Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Author/historian/dramatist and self avowed “show maker,” Deborah Grace Winer owns her grandmother’s 1929 piano. (“Lots of cool people,” some of the best in the business, play it.) Among photos atop the instrument is her younger self with beloved mentor Rosemary Clooney. On the wall behind is a framed copy of “The Ballad of The Shape of Things” a hand written birthday gift from the song’s lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Across the room her sister’s paintings swirl. This is a woman defined by family and the company she keeps.
Deborah, Toba (their mother), and Jessica Winer
“One of the greatest gifts is to wake up in the morning and do something you love surrounded by people who have the same passion and love to create in the same vein… It’s flip side of the professional struggle. I’m a very glass half full person…”
Winer talks with urgency. Thoughts race forward like salmon determined to spawn. Enthusiasm palpably sparks. Longtime fan, author/historian Robert Kimball, whom she asks for advice and information, was instrumental in paving the way to her successful tenure as Artistic Director of 92Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists. He calls her a “cheerleader,” noting she brings out the best in people. (Positivity/can-do attitude is mentioned in every comment made about Winer.) She tenderly remembers Kimball’s being one of the first to telephone congratulations upon seeing her newly published 1990’s book on Dorothy Fields: On the Sunny Side of The Street in Barnes & Noble.
Robert Kimball and Deborah GraceWiner (Photo: Stephen Sorokoff)
“Bob’s work is the gold standard of historical scholarship in our field. He’s extraordinary about recognizing when someone of a younger generation has a passion and talent for understanding this music, nurtures and champions their effort. He does that for me.” There’s no doubt these two would go to the barricades for one another.
Her eyes fix on mine, typifying focus that enables the artist to metaphorically juggle an apple, a hat, and a buzz saw. Conceiving and putting together successful American Songbook concerts/revues requires knowledge, taste, imagination, planning, diplomacy, and tenacity. “My 92Y work taught me to organize lots and lots of moving parts.”
She thinks fast, speaks with confidence, and rhapsodizes about people she esteems as if they were leaders of a common tribe. Were it not self-created, the kind of professional freedom she enjoys might be viewed as a fairytale. Even during her demanding term at 92Y, she remained an independent contractor.
My subject has dedicated herself to illuminating and presenting songs and, in her books, associated talent, from the 1920s through the early 1960s, when popular culture shifted. She’d have loved to have been born early enough to have had her “heyday” in the time of supper clubs and The Golden Age of Broadway.
Deborah Grace Winer, Teenager
As an adolescent, friends listened to rock n’roll while Winer played Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and musicals on the turntable. A quintessential New York kid growing up on the steps of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was raised by “smart set” parents: a mother who’d been a classical piano prodigy and a physician father with interest and friends in theater. Deborah and her sister Jessica (the painter responsible for the mural in Sardi’s upstairs banquet room) were surrounded by the arts.
Winer’s mom “instilled in us that in the world there’s no hierarchy or bureaucratic impediment to accomplishing anything you dream…if you envision it and do the work, there’s no earthly reason you shouldn’t go immediately to the top and sort it out with whoever’s in charge.” Her dad offered “a philosophical view of people, very measured and insightful…taking people on their own merits and accepting them for who they are.”
Dr. and Mrs. Winer had a subscription to The Metropolitan Opera. When her mother didn’t want to go, one of the girls was escorted as daddy’s date. Deborah’s first exposure occurred at seven years old. The opera was – wait for it – Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. I wonder aloud at her sitting through, leave absorbing the piece. She lightly assures me that having had dinner, they arrived after the performance began and because her father had to be at the hospital early, left before it was over. This happened often. “…so stories often ended happily and we always got a cab.” She smiles. It seems to come easily.
That same year, a friend invited Winer to her first Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof. It was, she says, “tremendously impactful.” Recollected impressions include “visual enormity,” “thrilling theatrical values,” “wonderful dancing,” and “the sound of the pit orchestra.” Curiously, she applies none of these vivid descriptions to years of extravagant opera. Winer filtered everything through songs. She was more stylistically excited by Broadway and old Hollywood musicals. Though she appeared in school plays, even as a child she wanted instead to write them. Her work was produced at school.
Deborah Grace Winer and Jesscia Winer, Apprentices
The Winers spent summers in Westport, Connecticut, a haven for people in the arts. Deborah rounded up neighborhood kids and put on al fresco plays. The Westport Country Playhouse was a short drive and family friend Lucille Lortel’s White Barn Theater just a bike ride down the road. Mrs. Winer asked the impresario to take her daughters and “make’m sweep the stage or something” in order to get theater out of their systems. Like countless other cases, the reverse happened. Winer hastens to tell me that any field was fine with her parents as long as she and her sister “showed verified talent. “
Apprentices Debbie and Jessie got a taste of both grunt work and creative aspects of theater. As “pets” of the barn’s grande dame, they were additionally dressed up (she grimaces slightly) and trotted out to greet audiences. “We were the kids without sun tans, but I got to show Jason Robards where the bathroom was,” she adds nonchalantly. Even as a teen she was never starstruck. “It’s a missing valve.”
Lortel set another example for Winer. “A rich, social woman whose husband wouldn’t let her pursue a career she’d begun as an actress, she loved theater, and though not an intellectual, had an uncanny sense of what was valuable to our time.” Here was an independent, iconoclastic spirit – she sat her audiences like guests at a dinner party and insisted on having submissions read aloud to her – who found a way to participate in the art about which she was passionate.
A history major at Swarthmore, the young woman took every theater course. She and Jessica (also enrolled) were characteristically impatient to create rather than discuss. They began putting on plays and concerts at the campus coffee house. “Reinventing the space, creating our own opportunities to get work up set the template for almost everything in my career.”
After graduation, she was employed at what she cites as her only “real” salaried job, tearing and logging in Metropolitan Opera raffle tickets. No kidding. Winer had been “note-taker, sometime driver and all around resource person” for every show at the Barn directed by Charles P. Maryan. Reading a play by “this bright, enthusiastic young woman” led to his becoming a mentor. He recommended her for an editorial position at Opera News, later directing her Off Broadway play. Ever unorthodox, Winer’s first article, “Kid Sister,” was a profile of Frances Gershwin Godowsky. Making a living as a playwright is extremely difficult. Writing about what she loved, Winer found her way “in.”
“And then I made my way,” she comments mildly. The new graduate wrote for Opera News, The New York Times (she simply sent them a letter pitching an idea), and Town and Country. In 1995, Winer’s play, The Last Girl Singer, was produced Off Broadway by The Women’s Project Theater. (Others would follow.) Stephen Holden of The New York Times opined “…it offers a bracingly cynical view of show business and has some acidic, funny lines…” She was just out of her twenties.
Winer authored four books, the first two with Dennis McGovern, two on her own. Among solo efforts was The Night and The Music, day to day portraits of treasured mentors/ friends Rosemary Clooney, Barbara Cook, and Julie Wilson. Her show based on the vocal virtuosos will be presented during Mabel Mercer Foundation’s October 2018 Cabaret Convention.
Deborah Grace Winer and Rosemary Clooney (Photo: Jessica Daryl Winer)
Meeting Rosemary Clooney was “like lightening striking in a romantic story. We were insanely close. She taught me everything about how to be an artist in this business, how to be true to oneself and build what one thinks is valuable…” Winer shares the example of Clooney’s appearances at New York’s iconic Rainbow Room. “The economics of the job and the vocalist’s expenses meant that inevitably she would barely break even.”
Clooney told Winer it was nonetheless the most important gig of the year because artistically she made it exactly the way she wanted, stellar exposure made it worth the outlay. “It had to do with priorities…” This was a major star “whose psychological and prescription abuse issues along with the arrival of rock n’ roll had reduced her to playing The Holiday Inn in Ventura, California.” Winer notes this would be the show Clooney afterwards took on the road as if it was secondary motivation.
Barbara Cook and Deborah Grace Winer; Deborah Grace Winer and Julie Wilson (Photos: Jessica Daryl Winer)
“Barbara (Cook) was a broad with a great sense of humor… She was grounded…There was nothing world weary about her or namby pamby….She had edge, and fire and temperament… Even when very successful, Barbara kept pinching herself to recognize where she was and what she achieved.”
“Julie Wilson taught me mastery over an audience. She had them in the palm of her hand even when she had no voice left…she was never a worrier… she knew things were out of her control anyway, so whatever happens, happens. Other people knew that too…but they worry all the same – not Julie.”
Lyrics & Lyricists: Songs of The City-Billy Stritch, Klea Blackhurst, Jeffrey Schecter, Leslie Kritzer, Darius De Haas, La Tanya Hall, Deborah Grace Winer (Photo: Stephen Sorokoff)
Having parted with the 92Y hasn’t slowed the artistic director a moment. Her Gershwin program at The Schimmel Center downtown established a relationship there. Great Women Songwriters of The American Songbook began Winer’s collaboration with Feinstein’s/54Below, which will continue with The Classic American Songbook Series on March 27, May 8, and June 17, 2018.
Each of these will feature vocal entertainment bridged by brief anecdote and/or historical narrative riffs. Winer’s philosophy pervades: “I never want the Songbook to have a whiff of nostalgia. Do you go see Traviata and get nostalgic for the 19th century? The material is fresh, vibrant and current. Our first audiences included a bunch of young people.” Some recent and upcoming shows will also be staged at out of state venues. Projects abound. Multitasking is second nature to this seemingly indefatigable woman.
Feinstein’s 54/Below: Great Women Songwriters of The American Songbook – Margo Seibert, Karen Ziemba, Deborah Grace Winer, Kenita Miller, Emily Skinner (Photo: Bruce Cohen)
“I have been in the audience for programs about songwriters produced by Deb Winer and I have performed in such programs. Deb’s affection and respect for songwriters is quite moving to me,” friend/mentor Sheldon Harnick tells me. Ironically Harnick is the lyricist behind her first Broadway experience, a fitting case of aria da capo.
The artist met the famed wordsmith in the early 1990s. “I learn from him almost every moment we spend together, asking for stories about how he wrote this work, or solved that theatrical puzzle, or the ins and outs of collaborating with this or that iconic creative artist. He is also one of the most deeply principled human beings I’ve ever known…”
Deborah Grace Winer and Sheldon Harnick (Photo Stephen Sorokoff)
Winer absorbs something from every talent with whom she comes in contact. Professional relationships often evolve to friendships. “The biggest blessing is the people in my life.” Her mentors appear to be as outstanding as they are legion. Their presence and devotion is telling.
To Deborah Grace Winer, show making/artistic direction is alchemy, a great adventure, a cause. Watch the horizon.
Deborah Grace Winer at work (Photo: Jessica Daryl Winer)
Opening Photo of Deborah Grace Winer: Jessica Daryl Winer
Thos Shipley presented a tribute to Nat King Cole Saturday evening, March 25, at the Metropolitan Room to a sold out audience, both vocal and warmly enveloping. Shipley’s is a relaxed and open personality, unpretentious and accessible. Whether that was cultivated by, or enabling of, his varied background, I cannot know. But it works. (Shipley was raised by a teacher mom and army dad; spent his youth in Japan; studied electrical engineering, followed by acting and singing; performs locally and internationally and is now Ward Councilman in Roselle Park, New Jersey.) You want to like this man, and he makes it easy. He is, despite his current political role, a cabaret professional who has precisely prepared all aspects of the performance – befitting his broad experience on Broadway, regional theater and local and international cabaret and recording. And, again, it works. The show feels spontaneous and relaxed – perhaps because of the careful preparation.
Shipley was backed by Tom Guarna on guitar, David Finck on double bass, and Mark Soskin on Piano. These very able musicians had too brief opportunities to solo, but made the most of each one. Each is individually impressive, but they were there in the service of Shipley, and Cole, and delivered a smooth, and, as needed, swinging or syncopated sound, providing solid but unobtrusive support.
The show opens with a brief video of Cole; Shipley enters and blends into a Cole lyric to join the two performers, so we are immediately engaged, and alert to the connection. The band starts and we are launched into a medley of Straighten Up and Fly Right (Cole, Mills), I Love You For Sentimental Reasons (Watson, Best) and Route 66 (Chuck Berry, a timely reminder of his recent passing).
Shipley intermittently tells us a bit about Cole (nee Nathaniel Adams Coles), instructed by his mother in classical piano but, to his father’s chagrin, finding his heart in jazz. (I have supplemented the Cole history here.) Cole struck out on his own at 15 and gained renown for his piano playing. He was christened “Nat King Cole” by a band mate and initially prodded to sing, reluctantly, by an insistent, tipsy patron. He sang, then, a song that became one of his signature numbers; so did Shipley: Sweet Lorraine (Burwell, Parish) – with a brief but captivating Soskin solo.
Cole was so widely recorded that Shipley had a broad repertoire from which to choose material strongly associated with Cole’s name. Each number will resonate with many as being the Cole song they best remember. With the medley of Nature Boy (attributed to Cole), Mona Lisa (Evans, Livingston) and The Christmas Song (Wells, Torme), I heard Cole in Shipley, and relaxed into the evening.
The show is a tribute – not a recreation, but Shipley has, in addition to his own sonorous sound, much of the warmth and (for this performance, at least) some of the musical mannerisms of Cole, so that Cole is often spontaneously recalled to memory. This is helped in part by the (minimal) costume changes and the instrumental backing, both stylistically reminiscent of Cole.
Shipley related an aspect of the racism of the time that kept Cole in his place and at least privately somewhat bitter: Cole was simultaneously lionized for his talent and vilified as a black man attempting to popularize “black” music. He was personally harassed from both sides of the issue, but he strove to open the national entertainment industry to blacks. He enjoyed a truncated single season hosting a variety TV show on NBC, which footed the bill until it was agreed that, for fear of southern backlash, no national sponsor would be forthcoming. Despite support of black and white headliners (Nelson Riddle, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Pearl Bailey, Mahailia Jackson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte – among others, working for minimum scale), the show could not be sustained. Cole was physically attacked and intimidated. Without stressing the connection, Shipley sings the plaintive Smile (Chaplin, Turner and Parsons).
With the advent of Rock and Roll, Cole bridled, but Shipley relates that he did expand his jazz approach to include pop and country music; Shipley dons a new jacket and hat to evoke the ‘Cole cool’ to perform Send for Me (Jones) with some nice solo licks by Guarna, and Wild is Love (Rasch, Wayne). A silky rendition of It’s a Beautiful Evening (Rasch, Wayne) again brought back Cole for me.
As a performer, Shipley reflects those characteristics we might expect him to have picked up from his parents – discipline, a work ethic, respect for himself and his audience. He is clearly working on stage: not straining but delivering; not enraptured by fully engaged. He is confident, comfortable, musical and enjoying the process. You will too.
After additional Cole standards, Shipley began to wind down the evening with the obligatory Unforgettable (Gordon). The audience was not ready to end the evening. A video of Cole was projected on the back of the stage and Shipley again echoed Cole in voice and movement – bringing the performance full circle to the initial montage. Shipley thanked the staff, the musicians, the audience, his manager and husband, and slid into the “final” number of L-O-V-E (Kaempfert, Gabler). At this point, the audience was singing along unbidden and would barely let Shipley off the stage. An encore of Paper Moon (Arlen, E. Y. Harburg and Rose) closed the performance. This is an enjoyable show for boomers who listened to Nat King Cole when growing up and for new comers to the American Songbook – who never had the pleasure.
Shipley will be performing on May 18, 2017 at Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in Nyack at 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.; current booking information can be found at www.ThosShipley.com. He plans to return to the Metropolitan Room in the summer.
I would call this an appreciation. I’ve listened to Stranger in a Dream several times now, hearing something new or drifting at different junctures each pass. The recording is, in fact, dreamy. Though ostensibly a celebration of Marian McPartland inspired by Stacey Sullivan’s appearance on Jon Weber’s radio show, Piano Jazz, the two musicians have made these songs their own.
This is music you want to hear wrapped in someone’s arms, sharing a romantic dinner or working your way through a bottle of good wine. Vocals are often diaphanous, phrasing deft, accompaniment sensitive.
Sullivan sighs into Stephen Sondheim’s “Loving You.” The ends of phrases leave afterglow. Its brief instrumental is meditative. An elegant rendition. “Stranger in a Dream” (Irving Caesar/ Marian McPartland) evokes shadows, curling smoke, collars up, alleyways. We’re beckoned by Steve Doyle’s haunting bass. Vocal is almost visibly sinuous. I imagine the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, replete with hookah. “In the Days of Our Love” (Peggy Lee/Marian McPartland) is like sorting through packets of faded, ribbon-bound love letters and stained, curling photographs. Jon Weber’s piano caresses.
“Oh What a Beautiful Mornin” (Rodgers and Hammerstein) is borne by an uncommonly original arrangement. Distant clop, clop horse-hoof-vamp fades to the languid, waking singer, rubbing sleep from her eyes, stretching, putting on coffee, optimistic perhaps in the wake of a good dream. Sullivan makes this intimate rather than the vast cornfields to which we’re accustomed; ‘one woman’s experience.
“September in the Rain”and “Come Away With Me” (Al Dubin; Nora Jones/Harry Warren)-an inspired pairing, offer escape rather than brooding reflection. Bone-damp ghostliness is broken by light, stage left at the back. A second surprising combination arrives with “All the Things You Are” (Oscar Hammerstein/Jerome Kern) and Chopin’s Waltz in B Minor Opus 69 #2. ‘Just beautiful.
Even classic swing numbers, though up-tempo, are predominantly subdued. A cottony “Prelude to a Kiss” (Duke Ellington/Irving Gordon/Irving Mills) never gets dense or insistent;“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing)” and Ellington’s “Jump for Joy” eschew pounding boogie woogie – though footwork is fancy and the girl goes flying. During “Lullaby of Birdland” (George Shearing/George David Weiss), Sullivan elongates her lyric while Weber’s fast, precise piano jitterbugs on its own caffeinated recognizance and Doyle’s bass sounds like a syncopated hummingbird.
“Castles in the Sand” (Walter Marks/Marian McPartland), one of my particular favorites, begins a capella like a child’s rope skipping song. It’s young, buoyant and somehow delicate. Nick Russo’s strings tickle.
Musicianship is grand. Overall feelings: pleasure.
Opening: Left photo: Maryann Lopinto; CD photo-Bill Westmoreland
Internal Photo: Stephen Sorokoff
Stacy Sullivan-Stranger in a Dream
Jon Weber- MD/Piano, Steve Doyle-Bass, Nick Russo-Guitar & Mandolin Click to buy on Harbinger
On a lovely early autumn Saturday (9/17) The Metropolitan Room hosted its first Pet Cabaret. It may now take a modest bowwow. I have never had much patience for clubbing baby seals; indeed I saw none today at the Met Room. But when it comes to shooting urban animals, photographs that is, I’m your man.
Lee Day, “I’ve Gotta Crow”
Lee Day, sporting Milk Bone earrings and a “Lady and the Tramp” shirt, sang a mixed bag of animal-related numbers and shared bits of her life. She opened with a clean verse of “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals” (Michael O Donoghue) made famous, ahem . . . , by Gilda Radner. She sang a bit from “Biscuits are a Dog’s Best Friend” – without apologies to Styne and Robin (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Then “I’ve Gotta Crow” (Charlap, Leigh), “Talk to the Animals” (Darin), etc.; you get the idea.
Day’s love of animals has gained her entrée to numerous experiences and celebrities – both before and after achieving some renown. Early in her career she discovered she was a kind of “cat whisperer” when rescuing the feline of an opera singer from a precarious perch. The singer was so grateful that she “gave” Day access to an idol of hers, Doris Day (no relation). Doris Day called Lee Day at an appointed hour and they immediately hit it off over their common cause – talking at length. Doris encouraged Lee to pursue her dream – and she did. They have spoken often since that day.
Lee Day and Metropolitan Room Patrons
Lee grooms, and entertains, pets; indeed, she provides grooming house-calls. She has serviced, so to speak, pets of Frank Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, Joan Rivers and Mary Tyler Moore. She has appeared on television with Regis Philbin, Sally Jesse Raphael and, in England, with Terry Wogan. She was seen on the Terry Wogan show by the Queen and Princess Di who then asked to meet her; Day sang for the princes when they were smaller than she. Day is a proponent of pound puppies and does not subscribe to remote animal care; all animal care should be transparent to owners. All of her grooming comes with pet entertainment, but not all entertainment comes with grooming. For example, Lee does entertain at pet weddings and bark-mitzvahsTM.
Day explained in the course of her show that she suffers from Noonan’s syndrome, a condition affecting her learning capacity as well as her physical state (including, particularly the heart). Still, most of us could benefit from whatever has affected Day’s heart; she is guileless and effusive, and she clearly loves animals. She has built for herself a unique career and a remarkable life and, in the process, gained apparent contentment.
Lee Day and Anna Lively sing “He’s a Tramp”
Lee Day was the name on the show marquee, but she was nicely supported by friend Anna Lively, a regular cabaret performer, who joined Day on stage for a lovely and amusing rendition of “He’s a Tramp” (lyrics by Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke, music by Oliver Wallace with an assist from Peggy Lee, baying by Lee Day). Both were loosely accompanied on the Piano by Jeff Franzel, an uber-able musician who has played with Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme and Les Brown, among others, and now writes songs for the likes of The Temptations, Placido Domingo and Josh Groban, as eclectic a group of performers as one can cram into three personnae.
Following the show, doggy treats were made available (by the Met Room) to all comers. In New York (unless it’s Trump) you blink and you miss it. It was sweet, if a tad sentimental, and it may not come again.
Sunday afternoon I took a mini-vacation with Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano- well, me and the rest of the audience at Birdland. Like genial tour guides, the couple lead us out of the oven, into the country, and onto the shore; away from traffic, the news, and personal troubles…Three songs in, with “Gone Fishin” (Nick Kenny/ Charles Kenny), it’s all in a rearview mirror. Cows need milkin’ in the barn/ But you just don’t give a – darn. Too true.
These two love the season in which they had their first date and married. I’m susceptible, Fasano sings, I shouldn’t be allowed out at night…she swivels to face Comstock, with anyone like you…longlined notes arc and sigh. (“Incurably Romantic”-James Van Heusen) Hide your heart from sight/Lock your dreams at night/It could happen to you…Comstock affectionately responds to the rhythm of a measured cha-cha. (“It Could Happen to You”-Sammy Cahn/Johnny Burke.) They play off each other with the illusive ease of a practiced trapeze act.
An unusual pairing of Vivian Ellis’s “Wind in the Willows” and Sting’s “Fields of Gold” create a story as do “Witchcraft” (Carolyn Leigh/Cy Coleman) and “How Little We Know” (Phil Springer.) During the latter, Fasano steps gently side to side. In her hands, this is not just a love song, it’s a life lesson. Sean Smith’s bass acts as backbone, piano notes are clear, singular, yet symbiotic.
“The Shining Sea” arrives with such delicacy, it’s as if we’re watching footprints in the sand gradually disappear. When a seagull lyrically tips its wings, so, sad and pensive, does Fasano. Comstock strokes the keys. Smith leans out as if gaining perspective, then curls around his instrument like a backwards C. (Johnny Mandel/ Peggy Lee’s title song for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming)
Fasano’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” is one of my favorite Comstock arrangements. Classical piano accompaniment and bowed bass support languid phrases as they melodically hitch rides on a summer breeze. Control is impeccable.
Comstock shares the male point of view of Francesca Blumenthal’s fine “The Lies of Handsome Men” through the author’s less performed “Fireflies:” They shine and shimmer, lead you on/But the light grows dimmer comes the dawn…’A lovely song eloquently rendered. The performer remains urbane, but reflective, cottony tone allows us to hear hurt beneath sophistication. This is a nuanced singer, an untrained natural. His “Come By Sunday” (Murray Grand) arrives spirited and sassy- can you call a man sassy? Part spoken throwaways, part sung, delivery is seriously hip- which can’t be taught.
Jim Lowe’s wry “The Hamptons” There’s an awful lot of here here/But never for the square here… is sultry, flirty, flip.
We’ve experienced the best part of being away without waiting in an airport line or getting stuck in traffic. Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano exude mutual respect and warmth: a pat on the hip here, a pursed- lips-kiss across the piano there, the shared piano bench. “It’s not as if we’re competitive about breath control,” she quips having counted off the last note of Billy Strayhorn’s sashaying “You’re The One” on her fingers at the end of a duet. Our audience leaves refreshed, awash in infectious good spirits.
Opening photo Jeff Fasano
Second photo by Gianni Valenti
Catherine Russell’s latest concert for Jazz at Lincoln Center was apparently “thirty years in the making.” Both a celebration of composer/arranger/bandleader Sy Oliver and an appreciation of Russell’s mother, Carline Ray, for 70 years an innovative jazz singer and musician, the evening is clearly a labor of love. We hear numbers from Oliver’s tenure with the Jimmie Lunceford orchestra and selections rearranged for, and performed by his vocalist wife, Lillian Clark, first with The Sentimentalists and then for The Lillian Clark Trio which included Ray and young Catherine herself.
Though Russell has presented isolated selections from the original show, up to now, she hasn’t had the opportunity to offer a large number of the swing songs as originated by the group. Tonight, joined by Carolyn Leonhart and La Tanya Hall with pristine harmony, impeccable phrasing, and infectious pleasure, the artist realizes her dream.
Mike Munisteri, Catherine Russell, Tal Ronen, Evan Arntzen
We begin with a musical rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Mandy” ebulliently swung by the terrific band in an arrangement by Jon-Erik Kelso. Kelso’s solos throughout support his reputation for sparkling clarity and invigorated swing. The entire room grins. A happy-go-lucky, crisply articulated “My Blue Heaven” (Walter Donaldson/ George A. Whiting) follows. “I used to sing the top part, now I’m singin’ the bottom,” Russell quips.
“Don’t Blame Me (for falling in love with you)” (Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields) evokes a USO dance from the forties. It’s slow enough so that awkward soldiers won’t step on their partner’s feet too much. The trio is complicit, not a musical thread dangles. It’s as if they’d been doing this together for years. “Say It Isn’t So” (Irving Berlin) delivers swaying, textured harmony hand in hand with John Allred’s polished, wah-wah trombone. Vocal solos are cottony; sincere.
Mark Shane, Carolyn Leonhart, La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell
Oliver’s arrangement of a medley from Oklahoma! bears his signature stamp. Familiar songs sound blithe and fresh as swing. Vocalists emerge and retreat back into the group with fluency, sometimes warmly acknowledging one another. Guitarist Matt Munisteri provides subtle underpinning.
A 1950 version of the 1927 “Ain’t She Sweet?” (Milton Ager/Jack Yellen) with Evan Arntzen’s here doodling saxophone is hip and happy. …Cast an eye in that direction/Dig that child from fore to aft…Arntzen is this evening’s discovery. Russell calls him an old man in a young body. The musician plays superb sax, clarinet and flute exhibiting a preternatural understanding of the period and stylistic savvy.
“Opus One” (Sy Oliver/ Sid Garris) is the epitome of harmonic vocal swing, playful and bubbly. “It’s The Talk of the Town” (Jerry Livingston/Al J. Neiburg/Marty Symes), on the other hand, is so shadowy, even consonants seem airbrushed. Vocals dip and rise like scallops. Munisteri again embroiders.
Catherine Russell (behind: Mark McLean, Evan Arntzen, Jon-Erik Kelso
Russell also offers solos. I Know a Little Bit About a Lotta Things/But “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” popularized by its author, Peggy Lee, is eeezzzeee. Lyric lines have fading tails so that each connects to the next without a gap. The song arrives unfussy, conversational. Louis Armstrong’s “Give Me a Kiss to Build a Dream On,” with lush, muted trombone, begins the mellow, lilting, slow dance we know, builds to a burlesque stroll, and ends emphatic.
“T’Aint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)”written by Oliver with Trummy Young for Ella Fitzgerald is performed with call/response, vocal to horns, then vocal to vocal: the band speak/sings in unison. “I’ve been waitin’ to ask them to sing somethin’ for a long time. They weren’t overjoyed, but…” Russell wryly tells us. Vocal is brighter here, more open-throated. The performer taps her right foot, then steps side to side in her inimitable, refined, I-can’t-help-but-move-a-bit manner.
Oliver’s arrangement of “On the Sunny Side of The Street” (Jimmy McHugh/ Dorothy Fields) was a big hit for Tommy Dorsey. Jaunty and light with Kelso’s trumpet in tangy, rasp mode, the song leaves the room awash in high spirits.
The three vocalists should come together again. Their sound is catnip.
Also featuring: Mark Shane-piano, Tal Ronen-bass, Mark McLean-drums
April 15, 2016- Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room
Most fans know composer/songwriter/pianist Cy Coleman (Seymour Kaufman 1929-2004) as an author of such musical theater successes as Sweet Charity, Barnum, and The Will Rodgers Follies. In fact, the classically trained child prodigy was drawn to popular music, particularly jazz, penning dozens upon dozens of songs recorded by iconic vocalists.
Guest Artistic Director Billy Stritch (piano/vocals) is a natural and fortuitous choice to helm this program. Co-written with the knowledgeable Andy Propst, author of You Fascinate Me So: The Life and Times of Cy Coleman, narrative is warm and illuminating. Not only is Stritch a superb performer/musician/arranger, but he briefly knew Coleman and is able to share his own affectionate and respectful experience of the man. The sum total is top flight entertainment. (Stritch should do this more often.)
“Tin Pan Alley,” written with Coleman’s first collaborator Joseph McCarthy, Jr., is a dancey valentine to the business: …where music with a lyric/has caused a dizzy mirac-le…It’s Jolson singing Mammy/ that put the A in Alabamy…Stritch’s solo does it charming justice. His “I’ll Be Coming Back” (Al Stillman) shows the mercurial musician’s hip, Philip Marlowe side and facility with tonight’s celebrated genre.
La Tanya Hall
Also written with McCarthy, “Why Try to Change Me Now?” is rendered by La Tanya Hall with a satiny voice skating just above circling brushes. Hall intermittently looks at the audience as if she’s in an intimate club and can see faces. This is immensely engaging. Later, her interpretation of “Sweet Talk” (Floyd Huddleston) manages to be pissed off without sounding abrasive. The vocalist has a husky purr she uses to fine effect.
In addition to McCarthy, we hear songs for which Coleman partnered with such as Carolyn Leigh (a fruitful, but tempestuous collaboration during which some songs were legendary for the spontaneity and speed with which they were created), Dorothy Fields, Peggy Lee, Floyd Huddleston, Buddy Greco, and Marilyn and Alan Bergman.
In his Y debut, Nicolas King presents “I Walk a Little Faster” (Carolyn Leigh) with appealing phrasing that includes a minute pause after “walk” a little faster, one between keep and bumping into walls…and a little laugh at nothing but disaster…as if he can’t control his behavior.
King, like Hall, looks at faces. In some ways, we’ve watched him grow up onstage (since age 11). Probably a reincarnated member of The Rat Pack, it’s good to see the artist channel his decisive flair into more restrained delivery. Even during the dense, bracing “You Wanna Bet” (Dorothy Fields), he moves around the stage vocally swinging without overt flamboyance.
The jaunty “Doodling Song” is performed, with inviting vocal arrangement, by Stritch, King, and Gabrielle Stravelli. Stritch first heard the captivating number on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Another group selection featuring Debby Boone, Gabrielle Stravelli, and Hall, “Bouncing Back For More,” was bumped from successive Broadway musicals only to have its first public outing on a television special with Lucille Ball and Shirley MacLaine. The snappy trio is enhanced by cute, synchronized movement. (Both Carolyn Leigh)
Stravelli showcases quiet intensity and expert control with “Rules Of the Road:” So these are the ropes,/The tricks of the trade,/The rules of the road…She’s grave, resigned, bummed out and refined. (Carolyn Leigh) During “Sweet Talk” (Floyd Huddleston), the artist’s focus makes it seem as if thoughts are coming to her for the first time.
She and Hall also present an inviting duet of “Cheatin’” (Marilyn and Alan Bergman), part of a Song Cycle called “Portraits of Jazz.” Stritch tells us this is “a tribute to the nightclub scene when Coleman was coming up.” The wry lyric finds Hall as “his” mistress singing to “his” wife: I always thought that when he wasn’t with me, he must’ve been home with you. Apparently the musician has been two timing both of them. He works out every morning/Two shows a night/Plus that son of a bitch/ Is cheating on us…The ladies bond in betrayal and incredulity. Both vocalists enact the scenario with effective spirit.
Billy Stritch and Debby Boone
Debby Boone shines with “Here I Go Again” (Tommy Wolf) which sails by like a delicate milkweed pod on a light breeze, the unknown, “Pink Taffeta Sample Size Ten” (Dorothy Fields-cut from Sweet Charity) in which she inhabits girlish awe with porcelain clarity, and “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life” (Joseph McCarthy, Jr. for a musicalization of The Heartbreak Kid) which is delivered with melancholy bitterness.
An unexpected vocal turn by bassist Jay Leonhart gives us the amusing “The Laarge Daark Aardvaark Song” –misspelling intentional- (Alan Sherman of “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” fame.) Anyone who’s heard Leonhart scat won’t be surprised he’s a master of cool understatement.
Billy Stritch’s pristine version of “It Amazes Me” (Carolyn Leigh), the show’s denouement, is slow and savored; surprised, grateful, abashed, and rather moving.
Stage Direction by Scott Faris suits both material and performers to a T.
Somewhere Mr. Coleman is beaming.
Performance Photos by Richard Termine Opening: Billy Stritch, Debby Boone, Nicolas King, Gabrielle Stravelli, La Tanya Hall
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents Witchcraft- The Jazz Magic of Cy Coleman Billy Stritch Artistic Director Andy Propst- Co-Writer Scott Faris- Stage Director Featuring Debby Boone, La Tanya Hall, Nicolas King, Gabrielle Stravelli Jay Leonhart-Bass, Rick Montalbano-Drums 92Y Lexington Avenue NEXT: Everything’s Coming Up Ethel-The Ethel Merman Songbook April 16-18