Review: Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks

I’ve seen plenty of big bands at Birdland, mostly bluesy brassy blaring groups like Count Basie’s and Lionel Hampton’s, much of whose repertoire dates from 1940 or after. The mid-sized combo The Hot Sardines stays within the era of 1920s and 1930s, but does it with a saucy irreverence. Small big band Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, though, covers the same era as the Sardines, but with more scrupulous attention to stylistic accuracy. Oh they swing, for sure, but the arrangements are recreated in detail from actual recordings from that time. Think Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington’s very earliest recordings.

Giordano himself plays the bass line on a variety of instruments, including an aluminum standing bass, bass saxophone and tuba. He’s also quite the character, wisecracking all the way – but also being the best kind of “infotainment,” like, say, Mark Nadler, John Pizzarelli or Michael Feinstein. In between numbers, he goes into detail about who recorded what and when, and who did the arrangements. There is also a bit of theatricality to the band’s performance style, as when a phalanx of 4 clarinets swing wildly from side to side in precise unison.

They do requests, and composer Harry Warren figured prominently there, especially in a very “hot” swinging version of “42nd Street”, and Fletcher Handerson’s “Shanghai Shuffle”. There was a request from within the ensemble for Original Dixieland Jass Band’s “Indiana” which was one of the most hard-swinging moments of the night. Highly recommended.

For tickets click here.

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

Review: The Hot Sardines

This band brought me back to life! I was a bit between blue and – as Blanche says in The Golden Girls – magenta, and The Hot Sardines gave me a solid kick in the ass. They’re on a mission to put the “hot” back into “hot jazz.” Think Louis Armstrong’s legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven combos, with a pinch of the gutbucket grit of swing revivalists like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Their repertoire tends to pre-1930 songs, popularized by the likes of Sophie Tucker and Mamie Smith, but they also expand into reinterpreting songs from other eras in that style.

Lead singer Elizabeth Bougerol and pianist / bandleader Evan Palazzo met in 2007 after they both answered a Craigslist ad about a jazz jam session above a Manhattan noodle shop. Palazzo passed her litmus test – he knew Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” and could play it off the top of his head. Since then they have been increasing the size of the ensemble; it’s presently a hot eight-piece. Perhaps most inventively, the band includes a rotating cast of tap dancers, who intentionally play the part of a percussionist more than a dancer.

Bougerol was born in France and injects the occasional French-language vocal into the mix, regardless of whether the song was originally in French or not. This sort of playful irreverence forms a central part of the band’s aesthetic, showing up in Palazzo’s frisky fugue-like intro to “Comes Love,” and in Bougerol’s elaborating on the “single-entendre” metaphors that blues singers used for dirty or “hokum” songs. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey

This man and wife duo are doing a fabulous new show at the Cafe Carlyle, called “East Side After Dark” perhaps in tribute to Carlyle mainstay Bobby Short’s classic 1960 live album “On The East Side” (which by the way was actually not recorded at the Carlyle). John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey start with “Cheerful Little Earful”, a charmer which was first made famous by Fanny Brice.

After that, the East Side theme to one side, the pair launched into a pair of songs that praise the city more generally, the relatively obscure “When You’re Far Away from New York Town” and the song that made Rodgers and Hart’s names “Manhattan”. John gets all the jokes in the song – which is a loving satire of a bustling, smelly city – and communicates them elegantly to the audience.

The act is intended as a tribute to Upper East Side clubs of yore. The comically named Upstairs at the Downstairs is mentioned several times. There is also a loving tribute to John’s late father, jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli, who was ironically requested to play “Pick Yourself Up” at a funeral. Jessica gets her own “after dark” spotlight with a mellifluous rendition of Blossom Dearie’s “Moonlight Savings Time”.

The continue the theme with late night cabaret legend Dave Frishberg’s “I’m Hip” which Molaskey puts her own parody lyric spin singing in a second pass, which is all about her recent hip surgery. Pizzarelli then concludes with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s biting take on racism “Carefully Taught”. Upon which Molaskey adds that they will close all of their shows “until it no longer applies” (unfortunately probably not anytime soon). Overall, the singing’s smart, the music’s deftly swung and the atmosphere sparkles. Cabaret doesn’t get much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Marilyn Maye

Here we have the songs of Johnny Mercer, one of the greatest writers of “The Great American Songbook,” sung by Marilyn Maye, one of greatest interpreters of that Songbook. That sounds like a great combination, doesn’t it? And indeed it is! Many years ago Ella Fitzgerald – who released a Mercer Songbook album in 1964 – called Marilyn Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world.”All these years later Ella’s remark is still no exaggeration.

I can think of no other living singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and vocal range. Maye is a jazz-pop singer worthy of being included in the company of Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn or Blossom Dearie, and her phrasing is the finest I’ve heard in that style from a living singer.

This show – as always is the case with the marvelous Miss Maye – is heavy on the medleys. Here, they’re divided into themes that Mercer liked to write about, such as “Angels,” “Women’s Names,” “Autumn,” “Dream,” and even “Revenge.” Again as always, Maye and her music director Tedd Firth handle medleys with thoughtful storytelling and sophisticated jazz musicianship. Maye exquisitely tailors her singing style to the individual Mercer song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the up-tempos, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers. She almost growls for his “Blues In the Night”.

Maye appeared on Johnny Carson’s edition of “The Tonight Show” a total of 76 times, a record not likely ever to be beaten by any other singer with any other host. If you love classic songs like Mercer’s sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this. Highly Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

For more about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.wordpress.com.

The Village: A Disco Musical

Extended through Saturday October 22, The Village is at its most charmingwhen writing love letters to disco. Nora Burns’s comedy is subtitled A Disco Musical, and while it’s not technically a musical (precious little live singing) the constant flow of recorded disco – and really good disco at that – is what really propels it.

Set in 1979 New York City, The Village centers around Trade (Antony Cherrie), a hustler living in the apartment of an older gentleman, George (Cluck Blasius). He brings home his latest trick, Steve (Ever Chavez) a charming NYU student – a cute “twink,” though at the time the word was “chicken” – and the story is nominally about them falling into bed and then love. But, as the title suggests, this is really more the story of a community, the vibrant gay scene of the time, set against the grit and glamour of the Manhattan of that era. One of the stronger elements is Robin Carrigan’s lively choreography, reflecting with verve and musicality the show’s disco soundtrack.

While Burns’s script is packed with her usual acidly sarcastic humor, the structure is a bit, well, lumpy. There’s a lot of “fourth wall breaking” and much of it is clever, but in the end there’s way too much of it. It’s as though every character in a Deadpool movie were talking to the camera most of the time. It can get a little wearying. Also, while the initial idea of creating an Our Town for 1970s NYC was an ingenious one, like many “inspired by” shows, The Village stumbles when it hews too closely to its model, and gets a real lift when it leans into being its own frisky self.

Mostly, though, The Village is a sexy, goofy lark, executed by an attractive, energetic, committed and talented ensemble cast. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tony Danza

Since his TV career descended from the stratospheric heights of hit after hit, namely Taxi and Who’s the Boss, Tony Danza has made an art of being an Italian-American boy from Brooklyn song-and-dance man. You know, in the tradition of guys named Crocetti and Benedetto. Ooops, I mean their stage names Dean Martin and Tony Bennett, and I forgot the one who didn’t change his last name, Sinatra. To be fair, only Bennett is the only one who comes close to Danza’s NYC bona fides. Even Sinatra was from, ahem, Hoboken.

Danza sings the songs that these goombahs made famous, but he really has Sinatra bona fides. He gained his love of “The Chairman of the Board” from his mother, who was one of the original “bobbysoxer” girls who first screamed for Frankie in New York’s Paramount Theatre in the early 1940s (think BTS stans today). Plus, in his Taxi days (late 1970s) one of Sinatra’s favorite songwriters Sammy Cahn took Danza under his wing and mentored him.

Now all of this is a long time ago, and Danza is frank (see what I did there?) about this – he says there are three stages of life: youth, middle age and “You look good!” And he does look good, and not just for that bracket. He does a Cahn medley that has real warmth to it. And that’s part of his charm overall – warmth and sincerity. Also special is his embrace of a lesser-known song, Artie Butler’s “I Don’t Remember Ever Growing Up”; what person past early middle age doesn’t understand that? Plus the fact that he peppers his Rat Pack-style crooning with above average tap dancing and ukulele playing…the guy has the spirit of a classic all-around entertainer. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Peter Cincotti

“Killer On The Keys” is the title song of Peter Cincotti’s upcoming album, and that phrase is an apt description of this wildly talented pianist-singer-songwriter. The first song in his act at the Cafe Carlyle is “Raise the Roof” and that he and his band do time and again. He’s a New Yorker through and through, and has been playing clubs here since he was a high schooler, some 20 years ago. By 18 he was working with legendary producer Phil Ramone on his first album, and getting raves playing the legendary Oak Room cabaret at the Algonquin Hotel.

How I haven’t seen Cincotti before now escapes me, he’s just the kind of jazzy cabaret artist I love – just think John Pizzarelli or Marilyn Maye (search for them on this site if you don’t already know). He’s backed by a very talented band; young for the most part (not for nothing, like he was when he started), save for tenor saxophonist Scott Kreitzer, who’s been working with him since the Oak Room.

It’s not all uptempo ravers, though there is a lot of that. While he does a good number of standards, both of the numbers mentioned above are Cincotti originals, and he is premiering a new one at the Carlyle, from his upcoming album. Called “Ghost of My Father” it details how his father, who died when his career was just taking off, has literally haunted him (mostly in a good way) ever since. A pensive ballad, accompanied only by himself on piano, it is as moving as the rest of the set is rousing.

He covers a great range of styles and material from Nat King Cole’s “Sweet Lorraine” to Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind”; his excellent jazzy version of Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” – which he himself described as a McCoy Tyner / Herbie Hancock influenced arrangement – truly has to be heard to be believed. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tammie Brown

Lady Bunny once talked about working with Valentina – she of the “french vanilla latte fantasy” – saying something to the effect of “She’s just like Tammie Brown or Alyssa Edwards, they all really are like that, all the time!” Surrealist drag queen Brown’s artistic core is, more than anything, as a hippie chic queerpunk singer-songwriter. There’s a hint of classic movie queen in her looks, but it seems that’s the equivalent of Debbie Harry or Grace Slick making something fabulous out of what they found in a thrift shop.

And while Tammie’s sense of humor is disarmingly unique, she’s not truly unprecedented. I could see her comfortably do her left-of-center thing at the Pyramid Club in the 1980s, at Club 57 or Max’s Kansas City in 1970s, or even in a Jackie Curtis extravaganza at LaMaMa in the late 1960s. However, queens this tripped-out are in short supply these days, so we should treat her as some kind of national treasure!

Brown also proudly owns her South Texas origins, singing a couple of songs with some Spanish, and showing love for all things Mexican (maybe there’s a Frida Kahlo influence here, too, eh?). Tammie struts sexily about the stage, singing to the actual tracks from her discography. The doubling of her recorded voice and her live voice is pleasantly freaky – and solid proof she always sings on tune.

Her songs remind me of an ’80s synthpop cover of a ’60s song – think Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” or Bananarama’s “Venus” – but as written and performed on the legendary “good LSD” of the time when the songs were written. And her in-between patter veers between gleeful non sequiturs and political commentaries from the silly to the venomous. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mr. Saturday Night

This tribute to Catskills comedy – as told through the life story of Buddy Young Jr. who goes from Borscht Belt headliner to TV star to obscurity – is equal parts classic comic shtick (delivered by one of our greatest living comedians) and schmaltz (leavened with flashes of genuine emotion). Billy Crystal plays Young with his usual verve, adding a little soft shoe and expessive singing to his performing repetoire. It’s a real shame that Mr. Saturday Night closes on September 4, it’s a genuinely pleasurable and charming musical – whose main aim is to (in the words of Crystal’s first song) provide “A Little Joy” – and how often do we get one of those?

While much of the plot takes place in 1994, we get generous servings of Buddy’s Catskills act and TV sketches, taking place in the late ’40s and early ’50s, in which Crystal shines the brightest, being on his home ground of stand-up. As Buddy watches the 1994 Emmy Awards, he sees his own face in the “In Memoriam” section. The fact that he actually isn’t dead gets him a new flash of celebrity, including an appearance on Today, which catches the eye of a major talent agency.

This is the kind of relatively light-hearted musical where you root for the main character to earn redemption and win out. The way he gets there may be a touch contrived, but is satifying nonetheless. The score, lyrics by Amanda Green and music by Jason Robert Brown, is brisk, tuneful and jazzy. Recommended, get it while you can!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mark Nadler Hart’s Desire

This ever-ambitious cabaret genius always seeks to challenge himself, and this time he has truly outdone himself. With Hart’s Desire, Mark Nadlercombines the words of playwright Moss Hart (from many sources) with lyrics by (unrelated) Lorenz Hart – which of course comes with music by Lorenz’s perrenial writing partner, composer Richard Rodgers. Both Harts were gay in a time when it was far less acceptable than today. Mark is no stranger to a gay theme, and has fashioned a gay musical romantic comedy that convicingly sounds like the year Nadler sets it in, 1943. You know, except for the gay thing.

Nadler presents Hart’s Desire as a backer’s audition – at the time, backer’s auditions were performed by the writers themselves, not actors. The musical is set at the opening of a Boston tryout for a play. Act I is before the opening, Act II after, and things do not seem to have gone well. With his usual exquisite taste, in addtion to Lorenz’s better known songs, Nadler uses obscure ones as well, such as the unfinished “Good Bad Woman” which Mark himself has completed. And of course he employs additional lyrics not included in the stage versions of Lorenz’s songs, especially for an extended version of “The Lady is a Tramp” as delivered by a brassy aging vaudvillian.

Mark “Mr. Showbiz” Nadler is at his most dazzling here, portraying eight characters without blurring the lines between them. He’s one of the greatest showmen of our time, singing, acting, tap-dancing madly, all the while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. There are always many layers in a Mark Nadler show, ranging from the obvious to unspoken subtext, which gives an “oomph” far, far beyond your typical cabaret show, and that is true in spades in Hart’s Desire. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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