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: 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: 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.

Review: Ann Hampton Callaway

The Linda Ronstadt Songbook as sung by Ann Hampton Callaway – how perfect! Callaway, a multiplatinum-selling pop and jazz singer/songwriter, is best known for writing and singing the theme from the TV hit The Nanny. She also has the distinction of writing three songs for Barbra Streisand, which inspired her earlier cabaret act “The Streisand Songbook” (Ann is also an out lesbian, who gave me the honor of being the journalist to do her “coming out interview” – you can read that here).

Callaway has now turned the same idea – a “songbook” based on a singer who is primarily an interpretive artist – towards Ronstadt, and the results are stunning. Initially, Ann had thought that she would do material from Linda’s “Great American Songbook” albums with Nelson Riddle, and maybe just nod to Linda’s hits. It would have been the path of least resistance: The Songbook is Callaway’s comfort zone. However, she’s opted to do the opposite (“What’s New?” and “Am I Blue?” are the only songs from the Riddle albums), with very powerful results.

Callaway’s version of “You’re No Good” is really roaring – she talks about the song’s undeniable energy after she sings it, and boy does she give it that. Her raging take on “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” is simultaneously harrowing and thrilling. She has the benefit of having Ronstadt’s long time guitartist and arranger, Bob Mann, as part of the quartet backing her up, which lends the sound the very same grit he brought to the originals.

Callaway successfully covers most of Ronstadt’s multi-faceted career – thought she didn’t address Linda’s Spanish-language records, which I did miss – crafting a loving musical portrait of a brilliant interpretive artist who improved every song she sang. Callaway is a great interpreter in her own right, so every number in this show is doubly rich in turns of story and melody. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jane Lynch & Kate Flannery

Spill Carol Burnett, Louis Prima and Keely Smith into a cocktail shaker, mix violently and pour the results into two portions, one taller than the other, and you will have the double act currently playing at the Cafe Carlyle. That would be, as they introduce each other, “America’s Jane Lynch” and “Kate Flannery, brought to you by Jameson.” Or, as you may have first met them, Sue Sylvester from Glee (Lynch) and Meredith Palmer from The Office (Flannery).

Their act is called “Two Lost Souls” and is, in the main, silly fun which attacks the American Songbook with equal parts affection and gimlet-eyed irony. Lynch and Flannery first met as members of Chicago’s sketch comedy scene, where they recognized each other as singers of more or less equal gifts – strong bright voices with solid musicianship. There’s an old bromide that all comedians are frustrated singers, but this duo puts the lie to that; they’re real singers who use their comic gifts to shine fresh colors on the songs they sing.

It’s pretty plain that Lynch is the writer/actor here, and Flannery the improvisationally inclined loose cannon. The night I was there Flannery offered that her “underwear was on backwards” to which Lynch responded (with flawless timing, mind you) “I don’t know what to do with that information.” As recording artists they only have one CD, a Christmas album under Jane’s name, and they were quite clever about working songs from that repertoire into a show for a sweaty, soggy September evening.

A more serious theme emerges slowly, about the personal damage that the Songbook often reflects, but it is worn lightly and spooled out with wit and elegance. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Count Basie Orchestra

This big band has been in continuous existence (with the shortest of breaks in the early 1950s) for 83 years now. I attribute their longevity and continued popularity to the fact that they are “the band that plays the blues” as their motto goes. Bluesiness has never gone totally out of fashion, being an important part of jazz, rock and hip-hop. This big band was “rhythm and blues” long before that term existed, and they still can’t be beat for rhythm or blues today.

Their command of volume control, both loud and soft, is astonishing; there’s a number in their current songlist at Birdland where they put this on gratuitous display. Bandleader Scotty Barnhart gives the signal to the rhythm section to bring the volume down, again and again, until you think they can’t get any quieter, and then take it down some more. Astonishing.

Though the band is know for the tightness of its ensemble playing, each member of the orchestra is a serious soloist in their own right. For the number “Basie Power” the alto sax section of Dave Glasser and Immanuel Wilkins traded solos with an intensity that edged towards bebop. Hot hot hot.

You need a big brassy voice to sing over this band – of its 20+ pieces, over 90% are brass. Carmen Bradford certainly fits the the bill, belting “I Love Being Here With You” with great vigor and bluesiness. Though Count Basie passed in 1984, his orchestra continues to be as dynamic and forceful as ever. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Michael Feinstein & Christine Ebersole

When Michael Feinstein does duet shows with Broadway stars, its a situation where everybody wins, including the audience. Feinstein, the great archivist of “The Great American Songbook,” gets to suggest songs that he’s always wanted to hear these great artists sing. And these artists get to pick Michael’s encyclopedic musical mind, describing an idea of the kind of song they want to sing, to which he responds with an impossibly perfect song.

For the second time, Michael is teaming up with Broadway legend Christine Ebersole, with a travel-themed show called “Two for the Road.” The obscure gem he’s sharing with Christine this time is “Why Don’t We Try Staying Home” a song Cole Porter cut from his 1929 Broadway hit Fifty Million Frenchmen, the intro to which says “We’re always opening plays / or closing cabarets.” That’s literally true for this act – the last performance at the old Feinstein’s at the Regency was them.

For himself Michael dug up a George Gershwin collaboration with lyricists Buddy DeSylva and Irving Caesar “Yankee Doodle Blues.” In keeping with the evening’s theme the song’s patter includes lines like “They say that Europe’s wonderful with all its ancient junk…I had to move from Paris ‘cause I couldn’t eat a frog…I went from there to old Cologne and started on the rounds / But old Cologne don’t smell as sweet and pretty as it sounds…Hey there Miss Liberty I’ll say you’re a bear.” Silly stuff, and Feinstein delivered it with just the right light touch.

One the evening’s most musically stunning moments is a surprising quodlibet of Songbook tunes, in which one of them sings a classic melody, while the other one sings another classic melody in counterpoint. Christine sings Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” while Michael answers with Rodgers & Hart’s “Where or When.” Truly lovely.

There’s room for spontaneity in this show, and one of the warmest moments came when Michael played piano while Christine sang Kern & Hammerstein’s “The Folks Who Live On the Hill.” Totally unplanned, but it’s a song they’ve both sung and even recorded many times before, and this rendition was absolutely magical.

Michael’s own heart-on-sleeve rendition of “Where Am I Going?” from Sweet Charity is definitely a highlight. He’s been truly blossoming as a singer for a long time, going from strength to strength, and this latest topper is easily the most vocally accomplished performance I’ve ever heard him give – with held high notes that would make an opera singer envious. Dazzling, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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