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BWW Review: Alex Leonard Celebrates Nat King Cole with L-O-V-E at Pangea

BWW Review: Alex Leonard Celebrates Nat King Cole with L-O-V-E at Pangea
Al Gafa, Alex Leonard, and Jay Leonhart. Photo courtesy of the artist(s).

Alex Leonard is a classy performer. His relaxed, minimalist style and adherence to vocals as written take one back to an agreeable past. Jazz riffs weave around rather than obscure melody. Lyric meaning is gracefully maintained. Aided and abetted by expert veterans Jay Leonhart on bass and Al Gafa on guitar, Leonard saluted the great Nat King Cole at Pangea on January 18 with a bit of history, a couple of illuminating anecdotes, and signature songs.

Gone are the June songs/The how high the moon songs... (but) "Mr. Cole Won't Rock and Roll" (Noel Sherman/Joe Sherman) arrives with bass keeping time and resonant guitar. It has the beat sound of the early 1960s: He's the lowest kind of human, he's a square... Novelty, perhaps, but nifty. At four, Cole was able to pick out "Yes, We Have No Bananas" (Frank Silver/Irving Cohn) on the piano. The song is performed without snark.

"Cole wanted to be a composer, a bandleader... He wanted to be Duke Ellington," prefaces the honoree's first big hit, "Sweet Lorraine" (Cliff Burwell/ Mitchell Parish). Leonard's musical phrases have tails extending past words with a kind of hum. What's airborne settles sotto. Gafa's guitar sashays.

We hear Cole's own, hip "Straighten Up and Fly Right" with looping guitar and Leonard's upbeat, tap-like delivery (watch his eyebrows); a jaunty "When I Take My Sugar to Tea" (Sammy Fain/Irving Kahal/Pierre Norman) featuring Leonhart's signature scat (the kind of musical cool that can't be taught); and the wry "Save the Bones for Henry Jones"...'cause he don't eat no meat... in almost conversational duet with Leonhart.

BWW Review: Alex Leonard Celebrates Nat King Cole with L-O-V-E at Pangea
Leonard performs in L-O-V-E at Pangea.
Photo: Ron Forman

Admitting he doesn't understand all of Cole's songs, Leonard offers an imaginatively concocted backstory for Joel Ricardel/Redd Evans's "The Frim-Fram Sauce" at the tempo of a swinging hammock: I'm never satisfied/I want the frim fram sauce with the ausen fay/With chafafa on the side...The artist is naturally genial and warm.

The origin of Cole's Academy Award-winning "Mona Lisa" (Jay Livingston/Ray Evans) is something of a revelation. Having been commissioned, the song was modified for three (cancelled) films before it saw the light and then refused by Vic Damone, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and even Cole at first. Piano eases us into a slow dance for the ages. The number's vocal acquires emotional vibrato. Edges are as smooth as Cole's were smoky.

Fine ballads include Johnny Burke/Jimmy Van Heusen's "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" with Gafa deftly and tenderly taking the lead, first plucking then strumming; "Destination Moon"

(Roy Alfred/Marvin Fisher) through which piano sounds like scat and guitar playfully doodles; and a beautiful rendition of the rarely performed "You're Looking at Me" (Bobby Troup). The latter drifts in swaying, a Grade A, unhomogenized croon. The show's title song "L-O-V-E" (Bert Kaempfert/Milt Gabler) emerges light and optimistic.

L-O-V-E: A CELEBRATION OF NAT KING COLE has comfortable charm, leaving spirits lifted.

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