By Martha Wade Steketee
Lea DeLaria holds court with passion and grace in her David Bowie tribute show. Twice a night through Saturday October 28 at Birdland Jazz Club, this show based on DeLaria’s 2015 crowd-sourced recording House of David: delaria + bowie = jazz combines an intimate cabaret feel and community building with a solid set of young musicians, a rotating set of guest artists, and passionate fans. My October 25 late show crowd is treated to guest Sandra Bernhard, who solos on a tune or two, then duets and riffs with DeLaria for a few numbers. Starry guests aside, where we happily dwell for this engagement is in live performances of numbers from DeLaria’s Bowie tribute recording, and the impact is electrifying.
I learn of DeLaria’s Bowie love and this 2015 recording during this engagement, though I have thrilled to her jazz interpretations in the past. (Full disclosure, I’m a 1960s kid who found show tunes and ballad singing divas at a young age, so I have the tastes of a 1930s jazz lover or 1950s Broadway baby rather than someone of the Woodstock generation.) DeLaria has often spoken of childhood visits to clubs with her jazz musician father, and singing jazz music in her first live gigs.
Her first jazz recording Play It Cool (2001) swings the Broadway songbook, right in my ballpark, and shows off this jazz sensibility in her bones. While DeLaria herself has referred to these early musical choices as “odd contemporary jazz” and her set lists as off-beat, for my money her treatments of “With Every Breath I Take” (Cy Coleman / David Zippel) from City of Angels and “Losing My Mind” (Stephen Sondheim) from Follies on that first recording are in anybody’s sweet spot of swing contemporary jazz interpretation. Other Play It Cool numbers feature delightful musical genre experiments – a swing version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” (Stephen Sondheim) from Sweeney Todd and a boogaloo “All That Jazz” (Fred Ebb / John Kander) from Chicago offer multiple delights.
DeLaria’s subsequent jazz recordings play with genre in different ways. Double Standards (2005) takes on alternative rock tunes like “People are Strange” (The Doors) and “Philadelphia (Neil Young) and “Call Me” (Debbie Harry / Giorgio Moroder) like jazz standards. Her American songbook album The Live Smoke Sessions (2008) includes a set list familiar to any cabaret fan, including “Miss Otis Regrets” (Cole Porter), “Down with Love” (E.Y. Harburg / Harold Arlen), “Come Rain or Come Shine” (Johnny Mercer / Harold Arlen), and “Night and Day” (Cole Porter).
DeLaria’s take on David Bowie is for her a labor of love. For me, it’s a leap of faith that DeLaria’s jazz sensibility will be my guide through the evening. (My grasp of the source material is tentative, though of course the lyric phrase “Ground Control to Major Tom” from “Space Oddity” resonates even for me.) DeLaria offers no cabaret patter about what the tunes mean to her or how/where they fit into Bowie’s body of work (context this audience member would have welcomed). What frames the deftly calibrated performances is her jazz artistry and that of her fine group of musicians. And this journey is joyous indeed.
DeLaria and her musicians – including Jeremy Siskind (music director), Dylan Shamat (bass), Alex Goodman (guitar), Roxy Coss (saxophone), and Arron Kimmel (drums)– splash land with gender commentary right out of the gate. Tight harmony on “Boys Keep Swinging” starts the set, sung with a bit of camp in the mix. Whether Bowie intends irony with the lyrics “Nothing stands in your way when you’re a boy” is for other analysts. When the song is delivered with DeLaria’s delicate vocal stylings, supported by her well-honed young band of musicians and her fun attitude and her rough and deliciously butch visual persona, she creates a potent feminist statement.
“Fame” enters with a slow funky groove — “Is it any wonder you are too cool to fool?” The ensemble provides terrific pauses between their phrases, guitar riffs, and our first splendid sax solo by Roxy Coss. Sweet, luscious ensemble playing, gentle jazz vocals, and an acoustic feel to the familiar “Space Oddity” lyrics “Ground Control to Major Tom” rope us in. Expertly, gradually, additional instrumentation assembles around the main melodic lines. Structured arias, touching back to the primary melody as grand jazz arrangements do, provide opportunities for each ensemble member to riff. Lazy warm wandering melodic riffs explode gently within the jazz explorations, including clean keyboard arpeggios and percussive chord play by musical director Siskind at the piano
DeLaria embraces her crowd with rhythm, with splendid music, with bawdy banter, with shout outs to some of her “Orange is the New Black” castmates in the audience of this late-night performance. “I’m a lesbian, I’m singing before a room of people, there’s going to be a sing along” she proclaims late into the set. Whatever brings you in, whether or not you’re a Bowie fan or you sing along, DeLaria’s performance will enchant.
House of David: delaria+bowie=jazz, October 24-28 at 8:30pm and 11pm at Birdland (315 West 44th Street). www.birdlandjazz.com