For a couple of years Stephen Hanks has been producing a series of New York Cabaret’s Greatest Hits; October 7 featured his 14th installment. (Two more of this series will be presented this year at the Metropolitan Room, and eight more are slated for next year.) “Greatest Hits” are not typically for ardent fans – since they will have heard the songs and perhaps the show before – but these are not typical artists or shows. Often the revivals are some months or years gone and, as such, they bring the artist to the fore after a period of further reflection on the material. The result may be better than the original and, at the very least, one can expect the shows will be solid and professional.
Susan Winter had achieved some success as a cabaret performer in the 70’s but took an extended leave to raise a family. She returned to the stage in 2008 after a 30 year hiatus and was promptly gleaning nominations and awards, including the 2009 Bistro Award as outstanding vocalist for her show Love Rolls On (originally launched at the Met Room). And it is Love Rolls On that was reprised on October 7, complete with her original band of Rick Jensen on piano and Tom Hubbard on bass – all of them now more established, mature and mellow.
A review of Winter’s original Love Rolls On included a reference to her “cheerful mezzo.” Whatever the history, now her voice is more of a velvety alto – with a soothing viscosity. Her musicality, vocal placement, articulation and humor (and her joy in performing the show) are all very evident. Winter dispels any cold thoughts her name might conjure with an emotional hug for everyone in the room; yet it is not overly sentimental.
Rick Jensen and Tom Hubbard
Oftentimes a performer is so comfortable in his or her skin, on the stage with the material, that the audience can relax into the show like a comfortable chair. There is no frisson of risk, no sign of nerves. There is a trade off there. The electricity is less, but the ease is greater. Winter has that ease. Even when a key was flubbed, there was a humorous reference and a smooth segue into perfect harmony. And Winter is at an age when one might anticipate some diminution of vocal control; I heard no sign of that. Artists that perform regularly may keep that control for decades more (e.g., Anthony Benedetto); I can hope that Winter will do so. The original material remains fresh, and Winter kept it that way throughout the evening.
Jensen and Hubbard, well known regulars on the cabaret circuit, provided more than background. The accompaniment was musically rich, neither bashful nor overbearing, and a fully significant component of the show – adding as rich a sound as a piano, bass and voice can generate.
The show sprang from Winter’s reflections on the death of her mother and her consequential discovery of a cache of love letters between her parents – the mother she had known and the apparently loquacious father she had only known, to that point, as a man of few words. The show is expressly about relationships (but isn’t all decent literature?); particularly loving relationships, and how they mature in time. Winter’s narrative connected the pieces.
Winter opened with “Moondance” (Van Morrison) in a smooth and mellow arrangement which, upon her introduction by the Met Room, picked up a driving syncopation and a growing dynamic. She moved on to “You’ll See” (Carroll/Coates) in a similar style – after which I wanted a cigarette (if one could still be found.) Winter talked about her home in Florida (under threat from Hurricane Matthew), a small cabin in Pennsylvania and a modest apartment in Manhattan as an intro to “Anyplace I hang My Hat is Home” (Arlen/Mercer). Winter spoke of relationship advice given one of her sons, to “be lucky”, before performing the beautiful “It Amazes Me” (Leigh/Coleman). She next sang “An Older Man is Like an Elegant Wine” (Lee Wing), a very funny song she reported having previously sung at a JCC for the Gesund-ers (men over 60 and capable of enjoying the occasional “lunch”):
. . . And so that’s why the man
with whom I’d like to combine
will be an older man who’s like an elegant wine.
And when I meet him
I’ll enchant him
Hug him, kiss him
Then I’ll decant him
at which every man in the place, she reported, slicked back a cow lick and sat a little taller. Winter can still be a bit of a coquette.
Winter then related the story of having discovered her parents’ letters. Her mother, Lil, the third of nine children, ran off to marry her dad in New Orleans, a few weeks after he had been drafted. They had six weeks together before he shipped out – marking the start of the correspondence. She followed that with “I Can’t be New” (Werner/Paul), a smart and somewhat wistful song about what we can offer as we age, and what we can’t. Winter assured us the she, at least, had never been unfaithful; but, she explained, her memory isn’t what it was.
“I’ve Still Got My Health” (Cole Porter) was upbeat, smart and sassy. With reference once again to her parents’ post elopement correspondence, Winter sang “After Hours” (Parrish/Bruce/Feyne) about longing for an absent lover; and, for the father she only got to know through his letters after her mother’s death, “Isn’t It a Pity” (Gershwin/Gershwin), a poignant reminder of late-discovered opportunity.
Winter performed a more haimish number “I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart” (Drake/Alter) with Jeff Stoner, a member of Winter’s wide cabaret family (accompanying on the ukulele).
Winter and Jensen performed a lovely duet/medley of “Old Friend” (Cryer, Ford) and “In Passing Years” (Jensen) – which I would not have thought could be dovetailed, but was. The oddly paired voices were nicely and surprisingly warm toward each other. Additional songs, ending with” Our Love Rolls On” (Frishberg), nicely filled out the evening.
The audience was warm, responsive and enthusiastic. I have no basis to expect this show to be reprised again but you might well benefit by keeping an eye on the Metropolitan Room calendar for later performances by Winter and subsequent editions of the Greatest Hits series.
Photos by Fred R. Cohen.
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