by Matt Smith
A regular face at the Kitano Hotel’s weekly jazz brunch, Tony Middleton’s persona emanates light from every angle. He is really, truly one-of-a-kind, and his effervescent, lively set reflects that quality in the best way. I recall attending the legendary jazz performer’s 84th birthday this summer and what a treat!
Spanning the Golden Age of the great American Songbook, Middleton’s impressively eclectic in the fullest sense of the word, proving, even at 84, he’s still ripe as ever and shows no signs of slowing down.
No doubt his audience will concur. For one, he knows how to work a crowd. He doesn’t have to sing nor say much to have the (primarily female-heavy) audience eating out of the palm of his hand. Through comical gestures, an unparalleled cheerful rapport with his band, and the occasional sharp-and-snappy comment toward a particularly beguiled patron or two, he simply oozes old-fashioned charm – enough to get the intimate venue riled up and rowdy – his alluring likability topped only by his strong affinity for what he sings.
As has unfortunately become clear with each passing day, live jazz entertainment is a dying art, with the little that’s left of it growing ever smaller by the minute. In a world dominated by techno pop and auto-tune, we’ve lost the ability to just sit down with our steak and eggs, and enjoy the music for what it is.
That’s what makes what Tony does so special. He’s a true, definitive showman, who embraces the music for what it is… and in witnessing it, so do you. Sure, as most artists are wont to do, he takes artistic liberties with several melodies throughout his set, infusing them with a unique Tony twinge, but for the most part, the show forgoes the fancy vocal tricks, asking the audience to simply close their eyes and let his deep, raspy voice – akin to greats like Lou Rawls or Nat King Cole – wash over the room, transporting the crowd back to the days when “good ol’ jazz” was in its prime.
To that end, he also forgoes the traditional cabaret-style banter, letting each song effortlessly flow into the next without interruption, as a means of emphasizing the importance of the tune itself.
Though personal anecdotes – from a run-in with Sammy Davis, Jr. and a chance meeting with Ray Charles to recounting his days as a Broadway hoofer and ribbing his bandmate for his “interesting” choice in hatwear – are not entirely absent, they’re kept brief, and are less of a scripted set-up for the song, and more an off-the-cuff remark, in response to a passing thought or memory. Where he does inject an intro, it’s to provide historical context, ensuring we understand its significance in the era of American jazz. He wastes no time and lives completely for the present moment. As a result, true to the form of improvisational jazz, nothing’s really planned… and it’s spectacularly refreshing.
Then, there’s the set itself. Fusing well-known standards with lesser-known gems, from ballads and uptempos and even the obligatory scat riff thrown in here or there, it’s a delightful mélange of what makes the era so great, and Tony soaks in it all.
Highlights include the dynamic and soulful “Unchain My Heart,” one of the peppier tunes, illicting many a holler from the uber-engaged crowd; the deliciously groovy “Kiddio,” a hidden gem originally recorded by Brook Benton; a spot-on bluesy take on the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” and the tuneful, topical “What a Wonderful World.”
In addition, he peppers his set with intermittent vocal breaks, allowing accompanists their rightful chance to shine.
And it’s impossible to miss his wife, beaming with pride, snappin’ and kickin’ on the sidelines, her legs swinging in rhythm, as she claps along to the beat. She’s totally one with the music. In other words, he’s captivated her. He’s captivated everyone. That’s his trick… his superpower… his Middleton charm.
It’s this charm, coupled with his signature voice, his man-about-town attitude, and above all, his fiery, burning passion for what he sings, that gives us hope. Come rain or come shine, jazz musicians and their artistry are alive and well. It is – despite all the uncertainty at the current moment – a wonderful world indeed. And it’ll stay that way as long as it’s got the silky smooth croon of Tony Middleton in it.
Tony Middleton – Kitano Hotel New York (66 Park Avenue at 38th Street) Middleton continues to headline the hotel’s weekly jazz brunch (Sundays from 12:00pm-2:00pm), accompanied by his dazzling jazz trio. For more information, visit www.tonymiddletonmusic.com or www.kitano.com.