BWW Review: A.J. Lambert Honors Sinatra's Legacy with Humility, Grace, and All-Star Vocals at Feinstein's/54 Below
A.J. Lambert, as the granddaughter of Frank Sinatra, is "not intimidated at all" in singing through the entirety of IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS, a pioneering concept album released by Sinatra in 1955 exploring heartbreak (including a torturous breakup with his second wife, Ava Gardner) with all songs handpicked by the artist himself, during a time when a label would tell a singer what to record. Last month at Feinstein's/54 Below, Lambert told tales of growing up with her grandfather and paid tribute to a highly-esteemed album with an incredible story behind it, with reverence, soul, and jazzy musicality.
"This album meant so much to me as a child, and still does now, even though that meaning has changed," Lambert tells us. Lambert possessed such a passion for her grandfather's music. "My father always mentioned songwriters: Tom Boswell, Jimmy Van Heusen, Cole Porter--- everybody played a part." She explained what this album meant to her father with a humbling introduction and a true admiration for the legacy that her father left. This grandiose homage was quickly interrupted with an adorable, "I'll shut up soon, but I'm just flooded with gratitude."
This "flood" quickly transformed into a four-part song cycle, or, in her words, the songbook "as it was intended to be." The album was done in four parts and was meant to be sung-through in its entirety to tell a story of intense heartbreak that changed her grandfather's life. "You didn't know this was going to be such a downer night, right?" she quipped, quickly followed by, "It's not politics, so it's okay!"
But the audience couldn't get enough. The house was packed to capacity and met her with uproarious applause and enthusiasm, cheering her on every step of the way. It was immediately clear how much soul, beauty, and respect Lambert possesses not only as a vocalist, but as a person, inside and out. Her voice was deep and resonate for each song, handling with care and lilting phrasing that transported an entire room back in delicious nostalgia.
The songs of IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS are consistently short, simple, and beautifully written, casting a moody spell over the entire room. Beautiful, bluesy melodies like "Mood Indigo," and "I Get Along Without You Very Well" hushed the room until the final, crooning notes. She sang right through each of the four sides of the album, with the only interruption between songs being the enthusiastic applause.
Lambert interpreted each song more beautifully than the next, from "Deep in a Dream" to "When Your Lover Has Gone." But the song that stood out the most to me was "Glad to Be Unhappy," a song that I used to love performing myself, for its simple, haunting melody, and its bittersweet lyrics. One couldn't help thinking of the late Barbara Cook, who sang the beautiful ballad by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart on her 1959 Barbara Cook SINGS FROM THE HEART album. But as Lambert continues to interpret the song and I heard the lyrics once again, I couldn't help asking, is she singing to her grandfather? What unsaid message does she wish to share with him?
"With no mammy and no pappy / I'm so unhappy, but oh so glad."
From that point on, every song lyrics seemed to have a double meaning. "I get along without you very well," she sings, which is contrasted by "Can't We Be Friends," and "I See Your Face Before Me." She relates so emotionally to the songs, with such accuracy and truth, that the night isn't about her anymore. And even more than her grandfather, it's a night about heartbreak we've all experienced. "These are the simple truths that make you cry," she says.
What was even more beautifully heartbreaking were her stories. She regretted not spending time as much with Frank as she would have wanted, but we heard quirky stories only a granddaughter could tell us. Between each of the four sides is when we truly saw her eyes sparkle, as she recounted treasured anecdotes. He was 80 years old and up until 4:00 AM. He was so private and loved his solitude, but he loved being surrounded by people. She loved being on the road with him as Sinatra's "drink-maker and cigarette lighter." She tells us he was a no-nonsense guy. He never hung out long at the venue afterwards. He'd get Jack Daniels mixed with water every time, and the audience chimed right in as she searched for the name.
"You're getting all the real lowdown," she jokes. "I wish I could have more time. It took a while, but now, I think I get it, I really do!" Her humility was endearing and the love she had for Sinatra was touching. And as she perked up with "All right, next side!" she always emphasized to us, "It's about the story." She was just concerned with serving the words and music.
Even though this is a sung-through concept album, Lambert does speak to us so potently through her grandfather's hand-picked songs. The depth of feeling and intensity of the heightened emotion never left the stage or a single note. No one could possibly interpret these songs as truthfully Lambert does. She speaks to us in a way that no one else can: through song, through story, and through honoring a legacy.
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD specialist, artist, author, health advocate, award-winning actress, and playwright. She is currently touring her one-woman musical, GUTLESS AND GRATEFUL, across the country. Her work can be found at amyoes.com.