by Alix Cohen
Deb Berman’s cottony alto happily doo-wahs from the back of the club. Rhythm seems second nature. Taking the stage after a hiatus, she frames this show with her journey from a 3 story brick house in Middle Village, Queens, through a record company job, to real estate employment- all the while singing. “Make Yourself at Home” (Peter Napolitano/Barry Levitt) she suggests.
The vocalist’s self-avowed rebellious streak showed itself early on, to Sister Mary Margaret in school. It’s a clever lead in to “(If I Had) Rhythm in My Nursery Rhymes.” (Sammy Cahn/ Don Raye/ Jimmie Lunceford/Saul Chaplin) Bass rises and descends creating rhythmic vertebrae. “Please recite Mary Had a Little Lamb exactly the way you were taught,” Tom Hubbard commands. Berman starts cowed, then breaks into mischievous swing. A cute conceit with excellent Arrangement and Direction.
Listening to her mother’s LPs of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee et al, set Berman on a musical trajectory that began with voice lessons at 14. “You Taught My Heart to Sing” (Sammy Cahn/McCoy Tyner) wafts in on circling brushes with piano creating delicate bubbles of melody. Both hands on the microphone, the vocalist seems to be remembering those days. Phrasing is eloquent. Pat, pat, patting her heart, exit is airbrushed.
We hear about trips into the big city with a rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” that ebulliently evokes Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat in the air and first romance with a bass player who looked like teenage heartthrob Troy Donahue. Another bass player followed. Berman flirts with a delightfully sheepish Tom Hubbard. In fact, she married the second musician and had a child, her “Beautiful Love” (Haven Guillespe/Wayne King/Victor Young/Egbert Van Alstyne). Piano tiptoes, bass is bowed. Gratitude and sincerity ride tandem.
“We had a decade and a half of very smooth sailing, then the love boat sprang a leak.” A very cool version of John Lennon’s “You Can’t Do That” illuminates. Berman seems pissed off and delivers the song as if conversational, even speaking a few lines. We believe her. At-ti-tude works. Direction is theatrically spot-on. “I didn’t know late crowds liked anger. I would’ve done more anger songs,” she quips.
The lyrically wonderful “Life Story” (Richard Maltby Jr./David Shire) describes a divorce that starts “sensible” and ends with literally grit teeth. I’m not complaining, the sympathetic Berman sings getting increasingly hot under the collar. A story/song performed to its best advantage, last lines proud and determined. Another nod to the Director.
“On the Sunny Side of The Street” (Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh, additional lyrics by Deb Berman) is peppered with in-sync descriptions of homes the singer is ostensibly representing. She hands out her business cards. The audience laughs.
“Sing, Sing, Sing” (Louis Prima, additional lyrics by Deb Berman) snaps, pauses, whips, and scats. Neatly woven in are phrases from “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” (Bill Backer/ Billy Davis/Roger Frederick Cook.)
Deb Berman’s appealing approach is filled with her own grounded, warm, humorous character. This well put together show feels absolutely bespoke. Musicians work beautifully together. Though I could have done with one less Latin-tinted arrangement, others were fresh without going too far afield from lyrical intention and Berman’s style. A worthy and entertaining evening.
Photos by Stephen Hanks
Deb Berman – Still Swingin’
Gregory Torian- MD/Piano
Tom Hubbard-bass, Vito Lesczak-drums
Pangea 178 2nd Avenue at 11th Street http://www.pangeanyc.com/
Also November 10 and November 28, 2018