Review: Pharoah Sanders

Jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman once called Pharoah Sanders “probably the best tenor player in the world.” Tenor saxophone, that is, and based on what I experienced seeing him at Birdland, I’d have to agree. But he’s more than that: there’s something visionary about Sanders. When he begins to play, the room he’s playing in feels somehow different, lighter.

Sanders was an important player in the frequently dissonant free jazz scene of the early 1960s, but as he embarked on a career as a leader rather than a sideman, he reinterpreted what the “free” in free jazz meant. For him, it meant free and full expression using any and all means available, the tonal as well as the atonal, the sweet as well as the dissonant. It also meant exploring freedom in the political sense, and above all in a spiritual sense. One can easily interpret Sanders work from the late 1960s onward as one long exploration of what it means to be spiritually free – and how does one express that in music?

The first composition he performed began with the band playing a gentle, soothing pentatonic wash for several minutes. When Sanders joined in at first he went with that gentle flow, but then there was one of those angular, sharp, atonal runs that were a hallmark of Pharoah’s early avant-garde work, appearing with the speed, suddenness and uncanniness of lightning in a clear blue sky.

Some other astonishing moments: at the end of a yearning ballad, Sanders slows everything down in a short coda in which every note surprises and yet is exactly right, especially the breathtaking second to last note at the very bottom of his instrument’s range. After which he immediately bounces into a playful blues that finds this physically frail septuagenarian dancing around and hamming it up, strumming his sax as if it was a guitar. In this number each of the sidemen gets an extended solo; Nate Reeves’s solo stands as the single best jazz bass solo I have ever heard, jumping back and forth between virtuosic techniques with impossible nimbleness.

And at the very end, Sanders played a bit of his epic statement of purpose “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” singing in a strong warm voice, gently emphasizing one word, to powerful effect: “The creator makes but one demand / Happiness through all the land.” Then he launches into John Coltrane’s masterpiece “A Love Supreme” for a few soaring minutes before concluding with a return to “Creator.” Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Advertisements

Review: Liz Callaway

This award-winning singer / actress delivers both hair-raising high notes and detailed, fully-acted musical storytelling with her muscular Broadway soprano. She’s crafted her current act at Feinstein’s / 54 Below as a love letter to the women who have inspired her, calling it A Hymn to Her. Liz’s heroines come from all walks of life, and Callaway takes advantage of this to create an eclectic show.

She opens with The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme, “Love Is All Around,” because who doesn’t love Mary Richards? Callaway marvelously captures the song’s feeling of youthful hope. The show then briefly heads in an autobiographical direction as she intersperses a low-key take on “Broadway Baby” with humorous tales of her exciting first days as a working actor in New York.

Liz points out that your heroes don’t have to be older than you, and gives high praise to Sara Bareilles before performing a moving rendition of “Everything Changes” from Bareilles’s Waitress. There’s also a heroine not actually mentioned but implied in Callaway’s pairing of Carole King’s “Being At War with Each Other” and her sister Ann Hampton Callaway’s “At the Same Time” – both songs have been sung by Barbra Streisand. That’s not the only reason they go well together: they are both heartfelt pleas for peace.

Callaway has a wonderful sense of humor, which produced two of my favorite moments in the show. She’s obsessed with Julia Child, and did a little known song of Leonard Bernstein’s called “Plum Pudding” which is simply a recipe for the titular dish, delivered as a tricky patter song. Callaway takes satirical aim at tricky patter in the show’s other comical highlight, one of Callaway’s signature songs “Another Hundred Lyrics.” Songwriter Lauren Mayer’s re-lyricizing of Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People,” it gently pokes fun at Sondheim’s willful complexity. It’s no less complicated than a Sondheim song – perhaps its even moreso – and Callaway executes it flawlessly. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Lady Bunny

Once upon a time, Lady Bunny lip-synched her own voice for her song parodies, both medleys and single-song versions but now she does them live. It’s skipping a step and she’s actually a somewhat soulful singer, so this arrangement works well. She’s even writing some original stuff, a jazz song, even! Okay, so it’s called “I Gave Head to Mr. Ed,” but still!

Of course for her famous, zany Laugh-In style routines, she still lip-synchs and there was a number where she performed the thoughts expressed in her voice-over, but didn’t actually mouth the words. This “Lady” doesn’t put limits on what she’s going to say or do in her new cabaret act “Pig In A Wig” – one of the great charms of this show is its spontaneity.

Bunny is one of the smartest drag queens ever, even if the majority of her act is a steady stream of dick and poop jokes. She’s a powerful presence who also posses a terrific sense of when to keep it light. Girl knows just how to milk it!

She never stays in one mode for too long, and while she might go all stream of consciousness at certain points, she never quite seems to ramble. The Lady isn’t afraid of sentiment, but she’s not sappy – It’s a terrific balance, and probably the only way you could tell these on the edge jokes in a way that’s funny rather that truly offensive. She’s an energetic, mostly-for-the-laughs winner – definitely the funniest gay show in town!

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Marilyn Maye

Meet Marvelous Marilyn Maye. That’s the title of Maye’s 1965 debut album – but it’s also what I’m telling you to do if you haven’t already! This singer that Ella Fitzgerald called “the greatest white female singer in the world” sounds almost as amazing as she did back then. Maye has been rediscovered by New York audiences over the last few years, and the ever growing lovefest between fans old and new is palpable in the room, which only adds to the fun.

Her current show at 54 Below, “Marilyn Maye Gives Thanks” is a holiday affair, which I really haven’t heard her do before. Marilyn loves her medleys, and there are many here, all packed with songs not in her usual repertoire – like “Blessings and Dreams” (“Count Your Blessings” / “Dream is a Wish” / “Wrap You Troubles in Dreams”), “Autumn” (“Autumn in New York” / “Autumn Leaves”) and a holiday medley (“I Believe” / “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” / “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” / “Shalom”) which truly is marvelous. The only misstep is a patriotic sing-along medley which she doesn’t give any context for, and therefore feels awkward and tacked on.

Musical director Tedd Firth – a frequent foil for a great variety of artists such as Michael Feinstein, Christine Ebersole, John Pizzarelli and many more – is the perfect match for this approach, combining a broad knowledge of popular music with snappy, sophisticated jazz chops. Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers.

You really must go, I’m not giving you a choice. Before she gets into seasonal material, she does a medley of songs from My Fair Lady that climaxes in a stunning, hard-swinging rendition of “On the Street Where You Live.” There is simply nobody remotely like Maye, she’s an overpoweringly amazing cabaret singer. It might not be an exaggeration to call her the best jazz cabaret singer in the world. She’s certainly the last great performer in that style of her generation, still in astonishingly full command of her vocal powers. If you love songs of every kind sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Lorna Luft

There are several things about Lorna Luft’s current cabaret that bring to mind her mother Frances Gumm (better known as Judy Garland). First of all, she’s just written a book about her experience of her mother’s version of A Star is Born, and sings one of Judy’s songs from the 1954 movie, so that’s the most overt thing. Also she’s got that Gumm family voice – her sister Liza Minnelli has it too – warbling when it’s quiet, soaring when it’s loud. Her voice is in some ways softer than Judy’s or Liza’s, but identifiably that kind of voice.

This show though, is in surprising ways like her mother’s early 1960s TV show: packed with guests who are in large part her talented friends. Many of them met in the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls. And they all belt the hell out of their guest numbers: Ernie Sabella and his brother David in “Hakuna Matata,” Ruth Williamson and Lorna dueting in Irving Berlin’s “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” Haley Swindal in Berlin’s “Let Yourself Go.” At the end of the ensemble section of the the evening, things take a more somber turn as Luft and Swindal duet in composer Larry Grossman’s compelling “The Other Woman,” Haley singing the part of the mistress, Lorna the wife.

The show marks Luft’s triumphant return to performing after having a brain tumor removed earlier this year, and the support and warmth in the room were palpable. She concludes the evening giving back that love in a rousing rendition of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Kate Baldwin

Most recently known for playing a radiant and golden-voiced Irene Malloy in the recent hit revival of Hello, Dolly!, Kate Baldwin’s has a new show at Feinstein’s / 54 Below titled “How Did You Get This Number?” The act features “signature songs” of many descriptions: special material about her life written by music director Georgia Stitt, audition songs, and – most of all – songs she performed in shows successful (Dolly, Finian’s Rainbow, John and Jen) and unsuccessful (Big Fish, Giant). A theme that runs through the show is that a song, like any work an artist works on, belongs to them, but they also belong to it.

Baldwin combines a luscious, expressive soprano (that has more resonant low notes than most) with a personality that is unfailingly charming. Her big break was playing Sharon McLonergan in the Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow, and she does a charming medley of “Look to the Rainbow” and “Glocca Mora.” In the year before that big change though, she was doing an extremely wide variety of ingenue roles all over the country, and shows what a ridiculous amount of diverse material she had to learn in a giddy medley that is one of the evening’s highlights.

The evening has the slightest case of two things that will create problems in a cabaret act: too many obscure songs and too many ballads. But it’s only maybe one too many of each, so it doesn’t get in the way of what is largely a delightful evening. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Nellie McKay

This cabaret act solidifies Nellie McKay’s right to be considered the 21st Century Blossom Dearie, but even more surreal, subversive and nutty. She’s a supreme stylist, with broad, substantial musical intelligence behind every single understated flourish. She combines heart-on-sleeve sincerity with supremely arch, dry wit; she’s utterly unique, her performance style multifarious and unpredictable, drawing ideas from extremely diverse eras and genres.

The act, at the Birdland Theater, is edgy even for a venue that regularly features post-bop royalty – she opens with the casually venomous “Inner Peace” from her 2004 debut album – all the while displaying musical taste and restraint so impeccable you dare not take issue with her cabaret bona fides. It’s 100% a solo act, just Nellie in a bejeweled drum majorette’s uniform, accompanying herself on piano, and exceptionally expressive ukulele (I’d go so far as to call her a virtuoso of the uke). Plus there’s a Hammond XK electric organ (a favorite instrument of mine) which adds just the right level of kooky spook to her original “Zombie.” Speaking of kooky, her version of the jazz ballad “Willow Weep for Me” breaks into wild boogie-woogie in the middle; it’s a left-field move, which somehow feels just right.

She becomes one with the piano, forcing you to focus on the nuances of both the music and the lyrics. While she still places a knowing distance between herself and the audience, this show finds her the most comfortable I’ve ever seen her just being her utterly unique self, communing with the vibe in the room. McKay’s a highly individual talent, with wildly crazy creativity to match her razor-like interpretive ability. She’s a true original, and it’s an exceptional pleasure to hear her in such an intimate setting. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.