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.

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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.

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.

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: 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.