BWW Reviews: JOEY ARIAS Presents A Sympatico Centennial Tribute to Billie Holiday at Lincoln Center's American Songbook
Vocalist Joey Arias is not what he appears to the uninitiated. This is not a drag performer executing pastiche, but rather an artist serious about music with the talent to offer a full-blooded show. Lifelong affinity for Billie Holiday first professionally surfaced in 1987's
Recording Arias on Holiday and continued with the Off-Broadway run of Strange Fruit, an homage to the icon. Her concert Wednesday night for Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, with evocative musical arrangement by Matt Ray, brings Arias' devotion "all the way from downtown above 14th Street."
"Don't Explain" (Billie Holiday/Arthur Herzog Jr.) and "Easy Living" (Leo Robin/Ralph Rainger) are lush and languid. Arias stretches selected words like taffy savoring both meaning and sound. Gestures are graceful and few, her body swing gently; she flirts a bit with the front row. An unexpected high note caps the song leaving a trail. The always-terrific Antoine Drye lends honeyed trumpet.
Rather than imitate Holiday, Arias channels her emphasizing what technique they share. Vocals often emerge scratchy with a back-of-the-throat vibrato on longer phrases and cottony sound when quiet. Lyrics can seem squeezed out. The singer's lower register is less dark than Holiday's; she adds her own punctuating Betty Boop squeal which, despite bright pitch, sounds appropriate to the material. Most importantly, jazz phrasing, occasionally behind accompaniment (like Holiday) is excellent, as are Arias' interpretive octave changes
"Them There Eyes" (Doris Tauber/Maceo Pinkard/William Tracey) and "All of Me" (Gerald Marks/Seymour Simons) are uptempo and bright. In the first, Arias' voice cracks with "sparkle" and "bubble." Solos by Dana Lyn (violin) and Yair Evnine (guitar) spice things up. The song's last part slows to a sassy burlesque walk. With the second, the performer's body comes alive, tightly wiggling and shaking, especially from the waist up. Arias is all tease and ardor.
Pursing her lips, she now begins what evolves to intermittent voguing-freeze framed attitudes which, though fun in limited dose, frankly distract from musicianship- an issue that plagues otherwise splendid renditions of "I Cover the Waterfront" (Johnny Green/Edward Heyman) and "You've Changed" (Bill Carey/Carl Fischer).
"Everything I Have Is Yours" (Burton Lane/Harold Adamson) is a sway number. "Everything that I posAus (possess), I offer you/Let my dream of hapiAEHness (happiness) come through . . . " Arias sings. And you believe her "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," during which the entertainer walks through the audience making contact, is pointedly cheeky. Here some lyrics are swallowed ostensibly for Holiday effect. Arias is in Norma Desmond mode. A group of fresh-faced, straight (she asks), New Jersey lads at the front deal with theatrical come-on. It's a testament to the performer's charm that the boys are gracious.
Oddly the least effective numbers are two of Holiday's most famous. "God Bless the Child" (Billie Holiday/Arthur Herzog Jr.) shows complete disconnect between lyrics and delivery in great part due to guest Bridget Barkan who has a good voice but grins, vamps, and mugs her way through upstaging Arias. "Strange Fruit" (Lewis Allen) doesn't seem to come from the gut, again reflecting disassociation from lyric.
An encore of "Violets for Your Furs" (Matt Dennis/Tom Adair) during which the artist wears Holiday's own fur ("It's like wearing Jesus' sandals!") and sniffs a bouquet of gardenias (from an admirer), takes us back to the essence of the celebrant with a vocal evidencing light sandpaper, lost consonants, and smoky tone. Performance is infectiously misty-eyed and tender.
One can't help but wonder whether Joey Arias feels insecure due to surroundings. Talent would suffice here, but is not allowed to stand alone.
The show was prefaced by a rambling, mostly self-involved speech by Greg McKay, a relative of Holiday's whom Arias met on Facebook. Arias wore Holiday's jewelry and later foraged in an inherited suitcase courtesy of McKay.
Photos by Kevin Yatarola
Matt Ray-Musical Director/Piano
Dana Lyn-Violin, Yair Evnine-Cello & Guitar, Antoine Drye-Trumpet, Danton Broller-Bass,
February 25, 2015
The Appel Room/Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall