second contribution is one of the plumiest versions of “Skylark” I’ve ever heard. Tedd Firth caresses the piano; Hampton Callaway embraces lyrical meaning-both swept away romantics. Leonhart’s bass solo is like a bird hitching a ride, backstroking on a breeze. Radiant.
Reed himself sings two heartfelt numbers. The second, “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song” reflects “how I felt about her personally and saying goodbye.” It’s moving.
Before we close, our host has the discernment to play Syms’s own voice for those who are unfamiliar and to remind others. “At the time of her passing, she was planning a new album …” We hear an ardent “I’ll See You Again” (Noel Coward) with almost constant, quiet vibrato, lyrics exiting like smoke rings. Silvia Sym’s portrait looks on smiling.
Also featuring: Joyce Breach, Maud Hixon, Daryl Sherman, Marti Stevens, Sally Mayes, Tom Wopat, Jay Leonhart-Bass; Ray Marchica-Drums
All unattributed quotes are Rex Reed
Opening: Stephen Sorokoff; Other Photos Maryann Lopinto
The Mabel Mercer Foundation presents
Saluting Sylvia Syms
Hosted by Rex Reed
The 27th New York Cabaret Convention
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater
October 20, 2016
Twenty years as a cabaret/concert artist has not dimmed the rigorous attention to high standards, curiosity, passion, personal and professional evolution of performer Barbara Fasano.
Barbara Fasano doesn’t remember a time there wasn’t music in her life. “My father was a terrific singer … Armstrong, Crosby, Ella. He had a fantastic record collection. Mom would be upstairs cooking and dad would be downstairs singing along with his records.” As a child, she peered through spokes in the basement banister watching her parents dance. Romance 101.
Mr. & Mrs. Fasano, Barbara (5), Barbara (10) Dad and Tippy
Ill for years, her mother passed when Barbara was 15. Though surrounded by a big Italian family, “everyone else was kind of into their own thing,” leaving the youngest sibling to discover who she was without a mother’s guidance. During our conversations, she refers to this again and again as having been pivotal to forming the woman she’s become. Love of music started as a way to express herself, to exorcise “chaotic” feelings. “I was my own Joni Mitchell. I wrote tons and tons of tortured boyfriend love songs and accompanied myself on terrible guitar.”
Ambitions were to become a serious actress and a singer in musicals, accent on the former. Barbara chose Hofstra University. The program apparently didn’t teach students how to go about getting a job. “I was studying Moliere and Comedia del Arte, then came out and discovered the business was more about Michael Bennett. It was kind of altruistic…cool to be a hungry artist. Capitalism hadn’t run so amok.” Summers were spent acting in Stock. At 24, she acquired her Equity Card playing Rizzo in Grease.
Barbara in Grease; In The Venetian Twins by Miriam Tulin
Barbara met her first husband, an A & R man, while temping at CBS Records. The couple lived in Australia and traveled. Their music was rooted in different genres (his was pop), but categories have always been irrelevant to this artist. From the beginning, she’s explored a potpourri of material, resistant to having limited taste or being slotted as one or the other ‘kind’ of performer.
“Cabaret was an accident.” On trips to New York, Barbara saw Harry Connick, Jr. on Broadway and Michael Feinstein in the storied Oak Room at The Algonquin Hotel. “The light really went off when I went to see Andrea (Marcovicci) there. I thought- Oh (she goes up an octave), you can do this? I would love to do this. It wasn’t just Andrea, it was the room, the style. It elevated cabaret.” Air around her vibrates as she remembers.
Early Headshots – Left Photo by Sal Salerno, Right Photo by Johnny Shakespeare
The couple also lived in Los Angeles before returning to Manhattan. In LA, Barbara ended up at a little club in Hollywood called Rose Tattoo where, after sitting-in awhile, she was asked to do her own show. It was a mélange of music called “Caught in the Act.” (Depend upon her for catchy titles.) During a monologue on her mother, the vegetarian literally made meatballs on stage while singing “Arrivederci Roma.” (Mom listened to “cornball Italian singers.”) In Manhattan, she took class, acted, and auditioned.
“You start out with these grand dreams. I’m gonna be that thing – the next Meryl Streep or something; Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, a great artist and superstar. So you pursue that. Then there’s a moment when you kind of realize, huh, oh, I don’t think that’s gonna happen and you have to reassess what you’re doing and why.”
At The Rose Tattoo with MD/Pianist Michael Orland
It wasn’t until a year later at The O’Neill Cabaret & Performance Conference that everything came together and she realized cabaret was a viable art form she could see herself a part of. Three icons particularly influenced her there. The first was straight-shooter Sylvia Syms. Barbara brought “Body and Soul” to one session. “You’ve got to look at this lyric,” Syms said demonstrating: I’m all for you BODY and soul. She stressed the word body. “Though not a ravishing beauty, Sylvia was primal, sexual, whereas I had stressed the word soul” – conceivably an unconscious nod to her own clear and present spirituality.
The second was Margaret Whiting. “Think of your relationship to the audience as if it’s a first date,” the veteran vocalist advised. “You don’t tell someone everything at first meeting,” Barbara clarifies. “You’re kind of friendly, charming, gradually letting your guard down… giving the audience a minute—to fall in love with you or at least really like you…You’re never just singing songs…in my world anyway. You’re always telling a story, always telling them about yourself. It’s about you even if it’s about Harold Arlen.”
Barbara Fasano and Julie Wilson
When alumni were invited back to next season’s final concert, Barbara deferentially approached third legend, Julie Wilson, whom she’d seen at Rainbow and Stars and who was now teaching at the O’Neill. The women found immediate affinity. Wilson became a devoted fan, mentor and lifelong friend. “She knew that it was all about telling the truth and giving. I think I got that from Julie.” Her voice softens.
Barbara divorced. A flexible secretarial job benevolently allowed use of a Xerox machine and radio interview time. She began to explore open mic nights at such as The Duplex, Eighty Eights, Danny’s and Rose’s Turn. “Now it’s such a scene. There was still an arty vibe to the feel of cabaret then. People were quirkier … I would get up and sing poetry set to music, standards, pop tunes, socially conscious things about American Indians.” She turned her focus to singing despite the odds. “Clubs were uptown, downtown, midtown; it was different. And even then, we thought cabaret was dying…”
The flyer for a Firebird Restaurant show -Photo by Michael Ian
The meticulous artist loves putting together shows. Even the thought of notebooks – “accoutrements” and research lights her up. “…I saw it was a place where I could endlessly work towards telling the truth. When you’re specific with what it is you’re feeling, it resonates. The more you can share your humanity, the more you make that connection. That’s the driving force behind my work – connection…Growing up with a parent that’s ill, there’s a lot that goes on. You want to connect with people because there’s a void, and maybe because you know things.” Barbara is the family archivist, carefully filing every arrangement as well as keeping the books. Her father, she “explains,” was an accountant. She actually used to play Office.
The first live show that put her on the map was Girls of Summer with MD/Pianist Rick Jensen. “I got humor from Rick and the love of the process. We’d have such a good time working. He made me trust that I’d get there. I was impatient…” Jensen helmed the show’s recording.
Barbara Fasano and Rick Jensen at her first Cabaret Convention
Donald Smith, creator of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, discovered Barbara at Danny’s and invited her to perform at the annual Cabaret Convention. “Michael Feinstein’s name is just below mine on the poster. My dad loved that.” The poster is framed in her cozy home. When Smith began a series called Cabaret Cavalcade at The Algonquin, she was given her first opportunity to appear in the iconic room.
In 2003, when Barbara wanted more of a jazz flavor, the vocalist turned to John Di Martino. “John actually played on the CD for a different flavor than Rick. I still have the chart he wrote in pencil…He brought a whole other world of colors I’d be hearing in my head and didn’t know how to incorporate.” With Jensen’s blessing she moved on. Some philosophies believe we attract those we need.
Barbara Fasano and John DiMartino at Danny’s
Meanwhile, in what he calls the mayonnaise belt of New Jersey, Eric Comstock also grew up in a house filled with music. Though reared on classical piano, it was clearly not his path. He participated in school shows, but preferred narrating or accompanying to singing. Eventually, the young man realized idols Fats Waller, Bobby Short, and Fred Astaire had not been legitimate vocalists. “These guys had small voices, but put it across.”
Mentors included the inspiration and penultimate style of Bobby Short, Charles DeForest, who “never phoned it in. Even when there was a cacophony around him, he’d totally go there… swing his ass off and could sing,” and Steve Ross. “Steve personifies the whole idea of charm onstage, his musicianship and taste in material is second to none. There’s a knowingness in his work that’s rare — the perfect combo of intellect, whimsy and soul.” Comstock, it should be noted, bears attributes similar to each of these artists.
David Kenny, Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock at The WBAI Benefit
Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock met at a 1997 WBAI Benefit. Both were involved in what they call respective romantic misadventures. It would be six years before he asked her for a date, first playing email footsie. “I feared the worst, a guy who looks like that whose name is Comstock, he’s probably going to be such a prig, a repressed wasp.” It was his use of the soigné word “supper” that pushed her into accepting. She laughs telling me. Barbara has one of the great laughs, thorough, infectious, as open as the woman herself. “We go out and all we do is laugh. We were so on the same wavelength.” They married a year later still barely having seen each other perform.
Despite responding to a duet request while engaged, finding it both fun and successful, the couple had no plans to create a collaborative career. It happened organically. Eric was asked to play and suggested his wife join him. Bookers, already familiar with Barbara, were delighted. “…people of course loved it because you know, this cute couple … At first, we just didn’t want to be apart, but it started to feel pretty good to perform together so we pursued it.” You have only to see Eric pat his wife’s hip on the way to the piano, or watch Barbara look towards him during a particularly warm lyric to see evidence of this in spades. It’s never been an act.
Wedding Photos by Jeff Fasano
Though the artists occasionally appear without each other, most gigs are tandem. They sincerely love working together. “It seems like we complete each other’s sentences musically. We’re always building the repertoire. Every time we go out, we put a show together differently. For ourselves. Often there’s a song just getting a sun tan at the back of your head…kind of gestating…”
Barbara sings every day, Eric plays every day. Separately. “He’d say he doesn’t have the same discipline, but I think he does. He doesn’t take vocal lessons, but he’s always at the piano…Sometimes we work on a current show. It’s not very regulated. Creativity can hit at 11 o’clock.” Mercifully, they’re both nocturnal.
Teaching also evolved organically beginning with workshops conducted at Singer’s Forum. The couple now offer Master Classes and private lessons both locally and out of state. A second season with The Neighborhood Playhouse begins in the fall.
Actor Danielle Herbert and Barbara Fasano
“You want to steer them, but you don’t want to create them in your image,” she reflects thoughtfully. “When I disagree, I say, if you want to do it, we’ll work on it, but here’s why I think it’s wrong. Sometimes I convince them, sometimes they convince me…It’s all about the lyric, the music follows. Hold my interest. Present it in a slightly theatrical way- we’re talking about art here. And look into faces. Musical chops are not enough. Just tell me your story. We’re your best friends…”
The team does most of their own booking. “It’s all about networking, finding out who’s booking who where. You learn how to approach people holding onto your own dignity and dealing with whatever you get at the other end of the line. If you’re someone who’s looking for stability, to be able to make plans, this is not for you. You sacrifice security, good clothes, not being able to be as generous as one would like to be with charities and friends. Emotionally, I think you gain. It keeps you modest. We all know none of that stuff matters…”
Barbara never lost her performance anxiety. In fact, she’s still “hugely nervous,” a state one never observes onstage. She has a ritual that “plugs me in to where I want to be to open up and give” but can’t tell me what it is for fear of taking its power away.
Barbara and Eric at Crazy Coqs in London-Photo by Tom Valence; Barbara and Eric-Hidden Treasure Benefit Concert-Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
“What has Eric taught you?” I ask her.
“Well, we’ve been married for 12 years, it might take me 12 years to tell you. More than anything what he’s really given me –besides plenty of technical things and lots of music – he’s a born sharer and a purist. For Eric, it’s about the music. He’s taught me to give it up for that and be proud of it. We live a really simple life. Everything’s funneled…He’s taught me to respect the artist that’s in me. We give what we have..”
“What has Barbara taught you?” I ask Eric.
“She’s made me so much a better artist and more interested in more varied kinds of material. She’s shown me acting. I consider her the director of much of what I do and all of what we do. This will sound prosaic, I suppose – the simple matter of when and how to sit on a stool, when to hold the microphone and when to put it on the stand, when she sits with me on the bench-stage pictures-none of that is winged, Barbara’s meticulous. We’re each other’s greatest fans. And we’ll never be bored”
Recording in a studio, then and now
For those of you able to grant wishes: Barbara Fasano would love to sing with a symphony orchestra and to record a CD with Eric, for which they constantly get asked.
Receiving her 2016 MAC Award- Photo by Maryann Lopinto; Busy Being Free – CD-Cover photo by Bill Westmoreland
Barbara Fasano is about as real as it gets which is reflected in her artistry. “This is the choice I’ve made and it’s the right choice. I love the challenge and I love how it keeps me honest. I can’t be in the world one way and on the stage another way. Eric and I look at each other and say, Thank God for you and we look around…thank God for (she sings a note) that.”
All unattributed quotes are Barbara Fasano.
Reflecting on the future in Long Island
Opening photo: Bill Westmoreland, Photographer
Barbara’s Upcoming Performance Dates:
Saturday, October1: BRIDGE ST. THEATRE, CATSKILL, NY
Sunday, October 2: BIRDLAND, NYC
Saturday, October 8: GERMANO’S, BALTIMORE
Tuesday, October 18: ROSE HALL, CABARET CONVENTION