by Ron Fassler
Song stylist and piano player extraordinaire Billy Stritch flew into the Birdland Theater last night with the precision of a hawk, the dexterity of a hummingbird and the wingspan of an eagle. Please indulge the imagery, as the idea came to me from something said by Stritch himself, when a few minutes into his show he dubbed it his “first solo flight.” Known as one of the finest accompanists around, who first began working with Liza Minnelli in the 1980s, he has since brought his expertise to live performances and CD’s with the likes (among others) of Christine Ebersole and Marilyn Maye. Last night, with the able backup of Tom Hubbard on bass and Ray Marchica on drums, his new act titled “Autumn in the City” gave off the warm glow of a living room fireplace as falling leaves drifted down past a picture window looking out onto Central Park (all that from the basement of Birdland, which is a pretty cool thing when you think about it).
A child prodigy, Stritch has been at this since the age of twelve, where in his hometown of Sugar Land, Texas, he was influenced by the jazz greats he heard on records (yes, records!). Soon, he found himself a part of a trio, Montgomery, Plant & Stritch, that included two female vocalists and himself. This led to Stritch working among personal idols like Mel Torme, with prestigious gigs at Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival. The man clearly knows his way around a song, as he is not only a gifted pianist, but also a Grammy Award-winning composer, arranger and vocalist, all of which were on display during his show at Birdland.
I had never seen Stritch perform his solo act live, though I did see him almost twenty years ago, when he made a notable Broadway debut as an actor (and singer/piano player, naturally) in the Tony Award-winning revival of 42nd Street, as well as in glorious support of such luminaries as the aforementioned Marilyn Maye at venues like Feinstein’s/54 Below. Though well accustomed to giving the spotlight over to the person with the microphone in the center of the room, Stritch comfortably removes that spot center stage, keeping it empty all night, and instead focusing the spotlight on himself as singer and pianist. Can someone who doesn’t even stand up all evening manage to command a crowd and keep them riveted for 75 uninterrupted minutes? In Stritch’s case, the answer is a resounding yes. Using his considerable southern charm and sly ability as a raconteur, his ability to draw us in with his storytelling is natural and unforced. His arrangements are top notch, and his fellow musicians play with finesse and careful attention to Stritch’s gentle, unobtrusive conducting.
While singing his first few songs last night, I thought of Cy Coleman who, though one of the best Broadway and pop composers ever, was also a skilled pianist and singer, whose handful of recordings warbling while playing the piano are personal treasures in my iTunes library. So imagine my surprise when Stritch announced early in the evening that he was going to do a medley of Coleman songs, followed by a tribute to another of my favorites, Hoagy Carmichael, a singer-songwriter-pianist, equally adept as Coleman was. Though you may be familiar with both of their enormous catalog of hit songs, trust me that if you seek out a listen to either Coleman or Carmichael sing and interpret lyrics … man—do they know their way around a song!
Add Billy Stritch to that notable list and catch him the next time he swings into town, then watch and listen as he takes flight.
Billy Stritch “Autumn in the City” at the Birdland Theater www.birdlandjazz.com
Performance date: October 17th.
Photo: Maryann Lopinto