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.

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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.

Review: John Pizzarelli

It’s always great to see a cabaret performer you’ve seen with smaller combos perform with a big band. Seeing John Pizzarelli with Swing 7 – a seven piece rhythm and brass band – is “too marvelous for words.” He’s a top exponent of cabaret’s jazzier side, playing a show composed of songs he’s recorded by Duke Ellington, arguably the greatest jazz composer ever, and by Johnny Mercer, arguably the greatest lyricist of the Great American Songbook. And, as always, he does it with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence.

John’s guitar style is amazingly fluid and elegant, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. But Pizzarelli is a great interpretive artist in more ways than one. He has a particular genius for chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. Also, as a singer John is very sensitive to the multiple meanings a good lyric can have, and has an uncanny ability to communicate several at once. Both qualities are ideal when assaying Mercer, whose wit can be very subtle indeed.

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everybody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John frequently points at one of the instrumentalists as if to say “give it up for so-and-so”! More often in this show, though, the onslaught of flashy jazziness is so relentless that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Spencer Day

This singer-songwriter – with a monthly residency at The Green Room 42 – knows exactly who he is, so I’ll let him tell it: “I’m the younger Harry Connick, I’m the gayer John Mayer,” “I love the the 1950s, but without the rampant racism, sexism and homophobia.” Funny guy, this Spencer Day. And comic relief is needed, since most of his songs have a dark noir tinge, even his recent Billboard Jazz Chart hit “72 and Sunny.”

After giving a moody rendition of that song, Day quips that a review cited the song’s allegedly “bright, hopeful lyrics,” to which he replies “really? I thought it was about clinical depression in beautiful weather!” Which it is. But it’s easy to see how Day’s wit and upbeat Mormon boy demeanor might convince one otherwise.

After making this observation about his own song, Day launches into a medley which reminds us that many of the songs that we have danced to or made us smile are, lyrically speaking, dark stories of co-dependency or desperation. From “Don’t Leave Me This Way” to “Baby Love” to even older songs from his beloved 1950s, Day has a point.

His humor also finds its way both into actual comic songs – “Too Old to Sleep My Way to the Top” and “Book of Faces” come to mind – and songs that turn ruefully funny after a yearning start, like “The California Yes” which, it turns out “is only a maybe at best,” and winkingly offers the advice: “when you’re on the Pacific / don’t get too specific / or think that you’ll see them again!” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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