Review: Marilyn Maye

She embraces her audience, she overpowers, she electrifies – Marilyn Maye is like no other singer. At 91, she sings and moves like a singer in their 40s. 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. And at 54 Below right now, she’s turning her towering talent mostly to showtunes. Lucky us!

Maye has been rediscovered by New York audiences over the last decade or so, and you can feel the ever growing lovefest between fans old and new, which only adds to the fun. But she’s had fans in good places for a long time: Johnny Carson gave her a standing invitation to sing on “The Tonight Show” whenever possible, and she ended up appearing 76 times while Carson was in the chair, a record no singer has broken since!

She’s always included showtunes in her act, so there’s plenty of familiar stuff, especially from Hello Dolly and Mame, shows whose title roles she played in now-legendary regional productions. There are several other medleys, but Maye and her music director Billy Strich handle medleys in an unconventional way, undercutting their potential for corniness with thoughtful storytelling and sophisticated jazz musicianship. If you love show tunes sung in sparkling and surprising ways, 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: Count Basie Orchestra

You need a big brassy voice to sing over the Count Basie Orchestra – of its 20+ pieces, over 90% are brass. Carmen Bradford belts the Etta James classic “At Last” with more vigor and bluesiness than I’ve ever heard it done, so she certainly fits the the bill (and gives me Obama nostalgia). Basie’s orchestra powers through its extensive repertoire, dynamic and forceful as ever, even though Count Basie passed in 1983.

This big band has continuously toured (with the shortest of breaks in the early 1950s) for 84 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. A certain bluesiness has never gone out of fashion, being an important part of jazz, rock and hip-hop. They were “rhythm and blues” long before that term existed, and still can’t be beat for rhythm or blues today.

Add to that the fact that they are one of the most musically virtuosic of the traditional big bands around! Their command of volume control, both loud and soft, is astonishing. There’s even a number in their current songlist at Birdland where they put this on gratuitous display. Bandleader Scotty Barnhart gave the signal to bring the volume down, again and again, until you think they couldn’t get any quieter, and then take it down some more. Astonishing.

Though the band is known 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 Markus Howell traded solos with an intensity that edged towards bebop. Hot hot hot. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everybody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John Pizzarelli 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.

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 embodies cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence. Especially in the evening’s climax, Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” (otherwise known as “Duke’s Place”) in which John and the band solo with vigor, verve and virtuosity.

John plays guitar with amazing fluidity and elegance, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. Pizzarelli finds many ways to put his own interpretive twist on the songs he performs. He has a particular genius for chordal improvisations, exposing 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. Overall, the singing’s smart, the music’s deftly swung and the atmosphere sparkles. 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: Ann Hampton Callaway

Ann Hampton Callaway wrote and sang the theme from the TV hit The Nanny, or as she likes to call it “my accountant’s favorite song.” As you might guess from that swinging tune, she definitely thrives on the jazzier end of cabaret, and that inspired her to craft a loving musical history of the hope and joy jazz brings to the movies. To wit, her latest club act “Jazz Goes to the Movies.” (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).

Ella Fitzgerald greatly influenced Callaway, so it’s completely natural this show should find Ann mixing Ella’s sumptuous syncopation and scat with Fred Astaire’s crooning (more on that in a moment). On songs Ann herself sang for the movies – “Come Rain or Come Shine” from The Good Shepherd and “The Nearness of You” from Last Holiday – the jazz quotient is through the roof.

As to Astaire, Ann remarks that while some people are “Deadheads” she’s a “Fredhead,” and she interprets several songs that Astaire originated in movies. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” – an Irving Berlin number Fred sang to Ginger Rogers in Follow the Fleet – receives a very emotional reading. She applies the first line of the song to the present day: “There may be trouble ahead.” But in that connection she takes very seriously the remedy offered by the next couple of lines: “But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance / Let’s face the music and dance.”

Even more emotional is her Pride-themed take on Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” Callaway relates that when lyricist Lorenz Hart received this gorgeous and melancholy melody from Rodgers, the closeted Hart looked in the mirror and wrote the words he longed to have some man sing to him. The song moved Callaway (and us) so much, that she had to sing The Nanny theme to lift her own spirits.

She even extends her “movie” theme to the recent remake of A Star is Born. No, she doesn’t sing that song, but she does her own take on “La Vie en Rose” (which Gaga sings in a bar in the film), including Callaway’s own intro – a brief love letter to the city of Paris. Callaway, as always, achieves a kind of jazz-pop perfection, shimmery and rich. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Marilyn Maye

I don’t often refer to the marvelous Marilyn Maye’s age, but since the title of her new show at 54 Below is “I Wish I were 90 Again,” I can divulge that the show celebrates her turning 91. I can think of no other singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and, yes, vocal range, as impressive as that of just about any singer 50 years her junior. Ella Fitzgerald once called her “the greatest white female singer in the world” — that’s no exaggeration.

This show opens like gangbusters, opening with two of her brassiest, beltiest signature songs “It’s Today” and “You’re Gonna Hear from Me.” She’s fantastic throughout, singing songs of love and celebration — with a breif detour into melancholy in a medley centered on the word “blue.” Her repertoire for the evening ranges from Melissa Manchester’s clear-eyed romance “Come In From The Rain” to a rollicking and vituousic take on Leiber & Stoller’s “I’m A Woman.”

This is a classic act in every sense of the phrase. 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 — for she truly is the last of that generation of singers. 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. If you love classic songs sung like they’re meant to be sung, it doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Clint Holmes

This man has established himself as a cabaret artist of great sensitivity and intelligence. Clint Holmes has been a Las Vegas performer for some time, but exhibits none of the negative qualities you associate with Vegas. He only has the good Vegas stuff: He is nothing if not sincere and authentic, and possesses a magnetic stage presence and a practiced but subtle showmanship that underlines what’s important in the show without overselling it.

His latest act at the Birdland Theater entitled “Holmes for the Holidays” is his jazziest yet, wonderfully complex and spontaneous. He opens with a witty turn on “Let It Snow” in which he observes, er, it hasn’t snowed recently, then launches into a swinging version of “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” laced with observations that his wife is back in Las Vegas, and…you get it.

His skill as an interpreter of lyrics comes across in a moody “My Foolish Heart” which he frames as a “a cautionary tale before you head into your New Year’s Eve – I hear crazy things can happen.” And he puts a tremendous sense of fun into Tom Paxton’s folk music standard “The Marvelous Toy.”

Later in the show, Holmes meditates on the imprints left by one’s childhood. His father was an African-American jazz vocalist who worked in a steel mill and his mother was a white British opera singer who taught voice. He works their story into a song he wrote himself “1944” about their meeting in WW II Europe; he has imbued the song with both richly evocative details and deep feeling, and delivers it warmly but with very tasteful restraint.

He gets more personal still, in another original “If Not Now, When,” which has become his personal motto since beating cancer some years ago. Holmes ends the show with a soaring rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ever-mysterious “Hallelujah.” Holmes is a class act, and this show is first-rate cabaret. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Freddy Cole

He’s Nat “King” Cole’s brother and he’s perfectly happy to be thought of that way. His voice is a lot like his brother’s, or more precisely it sounds like Nat would have sounded as an octogenarian, which Freddy now is. Freddy is currently performing with his quartet at Birdland (with saxophonist Joel Frahm along for the ride) , and the sound they produce is much like Nat’s early 1940s trio – except that it’s fuller, of course, and has strong veins of post-1940s sounds, especially bebop and bossa nova.

The repertoire Cole plays leans heavily on vocal jazz recordings by himself, Nat and others, with only a handful of recognizable standards. The quartet’s rendition of Nat’s “Jet, My Love” is particularly great, alive with syncopation, and packed with adventurous solos for every last member, Frahm particularly showing off with some pyrotechnics. The best-known standard they play is “Sometimes I’m Happy (Sometimes I’m Blue)” which Freddy associates with Count Basie.

This show also features a handful of holiday songs, most entertainingly Freddy’s own “Jingle, the Christmas Cat” and a mellow take on “Blue Christmas.” Throughout, Cole’s sophisticated vocals effortlessly bring out the melancholy in the ballads, and a sunshine warmth in the uptempo numbers. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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