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.
The Mabel Mercer Foundation’s annual summer concert celebrated composer Howard Dietz (1896-1983) and lyricist Arthur Schwartz (1900-1984), while including an unrelated roster of other writers. Relative newcomers and established artists presented jazz, cabaret, and musical theater interpretations out of what we call The American Songbook, which, despite suggestions to the contrary, continues to endure and evolve.
Arthur Schwartz was pressured into law by his family and admitted to the bar in 1924. By 1928, having moonlighted for years, he’d closed his office in favor of songwriting. Howard Dietz moved from advertising to MGM’s Vice President in Charge of Publicity, originating their iconic, roaring lion as well as the slogan “More Stars than there are in Heaven.” The composer wrote continuously throughout his alternate career. Collaboration began with The Little Show, a revue starring Libby Holman, Clifton Webb, and Fred Allen. The rest is history.
Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz (Wikipedia)
In her best, wide-eyed, faux innocent persona, the Foundation’s Artistic Director, KT Sullivan, opened with “Confession” from The Band Wagon.
Frank Dain’s version of “Penny” was utterly enchanting. (Songwriter/musical director/musician/board member and lifetime card-carrying, cabaret supporter Larry Elow.) Dain shimmered with ardor. The unfussy ballad goes straight to the heart with timeless appeal. Kathleen Landis – lovely arrangement, graceful piano.
“Make the Man Love Me” (Arthur Schwartz/Dorothy Fields) emerged genuinely sweet as rendered by Lauren Stanford. During an instrumental, the vocalist seemed to continue internal dialogue holding us captive. Piano-Jon Weber.
Frank Dain; Lauren Stanford
The Inimitable Sidney Meyer, who has the most articulate shoulders in the business, sang “Rainy Night in Rio” (Arthur Schwartz/Leo Robin) with iconoclastic, deadpan phrasing, impish facial expression, and the rousing help of the band’s “Ai Yi Yi!” chorus. A photographic finish. Piano-Jon Weber.
Danny Bacher and Alexis Cole, usually solo performers, symbiotically joined for three numbers with Cole at the piano and Bacher on soprano sax as well as duet vocals. “I’ll Buy You a Star” (Arthur Schwartz/Dorothy Fields) swung in with the ease of a languid hammock. “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” was insouciant rather than wistful. “You and The Night and The Music” showcased the artists’ extraordinary ability with scat. Someone find these people a supper club!
Alexis Cole; Danny Bacher
In his first appearance with The Mabel Mercer Foundation, Darius de Haas displayed well honed acting skill with the theatrical prose/poem “Trotsky in Mexico” (Renee Rosnes/David Hajdu). An original “Shine On Your Shoes” arrived like a slow-motion Fred Astaire turn, every word savored as if preaching gospel. Todd Firth-splendid, textural piano and arrangements.
John Wallowich’s “I Live Alone Again” was performed with rare restraint by Mark Nadler as stipulated by its author – first verse a lament, second in gleeful relief. The artist sold both with credibility. “By Myself,” adroitly including Jack Buchanan’s original spoken word, was a crie de coeur rather than familiar resignation. And, oh, the piano!
Mark Nadler; Marta Sanders
To my mind, this evening’s highlight was veteran Marta Sanders whose inhabiting lyrics, flexible timbre, and arch humor created a show unto itself. The gypsy “Come A-Wandering With Me”(Mark Nadler-emphatic piano), cue atmospheric stage smoke, was followed with equal fervor by John Wallowich’s amusing “Warsaw,” (John McMahon-piano), an impeccably timed in-one, deftly utilizing a babushka.
Sullivan then closed with “Lovely,” for which she played matchmaker to a forgotten composition by Howard Dietz and Bart Howard’s lyrics, and, perhaps the best known Dietz and Schwartz song, “Dancing in The Dark” materializing a chanteusey, soprano waltz. Jon Weber-piano.
Also featuring: exuberant Seth Sikes; Celia Berk’s poignant “Something to Remember You By” rife with implicit “please”; an underwhelming Margi Gianquinto; the polished Sue Matsuki with a clever, if seemingly out of place number on which she collaborated; a bright, sweetheart rendition of “Rhode Island is Famous for You” from Karen Oberlin; Laurie Krauz and Daryl Kojak’s extremely original interpretation of “Alone Together” with massaged vocal, wordless singing, and Valkyrie delivery; the sincere Gary Crawford; and Mauricio Bustamante’s rendition of John Wallowich’s “Bruce.”
Musicianship was uniformly superb.
Performance Photos by Seth Cashman
Opening: Jon Weber; KT Sullivan
Songs by other than Dietz and Schwartz are noted.
Recommended Reading: Dancing in The Dark by Howard Dietz (published in 1974)
That’s Entertainment: Dietz & Schwartz and Friends Music Director: Jon Weber Saadi Zain-bass, Sean Harkness-guitar, David Silliman-drums. Weill Hall June 20, 2017 The Mabel Mercer Foundation
Birdland is peppered with show biz illuminati tonight, performers and songwriters alike. There’s a buzz in the air. The occasion is a coming out party for Karen Mason’s first CD in 8 years. Rather than an evening of eleven o’clock numbers, the beautifully calibrated show, selections from It’s About Time plus a few earlier favorites, showcases an actress who knows how to inhabit intensity without volume.
Ira and George Gershwin’s “Love is Here to Stay” strolls in on Tedd Firth’s nuanced piano. This is when one hears just how good she is. Its sentiment is mature, authentic, the vocal pure. Ba-dump-da-da-da-da “Just in Time” hitches a ride, mid-tempo, but eeeazee. (Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolph Green from Bells Are Ringing.) Its title line rides very cool percussion. Mason slowly revolves slowly taking us all in. She doesn’t so much bounce as dance in place as if about to.
Referring to “4000 sent emails,” the artist quips that all those years she was trying to be a nice girl, when it’s the annoying one that fills the room. Comfortable on stage, she’s gracious and wry. A gauzy “Finding Wonderland” (Frank Wildhorn/Jack Murphy from Wonderland) is paired with Alan Menken/Tim Rice’s optimistic “A Whole New World” (from Aladdin). We see her imagine the latter with such focus its as if sheer will might manifest change. Watch the left hand, fingers splayed, rise and reach forward …with you…fading like the curl of a smoke ring.
Chita Rivera, Chicago’s original Velma Kelly, is in tonight’s audience. Mason declares that performing “All That Jazz” in front of one of the women who introduced the number (with Gwen Verdon) is the ballsiest things she’s ever done. “Chita did the singing/dancing version. I’m going to do the singing/personality moving version.” It’s superb. She takes her time, elongating, sizzling, vocal rising like a geyser, spreading before falling. Hips gyrate just a tad, mischievous, restrained. The left foot kicks back. (John Kander/Fred Ebb)
Brian Lasser’s utterly lovely “I Met a New Friend” and the tandem “Lorna”/”I Want to Be With You” (Charles Strouse/Lee Adams from Golden Boy) are deftly understated. The former, a well painted story-song, is tender. The latter, accompanied by dramatic piano, leaves Mason’s fierce vocal to cut to the bone.
Special Guest, songwriter/producer Paul Rolnick (Mason’s husband), also has a CD debuting. Accompanying himself on the soft rock “Strumming My First Guitar” (written with John Nanni) he in fact, utilizes his very first guitar. It has a Superman sticker on one side. As a performer, the artist is comfortable, like a favorite pair of old jeans. His voice (and songs) feel honest and familiar.
Rolnick also offers his CD’s title song, Emmy nominated “Shoot for the Moon” (written with Dennis Scott) in duet with Mason- describing and performed with palpable affection. My favorite of this segment is “Cold Enough to Cross” (written with Henry Cory): Though this river may be frozen/We should try at any cost/Cause now it might be cold enough to cross…a poetic, country-sounding ballad with the plainspeak wisdom of a good haiku and swaying melody.
Four iconic selections by Mason follow. Among these are Harold Arlen/George Gershwin’s “The Man That Got Away” and Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.” Mason tells us Judy Garland, who introduced both these songs, was a huge influence on her. Steal from the best, she tells us, then make it your own. She does.
Fully able to careen off the walls with the skill of an aerialist, Mason instead approaches the Gershwin song in thrall to pain, unlike Garland, unable to unleash till the very end. As to the Harburg, I can’t help but recall Julie Wilson’s admonition that no one should attempt it. “I’ve resisted this song for many years,” Mason tells us. Bearing witness, she delivers affecting hope against hope, perhaps speaking for us all, but also in her own distinct voice.
We close with “It’s About Time.” (Paul Rolnick/Shelly Markham.) Created bespoke for the marriage of gay friends, the song is universal, heartfelt, and gracefully crafted. I recommend its use on loving occasions. I found myself humming its melody on the way home.
Musicianship is impeccable. Direction admirably invisible.
Karen Mason: It’s About Time Guest: Paul Rolnick Directed by Barry Kleinbort Music Supervisor- Christopher Denny Tedd Firth-MD/Piano, Bob Renino-Bass, Rex Benincasa-Drums Birdland Jazz Club 315 West 44 Street
“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