BWW Review: With THE GREAT JAZZ STANDARDS, Michael Feinstein Opens This Year's Jazz at Lincoln Center's 'Jazz and Popular Song Series' With Appealing Vitality
I hear music, mighty fine music . . . Host Michael Feinstein sings with pristine bass accompaniment, as Musical Director Tedd Firth's Big Band filters in musician by musician. The sweetest sounds I ever heard . . . he continues as a light saxophone joins syncopated rhythm. Then whomp! All 17 players swing. Rarely have I heard sound design so perfectly balanced, appropriately favoring vocals. Feinstein remains smooth and easy riding the wave. ("I Hear Music"--Burton Lane/Frank Loesser; "The Sweetest Sounds"--Richard Rodgers from No Strings)
"You may wonder about the role of jazz in popular song . . . " our host begins at the start of Jazz at Lincoln Center's first of three segments of the Jazz & Popular Song Series in the Appel Room. At a time when popular songs came and went with alacrity, jazz artists meeting for improvisational jam sessions needed pieces they all knew. Thus jazz mined popular music creating an intersection of the two art forms. Aided and abetted by four very different featured guests, Feinstein illuminates by example, not narrative.
The fabulous Marilyn Maye gives us a sassy "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" (Fred E. Ahlert/Joe Young) and a tandem "Ain't Misbehavin (Fats Waller/ Harry Brooks/Andy Razaf)/"Honeysuckle Rose" (Fats Waller/Andy Razaf) which sashays, then swings. What can one say about consummate artistry? Feinstein then joins Maye for a joyous "It's a Most Unusual Day" (Harold Adamson/Jimmy McHugh) palpably raising spirits. Solo saxophone seems like a musical, stunt airplane buoying interpretation.
Freda Payne bounces, snaps, and scats her way through Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" ably exemplifying the phrase--the voice is an instrument. "The Very Thought of You" (Ray Noble) emerges swaying, with lyrics elongated taffy and a terrific band arrangement featuring deft use of clarinets and muted trombones.
Continuing a tradition of supporting new, young purveyors of the American Songbook, tonight Feinstein introduces Vuyolwethu Sotashe of Mthatha, South Africa, and Veronica Swift of Charlottesville, Virginia, both finalists in the 2015 Thelonious Monk Competition.
Sotashe offers a swinging "Too Close for Comfort" (Jerry Bock/George David Weiss/Larry Holofcener) with a feel for phrasing, and Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust." Interestingly, the latter was an up-tempo instrumental before Mitchell Parish added lyrics two years later, making of it what we hear today. Sotashe's approach is aptly long-lined but lacks depth.
Swift's distinctive "September in the Rain" (Harry Warren/Al Dubin) showcases not only fluid, vocal talent but a maturity and comprehension beyond the artist's years. Watch this performer's trajectory. Jazz savvy in a musical 'conversation' with veteran trumpeter Warren Vache is adroit. A duet with Feinstein of "All the Things You Are" (Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein II) finds similar vibrato at the back of two throats, unfussy performance and utter warmth. Tedd Firth's piano accompaniment is simply gorgeous.
Feinstein himself performs several numbers tonight. "Long Ago and Far Away" (Jerome Kern/Ira Gershwin from Cover Girl) opens with delicate piano then segues to mid-tempo bobbing as if the entire orchestra was on mute. Flutes, though musically interesting, keep the song from its usual searching feel. Feinstein's signature connection of lyric lines serves well.
"Heart and Soul" (Hoagy Carmichael) is beautifully reflective. Feinstein and a mournful saxophone do real justice to the iconic lament. Taking it down to essentials, the singer imbues it with unusual grace. A denouement swells--trombones up, octaves down, then we exit almost feathery. "Some of These Days" (Shelton Brooks), long associated with Sophie Tucker, is the oldest song on the program (1910). Feinstein insinuates, even adding a bit of coarseness to his usual mellifluous vocal.
The show closes with a rousing company performance of "It Don't Mean a Thing--If It Ain't Got That Swing" (Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong/Duke Ellington) doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, and another of Michael Feinstein's entertaining and elucidating evenings comes to a close.
Next in the Jazz & Popular Song Series:
Michael Feinstein: A Right to Sing the Blues --May 11 & 12. Tickets: http://www.jazz.org/events/t-4145/Michael-Feinstein-A-Right-to-Sing-the-Blues/
Michael Feinstein: Sing Me A Swing Song--June 8 & 9. Tickets: http://www.jazz.org/events/t-4150/Michael-Feinstein-Sing-Me-a-Swing-Song/
Photos by Stephen Sorokoff