Review: ONE FOR JOHNNY MERCER at Dizzy's Was One Fine Show

"Songbook Sundays" continues its series of salutes with Duke Ellington in August

By: Jun. 18, 2024
Review: ONE FOR JOHNNY MERCER at Dizzy's Was One Fine Show
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It wasn’t quite evening at just 5 pm, and the weather was more warm than cool, but “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” as a program’s opener was “cool” in the other sense of that adjective.  (The show had a later performance at 7 pm, when it would actually be evening, but the songs were “timeless,” in any case.)  It was no surprise that Klea Blackhurst and Billy Stritch combined their voices to nail this number with a lively melody by Hoagy Carmichael because they’d put their peppy, spiffy spin on it on their CD of the composer’s work, Dreaming of a Song. But this installment of Songbook Sundays at Dizzy’s Club in the Jazz at Lincoln Center on Sunday, June 9 was not focused on that composer, but the man who penned the words: prolific Johnny Mercer, who collaborated with so many and occasionally wrote his own music.  “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” was introduced in a 1951 film starring Bing Crosby, called Here Comes the Groom, although it had been written earlier for a Betty Hutton movie that was never made.  It’s one of four songs winning the Academy Award for the man named Mercer.  In his own winning way, singer-pianist Mr. Stritch (also the concert’s music director) later paired two of the others, both with music by Henry Mancini: “Moon River” and “The Days of Wine and Roses.”  Those two also were Song of the Year Grammy Award winners.  

It was a pleasure to be immersed in Mercer, and series host Deborah Grace Winer’s appreciative commentary about the man and his songs added context in a breezy way so that it never felt like a dry history lesson or mere “laundry list” of facts and dates.  The other female vocalist in the shining set was jazz delight Gabrielle Stravelli.  The program was pretty much made up of oft-performed/recorded standards; the single exception was “Single-O,” a song with music by Donald Kahn that she’s had in her repertoire for several years. I love when the spotlight can be aimed on the lesser-known works and I hope this series will do more of that, but I acknowledge with a sigh that many people come to hear the hits they know and love.  Also on board to sing was the engaging Robbie Lee, providing his own piano accompaniment for a thoughtful “Skylark” (another Carmichael co-write).

The most represented of the Mercer collaborators was Harold Arlen, with five of the big classics on the bill: the likable Lee getting both “Out of This World” and “That Old Black Magic”;  a bold Blackhurst blast on “Blues in the Night”; and striking, strong Stravelli and Stritch solos: she coming in with “Come Rain or Come Shine” that was refreshingly sunnier, and he with the classic tale of someone pouring his heart out to the bartender pouring him some booze, “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).”  Now that’s my kind of two-drink minimum!        

Especially entertaining and fun in that Schadenfreude way was a special arrangement labeled “the revenge medley” for the two dynamite women, combining two dynamite-charged pieces about taking pleasure in seeing an ex’s heart brokeninto pieces  by a new lover.  They were “Goody, Goody” (music by Matty Malneck) and “I Wanna Be Around.”  Ms. Winer told the story about Mercer writing the song, based on just the opening line of the lyric which was submitted by a non-musician fan he didn’t know. 

Well-worn material was approached with some freshness and commitment.  For example, when Billy Stritch embraced the statement that adorns a lovely Jerome Kern melody, “I’m Old Fashioned,” I sensed that many in the audience besides me (and beside me) could agree that being old fashioned is a good thing if it means that such well-fashioned classics can stay in fashion.  As always, a small band of jazz musicians made this installment of Songbook Sundays a swinging affair.  In addition to the splendid piano work, we were treated to fine playing by bassist Caylen Bryant, sax man Daniel Cohen (effectively switched to flute to approximate the sound of a “Skylark”), and drummer Eric Halvorson.  Solos added to the atmosphere and moods of what Mercer painted with words so well — to invoke his own title for this show’s twice-used marvel with a Richard Whiting melody,  “Too Marvelous for Words.”  

TRIVIA:  Perhaps June was an appropriate month for a Johnny Mercer show.  Here are some reasons. He was the co-founder of Capitol Records which opened for business on June 4, 1942. Songs he wrote lyrics for include “June Bride,” “Memphis in June,” “June Comes Around Every Year” (from the film Out of This World, released in June of 1945). Ms. Winer told the audience that his first song to find real attention was titled “Out of Breath (and Scared to Death of You)”; it was placed in a Broadway revue, The Garrick Gaieties, opening June 4, 1930.  On the tenth anniversary of that date, Walk with Music with a Mercer/ Carmichael score debuted. Films released in June of some year, with songs having his words, were Naughty But Nice (1939) and Darling Lili (1970). Johnny Mercer and his wife, Ginger, were both born in 1909.  He passed away in 1976 on her birthday, June 25.  She carried on his legacy and foundation; she died in 1994.   

Duke Ellington music is on the agenda for the August program at Dizzy's in Jazz at Lincoln Center at Columbus Circle. Tickets are available on their website.


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